It’s time education reformers admit life and death isn’t an “other” issue
July 11, 2016
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Imagine being Lavish Reynolds trembling in fear as she filmed the last minutes of Philando Castile’s life while her young daughter watched from the back seat. An officer stands outside still pointing his gun into the car and barking orders like a maniac.

In an instant, life changes for everyone in the car.

For Reynolds, the pain is unimaginable. She spends the next few days recounting the most traumatizing event in her life to hordes of cameras, putting black pain on display in the way many black mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends have done for far too long.

Her daughter will enter kindergarten next year with one life changing experience under her belt that will be incredibly challenging to overcome.

For Castile, there is no tomorrow, except in the memory of people who care long enough to remember.

Now, imagine going to provide comfort to Castile’s family members and telling them the thing they should really focus on is getting their children into a charter school, or fighting for parent choice in education.

That would be symbolic of what I feel is education reform’s personality disorder, it’s inability to see past its own nose. Its pervasive single mindedness that becomes something of a disabling empathy gap.

Finally, a little empathy

There is some hope that the conversation is shifting, at least on the political right.

While some white Americans cling predictably to their right of being culturally insulated, a right afforded as the benefit of white supremacy, there are signs of life in the hearts of individuals who are surprising us with their empathetic responses.

Newt Gingrich recently told an interviewer being black in America “is more dangerous in that [you are] substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you and where you could easily get killed. And I think sometimes, for whites, it’s difficult to appreciate how real that is. It’s an everyday danger.”

Equally thoughtful is the response of Marco Rubio who says “those of us who are not African-American will never fully understand the experience of being black in America, but we should all understand why our fellow Americans in the African-American community are angry.”

Leon Wolf, writer with the conservative website Red State, bravely states “a huge, overwhelming segment of America does not really give a damn what cops do in the course of maintaining order because they assume (probably correctly) that abuse at the hands of police will never happen to them. As long as the cops keep people away from my door, they have my blessing handling “the thugs” in whatever way they see fit.”

He asks readers to consider how their views might be different if they had been raised by parents who grew up in “one of the many areas where police were often the agents of – let’s call it what it was – white oppression.” He asks “would that impact your belief that police will ever be held accountable for abuses of their power?”

To go where Gingrich, Rubio, and Wolf are going requires substantial restraint on political instincts that could easily push them to do the easy thing, toss out some red meat to constituents who want to follow the tradition of prosecuting dead black people for their own murders and, once again, defending indefensible systems of oppression. But more than restraint, these right-of-center voices went a step further and used this as an opportune moment to pull from their well of compassion, mercy, and empathy.

That is leadership.

Isn’t delivering better schools enough?

In recent months, notable people within school reform circles have locked horns over a trifling question: does the inclusion of social justice activists, people derided as “warriors,” in education reform threaten the bipartisan peace by introducing unrelated issues into the mix?

Are we marginalizing white conservative school reformers by making them confront the life and death issues people of color and other marginalized populations face every day as Americans?

I’ve been asked repeatedly, “do we really need to include those other issues if our goal is to improve education?”

My response has been “other issues?”

As if any of us live compartmentalized lives where our hearts, minds, and bodies are only impacted by one institution at a time.

As if we aren’t the sum total of a maddening portfolio of experiences – many of them negative – across institutions that reaffirm the Dred Scott ruling saying black people have had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

That portfolio of experience comes with compounding interest over the life span of a black person, and it pays dividends in frustration, anger, and resistance.

If you are without this portfolio experience you might be inclined to first deny, invalidate, belittle, reframe, obfuscate, and sequester black pain so you can remain comfortably dispassionate, and plausibly ignorant to the factors that provide you with social advantages. You are part of the problem. Enjoy your privilege.

The truth is that Castile hit one of our prized education markers by graduating high school and then getting a legitimate job with better-than-average benefits.

Yet, his high school, Central High School in St. Paul, MN, has been in the spotlight for its on-campus policing. A member of Central’s Black Student Union recently told me students are tired of feeling intimidated by school resource officers in their own school.

The St. Paul school district where Castile worked has recently paid its superintendent Valeria Silva nearly $800,000 to walk away after a successful union-driven campaign to oust her over her racial equity plan. Teachers even circulated a petition stating openly their objection to her working with Black Lives Matter.

At J.J. Hill Magnet, the magnet school where Castile worked, only 8% of black males are proficient in math, 16% in reading.

When that beautiful little black girl who watched Castile die enters St. Paul Public Schools next year she’ll face teachers who are quick to be justice activists when it suits them, while also defending anti-blackness when it doesn’t.

Nearly three out of four black girls in St. Paul Public Schools are not proficient in reading. Less than one in four is proficient in math.

It would be easy for education reformers to focus on those damning stats and make an appeal solely on that basis, but to be successful they need to show good faith by rallying on the issues of justice so germane to black existence. They should stop grasping stubbornly and foolishly to the idea reform only works if those other issues are sidelined.

Not dying at the hands of a racist state isn’t an “other” issue. The idea that black people should be free enough to make a trip to the store for groceries, Skittles, or ice tea without dying isn’t an “other” issue. Losing your life for selling cigarettes or music isn’t an “other” issue.

Having to break it to your children that their country is all about liberty, justice, and the American way with one glaring black exception, that is not an “other” issue.

Yes, education reformers stand on firm ground when they indict the public education system for outstandingly bad results with people of color. Yet, I predict they’ll have trouble convincing communities of color of anything so long as they fail to close their empathy gap when it comes to issues of justice.

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