A Crusade for Billions? How a Betsy DeVos Department of Education Could Lead to a Massive Transfer of Public Funds into the Private Sector

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On Monday, January 30, 2017, hundreds of patient protectors braved the bitter New York City cold to stand firmly in defiance against the impending appointment of billionaire school-choice crusader Betsy DeVos, 58, for Secretary of Education. The brazen assembly, short on time yet not lacking hope, was among one of many gatherings crisscrossing the nation. Since DeVos’s name first surfaced as President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, a stubborn, nation-wide procession of feet has emerged in stride to protest what many fear is the beginning of the end of public education in the U.S., as we know.

From the march-worn concrete streets of New York City to the rally-fatigued lawns of the National Mall, the rising chorus of dissent to DeVos’s appointment is not without merit. On the eve of the U.S. Senate vote to confirm Devos’s nomination as education secretary, Democratic Senators staged a day-long talking protest to convince a least one more Republican Senator to switch her or his vote. In line with Senate Democratic efforts, there have been countless social media campaigns aimed at convincing legislators in the Senate to reject DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Given what we know about her–DeVos’s ties to the multibillion dollar Amway Corporation, for which she is heiress–people are well within reason to question and, even worse, fear how she might run the U.S. Department of Education. In this light, it is important to note that DeVos’s husband, Richard DeVos, Jr., inherited his billions from Amway, a company known for exploitative business practices, i.e., multilevel marketing–also known as pyramid schemes–to funnel precious resources from the thin pockets of the masses to the greedy bank accounts of the gluttonous few.

While her record on education appears to be lacking, what DeVos brings to the job of Secretary of Education is an unmatched charisma for fiscal alchemy–the ability to turn other public money into private profit. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the only real educational policy DeVos seems to have durable knowledge of is the Title I provision (the most lucrative provision) under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–better known as No Child Left Behind.

Under No Child Left Behind, in access of $14.5 billion of federal monies were set aside to address education funding inequities by financially bolstering school districts with large proportions of poor children. The stated purpose of the funding was to give poor children greater access to the same types of learning opportunities as wealthier children who reside in affluent districts with schools that benefit from higher property taxes, among other supports.

Further, we know that, as a result of choice policies such as the voucher programs that DeVos champions, 20 percent of all Title I monies earmarked for poor students–roughly $2.6 billion–end up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families. This often overlooked detail could shed light on some of DeVos’s intentions as Secretary of Education, while giving us incredible insight into a department of education that, under a DeVos regime, could resemble a Ponzi scheme.

Much of DeVos’s past efforts in education, an associated knowledge of educational policy, seem to deal with mechanizations for a massive transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector, that is, from taxpaying citizens investing in a public education project crucial for the development of our nation’s youth and the maintenance of our democracy to the uber wealthy elites who conceal their money in hidden offshore accounts. Many of such individuals, like President Trump, neither pay taxes nor plan to. Thus, in relationship to her lack of knowledge of policies such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), created to serve vulnerable students, Devos’s focused knowledge of Title I reads as alarming. According to Nate Malkus, a contributor to U.S. News and World Report, “Given DeVos’ long history of advocating for school choice and Trump’s proposed $20 billion investment in it, her pointed position deserves a full discussion.”

According to New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has a passionate record of steering Title I monies away from public schools. For example, the Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts boast the 10 largest shares of students in U.S. charter schools. The State of Michigan sends $1 billion in education funding to charter schools annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation. Moreover, the DeVos family, the most prominent name in Republican politics in Michigan, have been the biggest financial and political backers of education resource diversions into the private sector.

With the selection of DeVos, President Trump seems serious about the $20 billion school voucher plan he rolled out during his campaign. The proposal would redirect huge swaths of the federal education budget away from school districts and toward low-income parents, allowing them to spend a voucher at a public or private school of their choice, including for-profit, virtual, religious, and other predatory systems of schooling.

To be sure, DeVos enters the conversation with enormous conflicts of interest. She and her family have invested millions in divestments schemes, lobbying the federal and State of Michigan governments to open up education markets to opportunistic millionaires. She and her family have also invested in online K-12 education ventures, alternative systems of education that too often prey upon our nation’s most vulnerable students to turn a profit.

Indeed, this playbook on exploitation is not without familiarity, particularly for an administration whose leader, Donald Trump, has become the icon for exploitation in private education. Remember President Trump was regularly dogged on the campaign trail for his own failed foray into for-profit education with the now infamous Trump University.

The other part of this story deals with the policy that DeVos doesn’t know: IDEA–a policy advancing equity in education, assuring rights of otherly abled students to participate and gain an education equal to that of all other students across a range of abilities. DeVos’s ignorance of IDEA could suggest that she isn’t interested in educational equity, or is, at best, indifferent to it. Thus, we must question her public rhetoric on education–especially when she pivots to equity claims to conceal her broader history in support of school privatization (even at the expense of educational equity).

Had she been genuinely concerned about public education, DeVos would have known what IDEA is. Had she been genuinely concerned for the education of all American youth, she would be aware of how disastrous policies that redistribute public funds to the private sector are. If she were really concerned about American youth, she would have regarded her own resume in public education, and pulled herself out the running for Secretary of Education.

All this seems too late now. What matters is this: President Trump did not select Ms. DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her affect toward the vulnerable, her love of public education, or her knowledge of disability legislation. (Remember he is the only president in my lifetime who has publicly mocked disabled Americans.) President Trump choose Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her record, which is replete with examples of diversions of crucial funding away from the vulnerable and into the pockets of the rich.

Trump, himself, has a rich history of this kind of profiteering. So does DeVos.

 

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David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

 

IN THE END, LOVE WILL WIN, BUT WE WILL NEED AN EDUCATION FIRST

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On November 17, 1999, a Michigan jury found, then-13 year-old Nathaniel Abraham guilty of second-degree murder for a killing committed when Abraham was 11. At the time, the young African-American boy was believed to be the youngest American ever charged and convicted of murder as an adult. Abraham’s story reflects the heightening, yet longstanding, public spectacle of viewing Black bodies through prisms of racial and developmental bias – lenses through which Black innocence evaporate into the (il)logics of prejudice.

Such prejudice is often masked socially in a painful ritual of rhetorical charades. For example, many media accounts used sensational turns of phrase such as “adult crime equals adult time” to justify the erasure of Black innocence in Abraham’s case. In the more recent cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, some media outlets have used descriptors such as “petty criminal” and “dangerous thug” to justify the murders of these young men.

