Black students’ minds and bodies are under attack.
Fifteen-year-old Black student Coby Burren was in geography class at Pearland High School near Houston in the fall of 2015. As he read the assigned page of his textbook, he noticed something that deeply disturbed him: A map of the United States with a caption that said the Atlantic slave trade brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” Coby took a picture of his textbook and texted it to his mother, adding, “We was real hard workers wasn’t we,” along with a sarcastic emoji. Not only had the McGraw-Hill textbook replaced the word “slave” with “workers,” they also placed the chapter on the enslavement of Africans in the chapter of the book titled “Patterns of Immigration” — as if Africans came to the United States looking for a better life.
In the winter of 2017, a mother in Connecticut wrote about how she was troubled by a worksheet on slavery that her daughter had completed for school. The question asked, “How were the slaves treated in Connecticut?” Her daughter had initially written, “The slaves were treated badly and cruelly,” but crossed that out and replaced it with the answer that was written in the textbook, which stated slaves were “often cared for and [the slave owners] protected them like members of the family.”
From the North to the South, corporate curriculum lies to our students, conceals pain and injustice, masks racism, and demeans our Black students. But it’s not only the curriculum that is traumatizing students.
In October of 2015, a Black girl in South Carolina was ripped out of her desk and thrown across the room by a police officer in the school for allegedly refusing to put away her cell phone. The video captured by a classmate of the incident went viral. The officer who brutalized the girl was not charged with a crime and instead both the girl videotaping and the girl thrown across the room were arrested and charged with “disturbing schools.” In May of 2017, surveillance video revealed a police officer at Woodland Hills High School in Churchill, Pennsylvania, choked and body-slammed a Black boy in the office.
Recent data reveals that school security officers outnumber counselors in three out of five — and four out of the top 10 — of the biggest school districts in the country, including New York City, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Houston.
These examples reveal some of the policies that result in pushing kids out of school, making it difficult to graduate, then difficult to get a job, and finally more likely that they will end up in jail. This school-to-prison pipeline begins with a curriculum that conceals the struggles and contributions of Black people and other people of color. It is a curriculum that fails to respect young Black people as intellectuals, and ignores their cultures, communities, and concerns. In the majority of textbooks, African Americans’ struggles and contributions are minimalized, portrayed as blatant stereotypes, or confined to a few roles that are acceptable to mainstream white society. This absence (or destructive presence) begins in preschool and continues throughout a Black student’s schooling.
Even when teachers include African American history, they often fail to consider the methods used to teach about Black lives to Black and non-Black children. Command and control lecture and rote memorization are not effective means of teaching for Black lives. Indeed, teaching for Black lives means just the opposite: engaging students in critical self-reflection, grounding our curriculum and teaching in their lives and communities, and orienting them toward community activism and social transformation.
Teaching for Black lives means that we can’t relegate Black history to certain historical time periods or events and we must include Black lives in all aspects of curriculum, including science, math, literature, and the arts. Teaching for Black lives also means considering the loneliness of learning about one’s history when you might be one of a few students in class (or few teachers in a school) that this history represents.
When Black history and Black contributions are denied in the curriculum and by those who teach it, Black people are themselves denied. Consequently, students who become disinterested in a course or vocal about its shortcomings and historical erasure are often labeled defiant and pushed out of the classroom. These students may then get swept up by police officers stationed in school and be hit with criminal charges for behavior that was once handled by school administration. If the offending student is sent to administration, they are often required to implement zero-tolerance discipline policies prescribed by the school district that mandate suspension or expulsion for various infractions. When a decision to suspend a student is left up to an administrator’s discretion, Black students are far more likely to be punished than their white peers. When students miss school, they fall behind in their classes and are more likely not to pass. The pipeline continues with the lack of tutoring programs, counseling services, college access programs, after-school programs, healthcare, proper nutrition, and other support services that would assist students who are falling behind. And if a student makes it through that gauntlet of perils, high-stakes end-of-course exams are waiting to deter them from graduating.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a major contributor to the overall epidemic of police violence and mass incarceration that functions as one of sharpest edges of structural racism in the United States.
The Rise of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement
A new rebellion against structural racism is under way in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by extrajudicial executions of Black people by the police and racist vigilantes. The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the ensuing national protests that followed showed the potential for a mass social movement — and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was launched by three Black women, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. Their demand that all Black lives have value was simple, yet visionary — especially in its call to highlight the most marginalized Black lives, including LGBTQ folks, women, and Black immigrant lives.
In August of 2014, Michael Brown was killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, his body left there for hours as a reminder to the Black residents in the neighborhood that their lives are meaningless to the American Empire. But this time the potential for a national uprising was actualized as thousands of mostly Black residents of Ferguson took to the streets and inspired rallies across the country and around the world. Only weeks after the non-indictment decision of Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, a New York grand jury failed to indict the officer who strangled Eric Garner to death on camera, and the movement went into high gear. Student walkouts, mass marches, and urban rebellions swept the country as people’s anger boiled over at the racist criminal (in)justice system.
In 2015, the African American Policy Forum coined the hashtag #SayHerName in an effort to raise awareness about state violence against women — including Black queer women and Black transgender women — and the campaign took off in the aftermath of the death of Sandra Bland, who died in jail while in police custody after being detained by an officer for a traffic stop.
Despite the ongoing protests, police killings of Black people have continued unabated, including the widely known cases of Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother who was killed in front of three of her four children. In addition to these adults, police have also killed many Black children in the past few years, including 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, 13-year-old Tyre King, and 15-year-old Darius Smith.
The continuing police murders of Black people, and the refusal of the court system to punish police for these crimes, has continued to fuel an explosion of protests — from the streets to the schools. Protest even erupted on NFL fields in 2016 when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat and then took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality. Following Kaepernick’s lead, student athletes from middle school through college took a knee against racism.
In Seattle, on Oct. 19, 2016, the movement for Black lives burst into the struggle for equitable education when some 3,000 educators came to school wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter, We Stand Together,” with many of them teaching lessons about the long history of the struggle against racism. This movement spread across the country with educators in Philadelphia and Rochester, New York, holding similar actions. Then, during the first school week of February 2018, educators from around the country organized the first national “Black Lives Matter at School” week of action. Educators taught lessons throughout the week that corresponded to the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Global Network organization and raised three demands: