Monday, January 17, 2011

Dr. King's Dream: We're Still Working On It

Dr. King with his family
There are those that would think that the fight against racism is won. There are those that would believe that racism is on the decline at least, they are still wrong. I won't deny that huge strides have been made with regards to racism, however racism is still alive and kicking in the heart of America. How do I know? Because my students deal with it every day of their lives.

The most glaring example is the fact that I still have white students who refer to black students using that infamous slur, which shall not be typed from my computer. These students are parroting back the ignorance they hear at home and continuing to foster ill will between races.

But racism is more than that. Racism is not just someone from one race disliking someone from another race. Racism is an institution. Racism is an oppressive force that makes it difficult for people to succeed. Racism is embedded in our own society and heritage. Whether you think you are racist or not, if you are white, odds are you've benefited from racism in some way, even if you weren't aware of it.

This is called institutional racism and it's one of the reasons programs like Minority Teacher Recruitment Program and United Negro College Fund exist, to attempt to counteract the inherent advantage some white males have over other groups. To understand this, you have to go back several generations. This is not a new development and it's certainly not something that can be changed within a few years, or even a few decades. It begins all the way back when black people were denied basic rights based solely on the color of their skin. Their families were forcibly separated, they were discouraged from reading and received little to no education. Yes, I went all the way back to the slave days, because that's where it starts.

Who did you learn to read from? Your mother or father probably taught you the basics of reading. Imagine if they couldn't read. Who would have taught you then? Well, you probably wouldn't have learned until you were in school, right? What if your school was separate (but "equal") and received very little funding. What if everyone around you never finished school? What if finishing school was seen as joining the "bad" people? How excited are you to learn to read? How excited are you to finish school in general?

Now desegregation comes along. Now you get to be bussed to a school where the other kids hate you and do things to actively make you not want to be at school. How much do you like school right now? Your relatives begin to get defensive of the fact that they didn't receive an education, because hey, I'd get defensive, too! They say you don't need any education and you're just trying to "be white". Why would you ever want to do well in school?

It's time for you to buy a house, but oh, you can't buy a house there. Are you ever going to want to live there again? They turned you down because of the color you were born. College? Nope, you didn't do well in school, remember. You're stuck working a job with little benefits and now you have your own children. They don't want to go to school. You don't blame them, you didn't either. It sucked. The cycle continues for generations until the present.

There are those that would stand up and fight the good fight. That is not everyone and I can safely say that I don't know that I would. I don't know if I would have the strength to face such adversity and come out ahead. I don't know if I would be able to force my child to face such adversity to try to get a better life for him. Don't forget, you still have a group of men who ride around with white sheets over their faces and burn crosses in yards. They kill people. Are you still excited to fight the good fight? The leader against such oppression? He was just shot and killed leaving behind a wife and family. Do you still want to fight? The president that was a beacon of hope for you? He was just killed. You can pick which president you like, Lincoln or Kennedy, but they both died. You finally see a black president elected, but he has to stand behind a plate of bullet proof glass to accept his victory. The good fight's not looking so fun, is it?

And then No Child Left Behind comes along to make everything even better. Now, you can't be left behind! Now you're getting passed through whether you got an education or not. Now you just landed in my classroom and your reading level is around 4th or 5th grade at fifteen years old. Do you really want to succeed in my class?

These types of generational issues are not limited to African Americans. No, you can go to Appalachia and meet a whole group of white people that have their own story that is remarkably similar. The events have changed, but the absolute hopelessness still exists. Generational poverty is not an issue that exists just for black people. No, it's everyone. There are entire countries that are caught in the same issues that people steeped in generations of poverty in America face every day.

The issue is whether or not you will open your eyes. Will you see what they see? Will you understand the difficulties that they face? Will you look into the eyes of a young black child and see the decades of oppression holding her back? Or will you be blind? Will you be color blind and pretend that we are all on even foot? Will you make a grandstand and say that you don't see color? You don't see color because you don't have to. Being colorblind is a privilege reserved only for white people.

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