By now, it is common knowledge that, over the course of two days, two Black men lost their lives to police terror. One was Sterling, a father and family man gunned down by police in Baton Rouge, LA. There is graphic video of two police officers pinning down the 37-year old Sterling before shooting him as he lies on the ground. The other is Castile, who while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter, was gunned downed by a police officer after being asked for his identification.

With tragic events of police killings of Black people happening almost daily across our country, we are reminded of how powerfully perceptions play out in the real world. Thus, there is no longer room to deny the power of perceptions and the dangers of ignorance in maintaining racial biases that cost us daily innocent life. In the context of unchecked bias, skin color argues as convincingly as words for some, where in the American imagination race can condition one’s perceptions of innocence and guilt.

For example, a recent report from the Human Rights Watch found that, in the state of Florida, 12,000 children – a disproportionate number of whom are Black – have been moved from the juvenile to adult court system in the past five years. While they make up 27 percent of those who enter Florida’s juvenile justice system, Black boys account for more than half of all transfers to the adult system. Florida isn’t alone in this tragic neutering of Black innocence.

In Cook County, Illinois, Black boys are much more likely to be tried as adults in criminal court as well. The Juvenile Justice Initiative reports that, although only 44 percent of the children in Cook County are Black, 83 percent of its juveniles tried as adults were Black. Given such instances, it comes as little surprise to many when innocent Black teens such as Trayvon Martin are gunned down by armed and hostile vigilantes, such as George Zimmerman. In contexts of over-policing and hyper-punishment of the Black body, perceptions of Black innocence would likely disappear beneath the erasure of a public gaze, distorted by silent systems of prejudice prevalent in the American mainstream.

It is meaningful, then, that Trayvon Martin, like Nathaniel Abraham, was merely a boy when he perished. The same meaning holds for twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who while wielding a toy gun, was murdered by a Cleveland police officer who saw Rice as older and less innocence than he actually was. Not unlike Zimmerman or the Cleveland officer who gunned down Rice, a significant population of Americans, including a vast number of White Americans, fail to recognize the innocence and humanity of their fellow Black citizens. The language ascribed to Black people tends to frame them as, in the cases of Sterling and Castile, hostile and criminal, and, in the case of Martin and Rice (and a litany of others), vicious and less innocent.

In our quest to achieve greater equity in society, we must better contextualize humanity beyond race and in spite of (and to interrupt) systems of disparity that are likely reinforced through racial stereotypes.

In so doing, I have been wondering about the role of schooling in shaping better people. For example, I’ve been asking questions such as how does one finish school still holding discriminatory perceptions of people? Are we not doing our jobs as educators?

Just as we wouldn’t allow students to finish school unable to read, write or calculate, why must we let them finish school unable to love and accept others? What if we made being human, like being literate, a prerequisite to graduation? What if our school systems made it an absolute priority to ensure that each student leaves more human and more respectful of life than when they entered?

These are important questions that we must ask in this time of national reflection – questions that deal with fostering fully humanized citizens sensitive to other humans. In asking and daring to answer such questions, we demand more of our schools and also of ourselves. Perhaps equally important, we position education as a site of hope to eradicate all forms of ignorance and nurture people who are fully responsive to how we can best share our world.

In order to redress the consequences of racial bias – which, I believe, are at the root of the murders of Sterling, Castile, Martin, Rice, and many others – we must promote a counter-campaign for ideological justice, where we renew the importance of heightening our humanity through formal systems of education. With this, it is important that we begin to demand that formal education endorses standards (such as Common Core Human Standards) and curricula (such as anti-bias curricula) that challenge longstanding racial biases and logics associated with discrimination (and each of their consequences including racism, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, colonialism, and so on).

But the use of education to eradicate racial bias cannot be limited to communities concentrated with people of color because the origins of racial bias are rooted in indifference and White privilege. Privilege is when you don’t think something is a problem because it’s not your problem. While it has become vogue to teach about race, social justice, and equity to students of color, students who attend schools that are overwhelmingly White may need this kind of education the most. Exposing such students to new standards, curricula and pedagogies that center a love and respect for all humanity will broaden their worldviews.

What I am proposing is a paradigm shift in education, transferring the focus of instruction from skills, content, and capacities to relationships, from disparity and discrimination to a focus on our needs and capacities as human beings to bridge empathic, cooperative, and social gaps that hinder learning, development, and societal harmony. This is an education for greater compassion because it affirms all students equally, whereby challenging us to commit ourselves to the hard work of interrupting biases and dismantling systems of historic violence against our nation’s (and our world’s) most vulnerable citizens. Left unchecked, such systems promise to play out in patterns of death and destruction rehearsed repeatedly each day (as we are now seeing).

Then let us commit space and time in formal education to reconciling that the true value of learning is in greater compassion and saved lives. Though histories and institutions of inequity and oppression are deep and resilient, our courage and resolve cannot only match the depths of this particular kind of despair, they can exceed them. However, change will start in classrooms with teachers seeing, treating and listening to all students so that no one graduates our school systems unable to trust, respect and understand people who do not look like they do.

We will need an education first, but in the end love will win.

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  1. This article first appeared on July 17, 2016 in NY Slant as an op-ed. The article can also be found here: http://nyslant.com/article/opinion/in-the-end,-love-will-win,-but-we-will-need-an-education-first.html.

 

 

David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Solutions

Dear Comrade:

I wanted to write you because I hear your heart. It beats at me with an urgency that refuses to wait.

But don’t lose hope. We can’t lose hope. If we lose hope, we lose. Period. And if we lose, what reason is there for us to be here?

Besides, that’s what they want. They want us to lose hope because they don’t want us to exist. And just as some see our lives as optional, many others see them as a threat to theirs. (Isn’t that what the Trump movement is really about?)

I tell you: as a rose wilts under the heavy heat of the summer sun, the sound of the morning will continue to echo a silence so severe that it mutes the songs of birds. It is in this quiet that we must stand together, even though we languish in great confusion, frustration, and trepidation. These are my solutions for you!

I know you are hurting because I am hurting too. Many don’t understand our pain, the depth and deep, deep terror of it, the grief or the perpetual paranoia we feel from the constant anticipation of an ever-looming death. That’s why we’ve become so practiced at holding onto things—things we cannot hold forever like sand passing through fingers or brothers and sons and fathers (and even sisters, mothers, and daughters too). Yet, we hold on anyhow with a grip so stingy as to express the abiding fear that we may never see them again. So we hold on so that we don’t have to surrender to Next Time (which we know doesn’t always come).

