“The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” A room full of teachers sat and listened to this wisdom from the great and brave James Baldwin 50 years ago.
It is our commitment as an organization to own and live this responsibility. Late last week, the President announced he was creating a commission to promote a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history” and encourages educators to teach about the “miracle of American history.” A couple of weeks earlier, he said federal government employees would no longer receive training on the role race plays in our lives and in America society, learning based on critical race theory.
Learning about race, bias, and their complex role in this country is the most American conversation we can have right now. Just as a movement began decades ago to teach young people about the atrocities of the Holocaust, we need such a movement to ensure students learn about both the oppression placed upon and the significant and heroic contributions made by Black, Indigenous and people of color throughout our nation’s history. It is by understanding and reckoning with history, in all of its complex realities, perspectives and experiences, that we can better understand the present and see the way forward to disrupting inequitable systems from segregated schools to lack of access to rigorous learning experiences for students of color. That is how we can improve life for all Americans.
As education leaders, we play a critical role in this movement. It is inherent in our role as school and school system leaders to guide educators and students through conversations, critical thinking, and deeper understanding about racism and bias, to provide a curriculum and learning opportunities in which each student and each educator sees themselves and also learns about the experiences of people unlike themselves. Students deserve to know the complex truth of our history, not a whitewashed version, to understand that disparities experienced by BIPOC families comes not from a lack of will or effort, but from generations of oppression, discrimination and systemic racism that can only be undone by educating this next generation.
We very much want for young people what Mr. Baldwin envisioned: “The purpose of education is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white… To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.”
It is through this honest teaching and conversation we can begin to climb down the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate — as a nation, with discrimination and bias motivated violence on the rise, we sit dangerously close to genocide at the pyramid’s peak. The racism and bias in this country is no secret to most Americans: In a recent poll, 75% of Americans said they believe it is more difficult to be a Black person than a white person in this country. On top of that, the percentage of Americans who say race relations in our country are good is the lowest the Gallup poll has recorded in the 20 years it has collected this data.
We ask education leaders across this great country to join us as we triple down on our work to support school and school system leaders in their journey to understand and disrupt racist systems and structures. We have heard from many of you who are clammering for this guidance, this learning. Thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable enough to have these conversations, to question, analyze, think critically about our biases and our history from all perspectives – that is “the miracle of America.”