by Derrell Bradford
I’ve been struggling with race a lot lately. When I turn on the TV I drown in it. When I read education data it chokes me. And when I sleep it batters my dreams and leaves behind a painful sort of introspection that is both somber and powerful. And because education and race are so inextricably linked, the sheer knowledge of one means you can and must address the other. And there are two recent events that brought this home to me, making it present like a sharp slap to the face.
The first was the misidentification and “arrest” of former tennis star James Blake as he stood in front of a hotel on 42nd Street in New York City. Blake, a Harvard graduate whose tennis prowess at one point had him ranked fourth in the world, was attacked by a police officer as he waited for a car to take him to the U.S. Open. You cannot call what happened to Blake—who is black, bald, attractive, soft-spoken, well educated, without hoodie, hooliganism, slouch, or slang—an arrest. It was more a manhandling; the sort of physical tossing that would hurt both your body and your pride. It was the kind of exogenous event that is impactful not only because of its force, but because of its sudden and violent nature.
Cell phone video is giving us a window into this behavior by police, including what seems to be the increasing number of confrontations—that end with someone’s ending— between law enforcement and black men. Blake’s altercation is unique, however, not because it lacked fatality, but because of Blake himself. And it is steeped in disrespect if not death. To be crass—and offered thoughtfully—Blake is “the good black man.” Unassuming and bright, easy and athletic, his assimilation into the social and economic mores of America’s ruling class was as complete as it could be, even down to his choice of sport.
I identify with Blake deeply and viscerally here because, though I am older, my life was built in much the same way. I learned early and profoundly the physical and emotional vocabulary of making white people confortable. In high school I learned to love classic rock. I played lacrosse and rowed crew. I went to the best colleges. I was likely the only black friend many of my white friends had, which was remarkable more so because my goal was just to be a friend, period, instead of a black friend. I had all this opportunity and all I wanted to do was put race in the rearview.
Then one day I open the paper and there it is—a version of myself being tossed to the ground with malice and without explanation—for being the wrong color. And to be clear, though Blake and others have tried to take the high road on the role that race played in this event, as a black person it is near impossible to believe that an officer of any color would have behaved the same way if the suspect were white and standing on that same corner.
Which brings me to the second thing: the release of a study on the expectations of white and non-minority teachers for kids of color (“Student-teacher demographic match and teacher expectations”). The whole thing is worth reading but the key finding is that when a black student is evaluated by both a black teacher and one who is not, the latter is about 30 percent less likely to expect the student to complete a four-year college degree. And this effect (meaning this expectation gap) is largest when the subject is math and the student is a black male.
The researcher argues that these biases are unintentional, and perhaps that is the part that matters most. Similar to how a police officer sees Blake on the corner, puts him in a mental box, and then proceeds to act out; teachers—and in this case ones that aren’t black—are putting our students, black boys in particular, into these boxes as well. Boxes that make all sorts of behavior possible but that, most perniciously, pop the bubble of future expectations for the student. Black families deal with the stigma of not valuing education or educational attainment already. How much of this is catalyzed by their teachers, consciously or not, reinforcing that same vision?
I’ve argued before that it’s the nature of systems to do what they do, and that’s why I find both of these instances so troubling in the same way I find the resistance to change in education troubling. There, I try not to build my life around identity but it isn’t lost on me that I am often the sole black voice for change in front of a firing squad of white dissenters. It’s another occasion where the race train—which I spent so much of my early life trying to get off of—continues to steam on, lumbering down the tracks to who knows what, heavy and near unstoppable.
I don’t believe that all those who disagree with me are subconsciously or overtly driven by race. But from Blake to the black boy in a classroom somewhere whose future is being diminished even before he has a chance to take hold of it, race has a role in how we see the debate and how people act and respond to the prospect of difference.
The more aware of this I become the more I realize how little is actually changing in America, and that saddens me partly because I am able to navigate it in a way that at least keeps me alive, while so many are denied the tools to do so even before they realize the obstacles they must overcome. That question of survival, one of a right to actually live and become who you are meant to be, underpins this conversation about why reformers, and black ones in particular, do what we do. I keep hoping more people will understand that. I keep finding out very few people want to.
Derrell Bradford is Executive Director of NYCAN. He was previously the executive director at Better Education for Kids, a 501c4 organization supporting bipartisan education reforms in New Jersey. At B4K Derrell worked to secure passage of the tenure reform legislation TEACH NJ. Follow him: @