They won’t understand what it feels like to live in hoods designed to kill every part of you—your heart, your soul, your body, your ambition, your memory, and even your lineage. They won’t understand what it feels like to inherit schools that mimic prisons to cage your dreams. They will refuse to see you, and you will be invisible to them. And because of the heavy haze of contempt cast against your dark flesh, they will try to deny your right to exist.

I know you can’t make sense of all of this or all that’s happening and has happened over the past few days, months, years, decades, and even centuries. (The ridicule of our complaint is historic and runs deep.) You can’t make sense of it because the massacring of innocence (both Black and otherwise) is senseless, rooted in logics of perdition so fundamentally destructive to humanity that it has the power to eat planets and, perhaps most pressing, threaten lives.

Over the past few days, you have asked for answers to tough questions: “Where is God in all this?” “Will it ever end?” “How can I hold onto Love in a time of hate?” My response is simple: Let’s not cast our pearls among swine. Our faith is an asset and so is our patience. The night will end. It must end. So that morning can come. Love will be our thousand suns.

More concretely you’ve wanted to know: “How can we end police terror, the devaluing of Black life, and the destruction of the Black soul?” You’ve asked sincerely: “How can we make a broken nation finally whole,” and “how can we preserve innocence, set new normals and a course of fate where the brutalities of innocence are forever banished?” And yes, I’ve promised you solutions. Hence, I’ve given our crisis tremendous thought, and now I humbly submit to you a list of 11 things that we must demand/engage in order to fix our broken world. I do note, still, that no one person has all the answers. That includes me. Please take these thoughts as humble beginnings.

Let me begin my list of solutions with a preamble, of sorts, centered on where the hurt lies. I know that the reflex of our hurt is anger and that anger is hard to contain. I know that you want your fist to brag, for bullets to avenge your frustrations, for the debts of one life to be compensated with another life. I know that you are tempted to yield to the hate that burns hot within and against you, to turn it more deeply inward to alight your own soul, to twist the godly formation of your creation into its lesser, darker possibilities. I know you want to turn that hatred inside-out, point it at your enemies, and place fences around your heart so that it might be protected from those who wish you harm. But at some point, we must salvage the courage to put away violence which begins the vicious cycles of our demise: for hatred only begets hatred, and the harsh consequences borne of its allegiance feed death.

Some will lie to you by saying violence is courageous. However, it takes true, deep courage to deny the violent impulse so as to reason compassionately in a way that nurtures life. So I need you to know that violence won’t save us. It can only deepen our oppression, for the moment we choose violence we become ensnared by it, and even if we win with it, we lose the promises of our freedom to the longing chains of vehemence. Then, in succumbing to violence (even if we win), we become the very thing we used violence to resist—instruments of destruction rather than creation, a force of oppression rather than liberation. Audrey Lorde puts this best: “You can’t dismantle the masters house with the master’s tools.” Violence won’t save us because you can’t kill weeds by planting more weeds. You must uproot them.

Then let’s get to the root of the matter. I know that you have been praying, marching, sitting in, shutting down freeways, and so on. Keep up the fight! It has a purpose. It has incredible promise. Now it deserves direction. Indeed, we have protested in the past and will continue to do so because our liberation requires a protest that is ongoing and relentless. Still, our true solutions are not behind us; they are ahead of us.

At its root, our current crisis is a crisis of compassion. This crisis is less episodic than it is systemic—though it is not only systemic. It is also deeply personal, bearing the heavy weight of social trauma and its associated consequences. It is also ideological, peculiar logics borne of our crippled world that live in our minds. That is, the crisis of compassion that we are facing is a manifestation of how we’ve been conditioned to think less compassionately and less humanely. To resolve this crisis, we must tackle the issues at the root of the crisis at multiple levels. Thus, our solutions must bold, creative, and courageous at personal, ideological, and systemic levels.

Personal Solutions

1. Collective and individual therapy. We must commit to a campaign of collective and individual therapy to respond to the wounds we bear. For each of us who are hurting and who hurt others needs healing because hurt people hurt people. Therefore we must admit to our pain so that we might respond to it more productively. In so doing, we must equally destigmatize mental and emotional health intervention and initiate collective pathways toward healing. This therapeutic approach to our movement must happen first in homes. It must also live more formally in structures such as faith institutions and schools. One cannot carry trauma in the soul and elide its effects. We cannot heal (ourselves and others) broken.

2. Mindfulness and meditation. Inequity is a great noise. There are few ways to imagine beyond it while we live, presently, in it. Thus we must, daily, find shelter in silence not only to calm us, but also to heighten our consciousness and deepen our sensitivities toward what lives around, within, and beyond us. Each of us must begin a daily routine of meditation. We can do this alone and/or in groups, but we must do it in a way that make sense to us individually. Families, faith institutions, and schools must also instill practices of meditation in their everyday habits. TV stations must broadcast breaks so that we might master the habit of breathing. Communities must carve out meditative spaces, where people can breathe and take refuge from the constancy of noise. In this stillness, might we find ourselves. Perhaps more, might we find that most elusive of states the soul transcends the body—Nirvana.

3. Positive support systems. We live in a society based on antagonism, disparate acts of criminalization and vilification of the darker masses. Too often, we fear the very people who live among us. And out of this dark place, we’ve fallen into an endless abyss of negativity. MLK has taught us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Then, if darkness is negative, so light must be positive. We can help repair ourselves by helping others. Let’s commit each day to sharing at minimum five good words and five good deeds. This is a discipline of compassion. We should also, as we grow in our compassionate states, accentuate words and deeds with gestural expressions of our kindness—hugs, smiles, and other forms of enacted light that might pierce a seemingly impenetrable darkness. Our Light will lead us.

4. Truth and restoration (as opposed to reconciliation). To echo the sentiments of so many others, we must have courageous conversations in our homes and in our communities. At municipal, states, and national levels, we must demand that our governments and elected/appointed leaders convene forums for “truth and reconciliation,” using restorative approaches and circles as a function for deep dialogue. We must also demand apologies for each indignity we’ve endured. As part of this process, we must also genuinely grant forgiveness, and be willing to move beyond our past so that the cold jaws of bitterness will not bite us. This act of forgiveness is not for others; it is for us because forgiveness is one of the highest acts of self love.

