By: Imani J. Jackson
“Make America Think Again,” several protestors’ signs read at a Jacksonville, Florida Sister March to the historic Women’s March on Washington. So far, 673 solidarity marches have been recorded and nearly five million people participated worldwide. The signs, a play on President Donald Trump’s co-opted Ronald Reagan catchphrase, and several Plural-led speeches against Trump’s lengthy “isms” history, reminded me that American anti-intellectualism breeds high human costs. I also remembered that teenagers of color care about and deserve to learn about the history, present and future of their nation.
For people who are Black or Brown and/or prioritize Black or Brown youth, classroom politics still color societal recognition of our humanity. When Darren Wilson shot and killed a teenaged Mike Brown, communities of color, especially and always Black people, mourned his stolen life. That he was slated to start college in a few days magnified a refutable, though repeated community teaching that education takes people out of their current conditions and positions them for their dreams.
Sometimes it does. Sometimes, regrettably, it does not.
But, to be Black at this historical moment is to inter-generationally err on the side of self-preservation. So we pursue educational access and attainment because it stacks cards on the survival side. Thus the fight for educational equity, especially for youth of color, continues.
To learn more about our present need for education advocacy and a hopeful turn toward Black and Brown intellectualism, I consulted longtime professor Dr. Darlene Conley. Dr. Conley is an Adjunct Professor of sociology and criminology at Seattle University. Via telephonic interview and email she shared her perspective about Trump’s education choices, suggesting that education is foundational to democracy and reminding us that culturally sensitive curriculums can affect young people of color’s belief in personal and professional freedom.
“The movement against public schools especially epitomized by [Betsy] DeVos has exacerbated the problems,” Dr. Conley said.
DeVos is especially problematic because she, as a billionaire philanthropist who has no experience with public education and has ties to anti-LGBT organizations, thought “grizzly bears” were a great enough risk in schools that they warrant gun possession on campuses.
Conley further explained that the notion that moneymaking business people, especially when they are white or non-members of the communities they serve, should take charge of largely of-color public school populations does a disservice to those students. “There is a current ideology that business people can do everything and there is a growing anti-education bias,” she said.
While the West Coast does not wear the electoral shame of electing Trump and the presidential election results inspired discussions like Calexit (when Californians’ proposed a Brexit-style secession), Dr. Conley referenced covert racism in education there too. In Washington, she said white philanthropists have done work with Seattle schools without consulting education experts, instead relying on entrepreneurs and engineers. She also called attention to Washingtonians’ continued quest for fully funded K-12 education.
Dr. Conley asserts that youth of color need to see highly educated professionals of color to help them envision successful futures rather than the decidedly white supremacist and disproportionately male administration Trump is assembling. While the professor placed heavy emphasis on the local politics of education in Washington, she also cited America’s post-Civil War history and public education being a selling point of democratic society.
Through propping up people like DeVos, deemed “a force for privatizing a vital public institution in America” in the New Republic, Republican male protectionists spare her another round of questioning about her conflicts of interest for the post. This is a Trump-style pattern of pockets-based cronyism which is in direct opposition with the increasingly diverse student bodies of young people in America.
While concerns about the availability and quality of educational institutions for Black and Brown young people hover in the foreground, the current president certainly gives adults plenty to focus on as well.
We cannot accept, for ourselves or the generations of young Black and Brown people to follow us, un-thinking dialogues presented as policy or fact. We must resist the faux legitimacy of alternative facts, “post-truth,” and fake news. We must learn and teach our true history so that public school students see the dangers of a president who proposes federal intervention in cities like Chicago rather than usable solutions for the Black and Brown communities there.
We must ensure that our young people know about the school-to-prison pipeline for which they are disproportionately at-risk. This education must proceed despite Trump’s attempts to sell America on industrial models of work and worth that neither he nor his allies thought aspirational for their own children. And for those who, unlike Trump and his administration, cannot stand to leave utter mayhem to their progeny, we must learn how not to make the present worse.
We must heed the GenForward findings, namely those that show that “Many young adults of all racial and ethnic groups believe the lives of people of color are going to become worse under Trump while the lives of whites will improve. About half also expect the lives of women and poor people to become worse.”
Now is the time for vulnerable young people to learn from and alongside educators and activists in their own communities. We can teach youth of color in a spirit similar to the leaders of the Women’s March on Washington – through experiential learning and collective action.
All of that starts when we teach and empower our young people. We simply can’t afford to let anyone else do it for us.
Photo courtesy CSPAN