Another day, another politician with blackface in his past.

If you are keeping track, three top elected officials in Virginia have been busted for old photos showing them engaging in blackface.

Let’s put gas in the outrage machine and crank it up.

Here’s a question for you: what is more important to the survival of black people, the fact that endless stories continue to emerge revealing men in the highest offices were once enamored with continuing the hateful tradition of “blackface,” or the fact that there isn’t a state in America where black 4th reading proficiency rises above 31%?

Are we more harmed by black paint on a white face, or the fact that black rates of high school dropouts are double that of whites and college completion for LatinX and black students lags far behind whites?

You will ask why must you choose? Both are bad. These simple binaries aren’t instructive in any way.

“I can do both,” you’ll say, meaning you can be outraged by examples of racism and address the miseducation of black children.

I call your bluff. Yes, you can do both, but you don’t. Searching your social media reads like a clanging gong of outrage-by-the-minute stories that are here today, gone tomorrow. Your intellectual consumption is mostly empty calories.

As much as people say they call out both incidents of petty racism and America’s education tragedy, they don’t.

I understand why they publicly and privately challenge me for grinding on this unreasonable point about prioritizing the education failure that I see as smothering our children over the sheep rush toward each angering news item of the day. I understand, but I won’t relent. The easiest way to disable an intelligent person is to confuse his ability to differentiate between things that matter and those things that seem to matter but don’t.

Where is your social media post about the objectionable statewide test scores of public schools across every state?

Surely the fact that more black children are on track for economic alienation than self-sufficiency warrants as much fury as the kid with the #MAGA hat staring like a soulless psychopath at the Native American elder.

Where is your Facebook post about the 4.5 million children Congress discovered were sexually abused by staff in public schools?

I didn’t see it. Maybe it got lost in the hubbub about R. Kelly.

Can you point me to your post about the stubborn Pygmalion effect in classrooms, or the broken system of preparing teachers for black classrooms, or the constant attack on black schools and black educators who believe educating black minds is possible without putting them in white chairs?

Perhaps I’m being churchy here and succumbing to sanctimony. Just because education is the lever I’ve decided needs pulling for the revolution to truly occur, that doesn’t mean everyone has to see it that way.

What about gender justice, social justice, economic justice and so on?

What about…..?

Challenge me. I’m open to it. Yet, I will remind you that the fight for education as a central and prioritized mission isn’t mine alone. Our ancestors, the ones we claim to represent, focused intently on education and no devil could shake their devotion.

While white America was innovating new ways to debase us, formerly enslaved persons gathered beneath trees, in basements, in the shadows of white society with an unshakable mission of gaining and expanding literacy.

You can write me off for over-focusing narrowly on education, but your arms are too short to box with the ancestors who disagree with you.

For all of our history, there have been incidents of racism, some serious and some merely raggedy. White people have discounted our humanity in such predictable patterns that we can speak of it like we speak of rain, rivers, or other natural features of Earth. But affront is more material than erecting barriers to learning in an attempt to cage our brains. The school can either end slavery or recommit the masses to it.

In truth, I do believe it’s important to challenge and check society on its episodic racist behavior (like Governors in blackface) while also attending to long-standing issues like educational attainment.

But a false equivalence will not help us. Social media outrage about blackface stories doesn’t carry the same weight as focusing on endemic problems that blight the lives of children and steal their growing years. If anything, obsessions with the trivial are little more than intellectual drift, and that is the worst sin for conscious people.

I’m not immune. Like everyone else, the fact is the stories about yet another person caught doing blackface will make me angry, but I realize ignoring the stories told year-over-year by America‘s test scores threaten to make us all stupid.

There isn’t enough blackface in the world to move me from that.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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