Ideological Solutions

5. Counter-oppressive public education (for all students, and for majority students especially). In order to redress the consequences of systems of ideological injustice, we must promote as campaign of ideological justice, where we renew an importance to heightening our humanity through formal systems of education. With this, we must demand that formal education endorse curricula that critiques and disrupt hegemony and White privilege, White supremacy and the logics of western Eurocentrism (and all of its associated logics including racism, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, colonialism, and so on.) Just as we wouldn’t allow students to finish school unable to read or write, why must we let students finish school unable to love or accept others? Thus, we must demand more from our schools. We must insist that the greater goals of education deal with fostering fully humanized citizens, sensitive to other humans—people who are fully responsive to how we might live with others in our world we share.

6. Public relations campaigns. Let us demand an ongoing public relations campaigns to promote awareness of and respect for differences.

7. Full-throated critique of faith-based institutions. We can’t pretend that faith institutions are innocent. Religion is directly responsible for the crisis of compassion in our world and the violence, hatred, and inequities that derive from it. Thus, part of our protest must be aimed at religious institutions until they denounce theologies of hatred and injustice. We must be willing to boycott them or create new, more just faith institutions based on ideals of love, equity, and justice.

8. Reshaping masculinity and the mindsets of men. We must acknowledge that our boys and men are hurting in ways that they are not socially permitted to express. As consequence, much of that hurt manifests in proclivities that, ultimately, hurt others. Therefore, we must demand space to (better) raise our sons (much like the space in which we raise our daughters—to love and to be sensitive, to nurture life and to find strength in vulnerability). We have to interrupt notions of maleness—chiefly the problematic gender binary not big enough to encapsulate all the possibilities of who and what boys and men can and school be. Then we men need to get it, be honest about our B.S., and do the hard work to evolve.

Structural Solutions

9. Dismantling capitalism. We must demand new economic and political systems of organization. Capitalism is fundamentally corrupt; thus, the current systems we live under are insufficient for meeting our desires for peace and justice, equity and life. Capitalism fuels terror and strife, injustice and inequity. It cheapens life as opposed to enriching it. It must go!

10. Uprooting racism from national, state, and local policies. We must demand the abolition of all racist policies. This means demanding that we rethink immigration policies that shrink God’s open borders. This means demanding an end to profiling policies from corporations to airports, and unfair lending and housing policies from New York to New Mexico. This also means demanding legalization of drugs and the decriminalization/destigmatization of their use. It means demanding a ban to death penalties, zero tolerance policies, features of health/welfare legislation that are fundamentally rooted in racism. The list can’t end here. We must listen experts by creating panels in every field of public policy to critically examine our laws for explicit and implicit biases.

11. Imagination consortium. Let us convene other kinds of thought panels, ones that might help us to reinvent our world. This panel must include our imagination leaders—committees of writers and other kinds of designers/artists/creators who might imagine a new world of possibility not based on heteronormative, Western, White, Eurocentric, hegemonic, imperialist, patriarchal models. Too often those who get to peddle policy lack imagination and the deep drive to imagine beyond perception. Thus, I strongly believe that artists and writers can invent, for us, new worlds because they do this all the time. Imagine a team of science fiction writers, for instance, imagining new worlds for us much like Tolkien invented Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. My point is, here, that there are people gifted with imaginations that could breed endless utopias.

Of course, there are an array other structural solutions posited in other places. To the extent that they help us disrupt structures of oppression and reimagine the world that we live in, I am endorse them. Some of these include the 10-point platform initiated by Black Lives Matter. While my sense is that this 10-point platform only deals with symptoms of the problem forsaking, for now, its root causes, I think it must be taken up too, as it’s necessary to sometimes deal with symptoms immediately to stop the hemorrhaging while we work toward other solutions to heal the root. Regardless of what path change takes, we’ll need people on every front, working in areas that best fit them and their abilities. Our greatest struggle, perhaps, will be in tuning our efforts to a global harmony where we co-exist as one collective body reshaping the public will.

I know we can do this. I know that we must.

Sincerely yours,

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NO THANKS(GIVING)

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To be certain, there are things, manifold things, for which to be thankful: family and friends, smiles and laughter, surprises and second chances. There is the breath of life that animates lungs, and the distant sun that rubs warmth on burdened backs. There is also the never-ending menu of fresh produce that, as if by magic, erupts from dust to nourish the soul and the clean waters flowing free from the heavens to refresh our seabeds. Our manna derives both from above and below. We have so much to be grateful for, though Thanksgiving is not one of them.

The Thanksgiving story comes to us unusually romanticized: Set in the early 1600s in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the story is told as one of hardships survived, where so-called Pilgrims endured their first grueling winter in a captive land to celebrate life in their “New World.” The settlers, as they have come to be called, survived that first winter no doubt due to help received from their indigenous hosts. The people who found and rescued the Pilgrims taught them how to brave the cold; cultivate the riches of winter; find food and shelter; plant kernels of corn; locate, hunt, and preserve game; exhaust the natural resources around them (animal furs, skins, and snow). In addition, the Pilgrims learned other lessons from the indigenous that made life more possible.

The compassion and deep humanity of the Pilgrim’s indigenous hosts are rarely highlighted in the Thanksgiving story. These hosts did not seek to kill strangers shipwrecked in their border or erect walls to keep the strangers out. The indigenous did not call the Pilgrims illegal or alien or rapists or savages (labels that history would suggest did, in fact, apply to some Pilgrims).

For these indigenous people, lives mattered, even the lives of foreign-born people with skin the color of mogra. In their humanity, the indigenous submitted to primal though sublime instincts of kindness—welcoming the stranger who fled foreign borders seeking refuge from the persecutions of tyranny and the confines of an oppressive crown.

Thus, the irony of the Thanksgiving story is obvious: As debates on immigration become hotly contested throughout the globe, the predominant themes of Thanksgiving untold shed light on our own national hypocrisies—a country of strangers condemning strangers, a band of refugees blocking access to other refugees (i.e., people trapped in the world’s darkest and most desperate situations).

Such is the case in Syria (and elsewhere throughout our globe), where people—human beings—are fleeing countries set ablaze. They are seeking safety within borders set away from the global atrocities of terror mostly fueled by Western avarice and the arrogance of our global wars. We’ve now seen babies washed up on distant shores, dead. We’ve heard leading political figures label the descendants of our modern indigenous citizenry, people with colonized accents yet Aztec blood coursing warm through their veins, “rapists.” We’ve fully embraced the rhetoric and violence of division: “us” versus “them.” Yet Thanksgiving has done little to remind us of a time past when we were strangers, and they saved us.

Usually the Thanksgiving story ends in a feast of friends—Indians and Pilgrims. The legend of Thanksgiving finds these “friends” eating together, basking in a kind of strange and ludic harmony. However, we know that this story is as much incomplete as it is fiction.

Though the Pilgrims would persist despite the bitter cold of winter, the light of the indigenous sun would soon set along the Western horizon. While the Pilgrims would learn to live off an old land posthumously made their New World, the indigenous would learn new ways to die. Thus, while the story of the Pilgrims was set to begin, the story of the indigenous was doomed to end.

Only history knows the tragedies we obscure by celebrating Thanksgiving—long forgotten rapes  of  indigenous wives and of daughters juxtaposed against campaigns of terror that would eventuate in a tragic saga of human annihilation. The children of Pilgrims would steal indigenous lands and plagiarize their technologies. They would plant disease in indigenous blankets, butcher indigenous flesh with weapons of death and mass destruction.

The children of Pilgrims would force the children of the indigenous to walk from one end of their country to the other. They would lay claim to the open indigenous borders—confining indigenous bodies to concentration camps deplorably named reservations (or, as one Native young man put it, “sovereign ghettos”). The children of Pilgrims would kill the indigenous young, put suicide in their thoughts and the slow death of whisky lacking mercy in their cups.

The children of Pilgrims would cut off indigenous tongues and utterly destroy indigenous histories. They would turn the sacred images of indigenous people into their costumes and would batter indigenous shrines into their ruins. The children of Pilgrims would paint indigenous faces onto their mascots, making mockery of people ancient and original to this land—from Cleveland to Jacksonville, from Juneau to the District of Columbia.

Perhaps worst of all, the children of Pilgrims would assume the identities of those they have destroyed—practicing a cruel and wicked alchemy of identity theft. The original Rachel Dolezals of history, they would enroll the flesh of mogra into the census of roses. Not only would they kill or displace almost all people indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, the Pilgrims and the children of Pilgrims would dare to replace them, stealing all that could be precious to indigenous people left behind—a memory, a history, a language, a right to live, a land, and even a separate identity. All became property of the Pilgrim—and the shameful inheritance of her children.

So every year, on the last Thursday in November, we commit time to celebrating a lie. In so doing, we ritualize the most unholy of communions—a national feast in remembrance of a grave and inhuman scandal. Thanksgiving, a holiday that honors forgetting and the genocide of people, is by far as sick as it is superfluous. There is no other way to describe it—to destroy a people and then every year feast in memoriam is beyond calloused; it’s wrong!

Not only does the celebration spit in the eyes of compassion, it disavows the power of gratitude. “Thanks” is a high term denoting praise and indebtedness. It yields best to those things we humans  humbly appreciate. The honest prayer of the grateful, “thanksgiving,” then, is a word of reverence, kept sacred by the meek and by those of us who understand the grace and fierce power of gratitude found in the humble recognition for God’s manifold blessings.

Placed in the context of a broken and twisted holiday, that beautiful word—thanksgiving—that awesome submission and prayer, can only mean something crude, tantamount to an insult. That we’d term this holiday—a day who’s emblem is a turkey—thanksgiving is not only sad; the tragedies it obscures make it scary.

The holiday continues primarily because of the fog by which it persist. This fog features our dysconscious consent, a constant of act of indifference to the suffering of others. This indifference is itself a kind of brokenness, a dangerous kind of racism, which according to Michelle Alexander, forms “the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems” (p. 242). It is in this process—the act of becoming indifferent—that Thanksgiving erases the perspectives of hurting, vulnerable, and victimized people. Thus, celebrating Thanksgiving outside historical context and without needed critique is a kind of indifference that reinforces a profound erasure of people and the crimes committed against them.

Many people would love to continue to observe Thanksgiving, though in the comfort of forgetting and through the myth of “colorblindness.” However, remembering history, thus, seeing race whole is not the problem. According to Alexander:

Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. . . . We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. . . . That is a goal worth fighting for. (p. 244)

Every year on the last Thursday in November so many of us cede the fight. On this day, many shall gather and swell their stomachs with food yet  little deliberate knowledge of the great historical travesty they help conceal. Many will dine on dishes, not knowing that they are paying tribute to one of the most scandalous events in the history of a nation.

On the last Thursday in November I choose to fast instead of feast. I spend the entire day alone, reflecting and protesting the lavish feasts of systematic amnesia that sweeps the country. Thanksgiving is not a holiday and is certainly not a day for celebration, for it venerates events in which we should not find joy but collective regret—events for which we might beg forgiveness rather than give thanks.

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  1. Alexander, M. (2010). A New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

My Teacher Told Me Lies: An Essay on Why I Can’t With the Fourth of July

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Since I was very young, I’ve wondered a lot about this curious yet elusive concept: freedom. I wondered why my second grade teacher told me that the United States gained independence on July 4, 1776. I wondered why I believed her even though three of my older cousins, two uncles, and six neighbors from the block disappeared behind prison bars. As a Black man growing up unfree, incessantly in the face of unyielding trepidation, freedom has always felt like a cruel cage—one that mocks but ignores the irony that, in this lifetime, one in three Black men will find themselves lost at some stage in the tragic cycle of mass incarceration.

Fast forward years later: Although I’d forget my teacher’s name, I’d long remember her lesson. Fortunately, I’d also realize that the lesson she taught me was, in fact, a lie. I’d learn that her celebration of July 4th was also mockery but of more than just Black men. It mocks the tragic legacies of oppression that afflict unfree people like me, that still—to this day—afflict the many unfree people across this globe. I’d learn that her definition of “free,” as opposed to unfree, was based solely in a vocabulary to which I’ve never gained access, spoken in a language foreign even to the very people who first planted civilization in the fertile soil of this now morally barren land.

The freedom of which my teacher boasted wasn’t freedom at all, but a corruption of it borne of the stripes scarred to the backs and bloodied to the swollen hands of slaves. It was purchased for cheap through unconscionable acts of evil—theft and genocide, rape and murder. The legacy of this freedom would debase bodies and break apart homes. It would invent divisions based on artificial borders (geographical parentheses that bracket arbitrary and unnecessary “national” fault lines). What my teacher experienced as freedom, I have grown wise to question and have, thus, come know precisely for what it is: a stubborn system of oppression that promotes national and global suffering.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass would allude to this system of suffering, this biased bill of bondage, when he famously asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” For Douglass, the observance of “national independence” seemed much like a farce, but a peculiar kind of prank, one that compelled him to ask: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Today, July 4, 2015, I firmly believe the the “us” to which Douglass refers must be extended:

What does the Fourth of July mean to a woman who could not vote or own property or even today earn a fair wage for a fair day’s work?

What does it mean to a citizen whose parents exist unfree because of immigration policies that outlaw their human right to travel, to migrate and search out a better life for themselves and their families?

What does it mean to citizens born free but who are made to live obsolete as vagabonds in freedom’s shadows, under the heinous yet cruel veil of slavery—which is emblematic of the vile and inglorious confederate flag?

What does it mean to the irrepressible and striving remnants of First Nation’s societies, people whose liberties, languages, and lives remain at risk and at question, whose livelihoods and lands were lost at the expense of Europe’s unjustified greed and egregious campaigns of global theft and terror?

What does it mean when bodies are constantly groped by hidden cameras, where, as a populace, we are made rigidly to persist under the law of perpetual surveillance?

What does it mean to people who in schools and workplaces, hospitals and courtrooms feel marginalized for speaking and embodying Anzaldua’s mestiza, for possessing non-conforming hips and hair textures, for having hoodie-covered heads and burka-framed eyes that refuse to blink or bow in the face of corrupt authorities?

What does the Fourth of July mean for people who have just gained the right to marry the individuals they love, who have just been granted a chance to care for the ones their hearts, too, keep?

There are millions, perhaps even billions, of people enlisted in the assembly of Douglass’s “us.” We are the globally dispossess, history’s 99.9% for whom freedom has failed, for whom the annual celebration of national independence does not apply.

Don’t get me wrong: The fourth of July is not just another day. It is a dark day that remains as important to me as it is to all of those who will pop firecrackers before this weekend is over. However, I will never observe the Fourth of July as a celebration, as a time to reflect on our national freedoms. (I ain’t free. And you ain’t free either.) Rather, I will use it as a timeless reminder of how far we’ve yet to travel, how long still we must press forward to reach freedom’s door.

How can I celebrate freedom or independence (or whatever one should call this peculiar thing) when across the globe this very nation endorses terror and denies the freedoms of so many? How can I celebrate a day dedicated to freedom’s decadence when U.S. territories, such Puerto Rico, and major U.S. cities, such as Detroit, strive lowly in their debts, when austerity becomes conscript to racist and classist impulses, and when the vitriol of providence beacons transformative sobriety.

In this sobriety, we must acknowledge that there are various and complex forms of slavery still alive and active in our world today: human trafficking and the global sex trade; the lost Nigerian girls (whom we must always remember) and young men like Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray (whom we shall never forget). The very existence of continued suffering, further, makes the Fourth of July a lie.

There is also the Snowden revelations, which has given us some insight into a global campaign of civil surveillance. With eyes surrounding us, and with technologies that merit to men the vision of gods, we must ask on this July 4th: Are we free? Are we truly independent? Will we ever be?

Are we free when random churches in states across the U.S. south fall victim to unknown flames and racist murderers worship alongside the people they would later execute?

Are we free when little girls and boys must hide behind the prison of locked school doors, or play dead under bloodied pews in fear of a madman’s gun and the zeal he finds to exercise against innocence his Second Amendment Right—the right to kill even babies and unarmed civilians.

Are we free when, on city streets, rings of gunshots replace the productive noise of work, when jobs whisk away from places where people have no escape?

Are we free when we care more about convenience stores than the convenience of life?

And so Douglass asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Perhaps, we might ask—in the spirit of Douglass: What to the so-called free person is the Fourth of July when other persons—women, men, and children—are enslaved, broken between borders, and subsumed by the enmities of never-ending conquests?

Paulo Freire wrote:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality.1

The Fourth of July must force us to address questions of Freire’s concept of humanization. It must compel us to finally tell the truth and, in so doing, recognize the various states of incompletion (i.e., dehumanization) in which we live. Incompletion is a corruption of independence, just as dehumanization is the consequence of a dependence irrevocably set in the shades of bondage. Here, as long as one is ensnared, we are all trapped. For if one is slave, then we are all enslaved—prisoners to slavery’s looming threat.

In this light, we must know, and we must teach, that the Fourth of July cannot be a day of celebration as long as there is at least one left to lament the unscalable obstacles of oppression that distances so many from achieving a fuller, truer and more complete humanity.

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1. Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Penguin Books, p. 25.

David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

What Would Jesus Do? On Faith and Marriage Equality

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I am a Christian. Do you know what that means? But before you judge me, know that I fully support marriage equality.

When I first declared my support for marriage equality, other “Christians” professing the Faith looked at me with sudden scorn, a visceral kind of hatred concealed in judgment and in other cloaked sentiments not worthy of discussion.

Over the past few days, I have been accused of apostasy, of promoting/endorsing sin, of being a fraud, and so on. I have been called cruel-and-unusual names and condemned by so-called “friends” and by others who consider themselves faithful. And yet I’m not fazed because Jesus foretold of these events. “As they persecuted Me,” He warned, “will they also persecute you.”

* * *

But today’s blog post isn’t personal. It’s about resurrecting the spark now fallen, raising a light in the darkened skies; it’s about promoting a vision of faith based on Love.

Sometimes people with good intentions, very good intentions actually, approach me. They are stargazers and light-seekers, friends and family members and even strangers who genuinely pursue relief from splintered eyes, clarity from the murky darkness of confusion. They want to see as I see, or at least they want to know why and how I see as I do.

Ever since June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court decided marriage equality would be the law of the land, these light-seekers, these stargazers have questioned. One genuinely wanted to know why I supported marriage equality. She wrote:

I read your article “in defense of love.”  While we all have a right to choose whom we will serve, I’m curious as to how you came to your position given the fact that you love God.  

Putting feelings aside, did you use the Bible in any of your research for this article? If so, what did you find? If not, why didn’t you?

An inquiring mind just wants to understand.

I haven’t responded to her until now. It has taken me a few days to digest her question I guess because my perspectives on politics and faith are personal. However I do think that I merit some responsibility should my explanation serve to enlighten—for one of the chief miracles of Christ was restoring sight to the blind. Having received deliverance of the plank from my eye, I hope my explanation and Biblical defense of marriage equality sheds spiritual light on some.

The Darkness in Light

My faith does, in fact, inform my politics. Indeed, in my decision to fully support marriage equality, the lamp of my faith has guided me. Christianity and many of the other major faiths (e.g., Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism) center values of peace abiding through hope. However, the main premise of Christianity adds to hope, Love.

Love is the final yet enduring element, eternal and imperishable, giving life to the Faith. It is the totality of the Law and all other just laws. It keeps the most holy sacraments of the Faith untraceable, resolved and sustained undeniable.

There is nothing that a person can do to earn this Love. It is given freely, extended by Grace as grace to us. We don’t earn it. We are all sinners, but God grants it to us anyway.

However, those blinded by fictions of faith—the practices that belie Love—believe that they have purchased heaven, that in some meritocratic way, they can own bliss—having rights to include and exclude as by lottery, but in accordance only with the stubborn stirrings of ethnocentrism and hegemonic conceit. They believe that they can negotiate with God—haggle wages not promised to them while denying others God’s enduring generosities.

I believe in marriage equality because those who oppose it also oppose light and yet cling to darkness.

The Dead Word

The clingers of darkness, lost in the seductive obscurity of the night, abide by a doctrine of darkness, and in the spirit of hate-filled intolerance, they persist. These so-called believers, in their exaggerated zeal and with their pompous authority, work as extremists themselves, exalting their domain above righteousness to our collective peril. Their mission is to be right instead of getting it right. They become the worst kinds of believers—fundamentalists who are more-or-less pimps of faith overly eager to use the bondage of people’s devotion to God to control, manipulate, divide and impart hatred.

These are instructed by doctrines of darkness, and their word is dead. Their dead word is, also, often dated. Regrettably, it romanticizes a bygone era, and postures itself along some fixed continuum of history locked in the bronze age—where women and men portray puppets on a stage of strings, outfitted in the drag of gods pretending to be kings.

Moreover, attending faith gatherings (in churches, mosques, and temples) in this historical occult is like moving in and out of a dream or a nightmare (rarely is there a difference). In this space, people masquerade as true believers but through a carnival of medieval compliance lived with an enthusiasm and unrelenting recital of an overly religious Renaissance festival. To practice modern faith, in so many situations, requires this slip in time, a digression to a place where people are actualized uneven—some as peasantry and others as nobility. It is in this disturbing liturgy of people equally born of the common pains, that we, at the whims of power and control, are given titles as inhumane as master and slave. The dead word’s fixation on this oppressive praxis is both sad and laughable.

Perhaps worst is the dead word’s reliance on metaphors of war and devastation. That is, the dead word abides by linguistic systems of pillaging and lexicons of oppression. Its meanings survive through a factory of fears, each foreshadowing mass devastation and destruction, each appealing to perilous pathologies made real by our darkest dreams and nightmares (rarely is there a difference).

The faith of the dead word, too, is lifeless because it is based on contracts of hate, whose only evidence of vigor abounds in clusterings of non-believers (or so-called “saints”) who dine on the promises of scorched flesh. (One would never believe how many so-called Christians demand hell stones to rain from heaven as vengeance for the Supreme Courts marriage equality decision.) Because Love does not discriminate, the “saints” have called on their gods to kill to justify their cause. And this sacrifice of flesh is idolatry, a high sin in most modern faiths.

I believe in marriage equality because the doctrinal principles that oppose it are dead, not living.

The Living Word

The faith that led me to support marriage equality is alive. It survives through the Living Word, and the Living Word, like other living documents that govern and give freedom (i.e., the Constitution of the United States), must be understood in context and in its complexity, but also in the situations of real people. In this sense, the Living Word assumes a dynamic quality, possessing the resplendent prosperities of a flexibility fitted to the changing times and the unpredictable eddies that flow freely from human existence.

Insomuch as it retains relevance today, the Living Word moves and abounds with the people and culture, with love and in the pursuit of life. For this reason, true and lasting faiths boast a kind of resilience, capable of adapting to meet the ever-evolving needs and circumstances of people.

The Living Word doesn’t relinquish the doctrinal rites—i.e., the commandments of God. Rather, it interprets and refashions them in keeping with the greater designs of God. Love God, and in doing so, love others as you love yourself.

These commandments are summed up by Jesus, who said, “I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Moreover, Paul continues, giving testament of Jesus: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Paul maintains in The Book of Romans that Love, as in Christ, “is the fulfillment of the law.”

So why am I now focusing on the Law–or what can be otherwise understood as the legislated word? The legislated word, if lacking life, is also the dead word. Then, it has little authority over true believers, for such a law is perishable. For example, it was once common (and lawful) for a man to marry a sister, for a man of wealth to take many wives (and perhaps even a few concubines). It has been common (though corruptible) in the histories of humanity for the young to be betrothed to the old, for masters to make of servants vessels of sex. The examples of historical/Biblical revision are many.

I believe in marriage equality because my faith is not static, stuck in the past, nor immutable, captive to inevitability.

The Christian Case for Marriage Equality

On the question of marriage equality, Christianity occupies a peculiar space. In the beginning, it fought an exclusive cult(ure) to include the excluded. And like those who persecute us now for advocating marriage equality, followers of that cult(ure), who lived the dead word, persecuted Jesus for resisting their embrace of intolerance. And so they tried to kill Him. They attempted to bury Him but didn’t know He was seed.

The Bible speaks of these, the Pharisees and the scribes who advanced to kill Christ. The point I’m trying to make is that the persecutors of Christ are still with us, for the persecutors of Christ are little different than those who persecute us today for advocating marriage equality. Thus, having a form of the faith, they are faithless–hypocrites who, in the words of Christ, are merely “a brood of vipers.”

This brood claims to know the mind of God, though filled with conceit and faithless arrogance. When they pray they boast, while also accusing us—we who pray more sincerely—of crimes that they themselves have conjured, of which they themselves are not cured.

Their accusations are pitiful but familiar: “How could You sit with sinners?” they ask while they themselves sit in sin. They falsely declare that we (and our Christ) are devils and deceivers because we refuse the tainted cup from which they drink.

They did not know Him, and they do not know us though they profess Him and condemn us. Yet in their pitiful panics and boastful feats (both equally evil), they often judge, and without love, they have judged too harshly. In so doing, they harm both Him and His people—those of us He loves and sits with, heals and extends unearned Grace, tender Mercies, and the forgiveness of sins.

One can see the darkness in these so-called Christians now given the light that marriage equality has shed. Living in darkness, they do not abide by the Living Word. Hence, they can only oppose marriage equality because they maintain a darkness obscured to the Love that wills it.

Toward a New Light

Indeed, in darkness, we are all victims. For instance, I have a friend who has a son who was born gay. For most of his life, she sequestered him in a secret kind of shame. Her “faith,” which endures in darkness, for years has led her to loathe her son. However, his only fault has been not fitting the fictions of her faith. Of course, she would never admit that her beliefs could be wrong. Instead, she imposes on her son undue blame for being the son whom she bore.

The dead word that stifles relationships like my friend and her son’s and makes rational its own deceits has given us a history of religious persecutions—the Inquisitions and crusades, the jihads and Bibighar massacre, to name a few. The dead word has long waged war against good sense—demanded a stilted solar system that held earth at its center instead of the sun, a patriarchy that maintains a woman’s right to be seen yet unheard. History has proven this dead word wrong time and again.

The Living Word, however, endures because it evolves. In its evolution, it moves humanity forward and closer to God. In so doing, it allows each of us to love a little more and, with that, a little better. It frees us from the tangles of unnecessary religious burdens.

The Living Word—which gives me defense in supporting marriage equality—appreciates marriage, a union of Love affirmed by God and contracted by His love. The marriage bed is undefiled; thus, the covenant of marriage, gay or straight or otherwise, promises a treaty of Life against the thousand daily deaths dealt by loneliness and the anguish of a life lived uncommitted.

If two people love each other, then let them marry, the Bible says. For what God has joined together let no man or woman put asunder.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Not Just Us? Using Classrooms to Get (White) People to Talk about Race

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If a Black body falls in the streets of Baltimore (or Ferguson or Cleveland or Columbia, SC) and no person of color hears it, will a White person (not named Rachel Dolezal) make a sound?

As the country mourns under the shadow of recent racial strife, many rights leaders and activists are, once again, calling for a series of “courageous conversations,” conversations about race that some researchers suggest White people don’t want to have and don’t know how to have.

For White Americans, race is more than just a touchy topic; its one that can often elicit an array of sentiments: shame and anger, guilt and grief, blame and confusion. However, the ongoing tensions surrounding race in this country, which have been amplified by the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, The Emanuel 9, and so many others, should inspire a more open conversation on race. But how do we have it?

Why White People Don’t Talk About Race

Don’t get me wrong: There are many conversations about race and the various forms of racism happening throughout the United States. Most of them, however, are not happening among White people.

Barnabas Piper, author of “Why White People Don’t Like to Talk about Race,” suggests that White silence on the topic is a privilege that stems from having grown up mostly “unaffected by” or “unaware of” the racial divide. For Piper, this privilege does not always redound to bigotry. Rather it reflects the extent to which White people are “unexposed to minority cultures (not just Black, but all non-White cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there.”

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University, adds that when White people talk about race, they “implode.” Much of this subsidence, DiAngelo explains, derives from Whites being socialized as privileged, which, in turn, renders them “racially illiterate.” Put another way, White people don’t resist conversations about race, per se; they hold the privilege to opt-out because issues of race and racism rarely hamper their qualities of life.

As such, critical race scholars such as Julie A. Helling, an associate professor and director of the Law and Diversity program at Western Washington University, believe that it is unlikely that courageous conversations about race will occur in White homes and White homogeneous settings without public pressure and public space. And though Helling maintains, “We need to talk about the effects of racism in this country, the rac-ing of people in general, and affirm the positive and plentiful contributions of all cultures to this country,” questions remain as to where these important conversations should take place?

Advancing Conversations of Race in Classrooms

In March 2015, Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz made national news when he offered his coffee chain as a site for initiating a critical dialogue on race in the U.S., and a firestorm ensued. Aptly called “The Race Together” campaign, Starbucks employees (baristas) were given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help start the dialogue. While some people appreciated the company’s effort, many others objected, arguing that Starbucks was the wrong venue to host race conversation and that its baristas were unqualified to lead the national discussion on race.

Some critics of “The Race Together” campaign suggested that classrooms, as opposed to Starbucks, were more appropriate (and safer) venues to discuss race. In a new book Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the classroom serves as a tool for educators who want to talk about race. To his credit, Milner offers comprehensive, evidence-based approaches and practical classroom tips for introducing race dialogues into classrooms, though he warns “such conversations require planning and administrative support.”

In spite of efforts such as Milner’s, there remain skeptics who affirm that classroom time should be devoted to learning core academic skills, such as learning how to read, write, and calculate. However, Mercer Hall and Gina Sipley point out, race is a construct of social status and identity, critical to the development of all American youth. They maintain that as scenes of racialized violence chase our eyes and whispers of hate propaganda haunt our ears, we can no longer pretend that young people are immune to the effects of race because racial stressors exist in the minds and daily experiences of students. Accordingly, they argue, we would be remiss to pretend that student learning is not affected by their social and emotional states. Therefore, teaching tolerance, as Helling has maintained, is perhaps more important than teaching traditional subjects, whereas conversations of “race need [sic] to exist more, not less in classrooms.”

Talking Race in Classrooms . . . We Do We Go From Here?

Talking race in classrooms is about more than issues of black and white. It is about developing and nurturing better human beings. And, while race dialogues in classrooms might give White people an important space to engage in deep deliberations about racial bias in the U.S., the discussion itself will give all people a chance to inhabit a greater humanity.

In her 1992 article published in the Harvard Educational Review, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about how all students can benefit from exploring race and that teachers should provide “a forum where this discussion can take place safely over . . . a time period that allows personal and group development to unfold.” In keeping with Tatum’s call, organizations such as Teaching Tolerance have created real models to help teachers advance conversations on race in their classrooms. One example they offer is a unit for teaching Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The unit begins by asking, what is needed to participate in an open and honest conversation about race. What ensues is pedagogical magic.

Of course, there are other resources available, such as Jane Bolgatz’s book Talking Race in the Classroom, which demonstrates ways in which “good conversations are not simply a matter of speaking and listening.” According to Bolgatz, “one must view racial issues through a critical lens that attends to current and institutional aspects of racism” in ways that help students understand that various forms of racism have developed historically and can be contested.

Researchers from the University of Michigan offer a dialogic model for engaging courageous conversations about race. Their Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) is “a social justice education program” that “blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students’ learning about social group identity, social inequity, and intergroup relations.” According to the group’s website, IGR offers youth dialogues on race and ethnicity as a way of fostering a more inclusive world.

While many models exist, there is no one single approach for discussing race. However, creating space in classrooms for such discussions do help. Regardless of race or ethnicity, we know, too, that discussing race and racism takes courage. “Courage,” as Winston Churchill said, “is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And there may be no better to place today in which to enact courage than classrooms.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.