My Friend Andrew
Andrew sat morosely, staring blankly at the dingy white wall in front of him. He was one of a dozen children in the GLC room. They were wholly isolated from one another. They were not permitted to speak or even to look at one another. Each sat apart from the rest, with his back turned to the others.
GLC is an acronym for Guided Learning Center. However, it is more a place for behavior modification and for punishment than for learning. It is in essence an elementary school jail where insolent elementary grade students are sent to atone for their defiance. You see, Andrew is a third grader, and today is the third time he’s been sent to “the hole” in the past two weeks. He will spend the balance of the school day intermittently completing worksheets and being scolded if he turns away from the direction of the dismal wall.
It might surprise many to know that Andrew is not the hard case that his GLC record portrays him to be. In fact, the infraction that landed him in the hole today was “Failure to Complete Assignment.” Yes. You read that correctly. Andrew was instructed to “write a paragraph,” which was defined by his teacher as “five to six sentences.” Andrew understood this to mean five lines of text, which in his assignment actually made up only four sentences. For many children this would be a great teachable moment. But not for Andrew. This error was characterized as “defiance” by the school’s principal. A previous infraction was “Failure to Secure a Signature” on a notice sent home to parents. As it turns out, Andrew’s mother was traveling. Not to worry. Andrew will pay the price for his mother’s “negligence.” Andrew’s teachers and administrators have been callous in mislabeling him. They have been excessive in punishing him, and it is they who have been defiant in refusing to acknowledge the possibility that their system might be a disservice to children like Andrew. It is clear to me that in the eyes of this school staff… Black Lives Do Not Matter.
I learned of these events as they were happening. Andrew’s mother is herself a former teacher, a well-respected educator, and a leader in her local community. She began advocating publicly for Andrew when it was clear that the school had no interest in treating him with fairness and dignity. Her initial response was to approach Andrew’s teacher directly. She wanted to make it clear to this teacher that she was an involved and concerned parent. She also sought to better understand the reason that her son was so frequently sentenced to GLC. Andrew’s teacher is a young, white female, less than two years removed from a college classroom, and supremely confident in her decisions to remand Black and Latino children to GLC. Andrew’s mother made little progress with this teacher.
Her subsequent response was to approach the administrator at Andrew’s school. She worked to impress upon him that the punishment being meted out to students was out of proportion to their supposed “offenses.” She questioned the wisdom of a school policy that would interpret a child’s learning process as an act of defiance. This administrator was recalcitrant. As the sole author of this school policy, he was unwilling to have it questioned.
With the support of friends, family and her professional colleagues, Andrew’s mother took her crusade to the district superintendent, to the school board, to parents of other children at the school, and ultimately to the local community. Having failed to receive a satisfactory remedy at any of these levels, Andrew’s mother withdrew her son from this school system and began homeschooling. Andrew’s mother demonstrated by her involvement, her advocacy and her sacrifice, that in her eyes… Black Lives Matter.
An Empty Slogan
Andrew’s experience is the experience of hundreds of thousands of Black children throughout this country, and it stands out as a shining example of the hypocrisy of the #BlackLivesMatter slogan.
Consider the chain of events. Each day, under the pretext of schooling, hundreds of thousands of Black children are subjected to the abuses of uncaring adults and the harassment of maniacal children. A spate of research studies on disparity in school discipline bears this out. Nationally, one in four (25%) African American secondary school students was suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 school year (Ferris, 2013). In fact, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students (Rudd, 2014). Although school leaders often point to a host of pathologies to explain the excessive discipline of Black children, the reality is that Black children are punished for “less serious and more subjective reasons” (Skiba, 2010). Students who have been suspended even once by ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school (Ferris, 2013). Estimates are that only 59% of Black males graduated from high school with their cohort in 2013 (Schott Report, 2015). Over 70% of African Americans who drop out of high school are unable to secure stable employment .
So, we willfully send our children to schools where they are stigmatized, criminalized, and ostracized. We allow the state to take our tax dollars for education. The state in turn fails to educate over one-third of our children, and mis-educates the rest. We fail to provide any alternative system of education. We fail to provide any alternative system for employment, so that our children become adults who are unable to provide for themselves and their families. And we have the unmitigated gall to proclaim to the world that Black Lives Matter. Unfortunately, by our collective mis-behavior we demonstrate daily to the world that… Black Lives Do Not Matter.
It is not my intent to insinuate that there are no people of African descent to whom Black Lives Matter. I do, however, want to distinguish the majority of us from the minority of us. There is a decided minority who, like Andrew’s mother, demonstrate by their actions that Black Lives Matter. For this minority, #BlackLivesMatter is not a slogan. It is a realization and a commitment that shapes their behavior every day.
Historically, it has been this minority who has worked to sustain us as a race. Often maligned and unappreciated by the very people for whom they sacrifice their lives, this minority is ignored by the pages of history. Black Lives Mattered to Men-Kepre-Ra-Tahuti-Maes, Hannibal of Carthage, Queen Nzingha, Nat Turner, Queen Nanny, Robert F. and Mabel Williams, Marcus Garvey, and Elijah Muhammad. What can we learn from these leaders?
When Black Lives Matter to us, we are unapologetically committed to the well-being of African people. This should be contrast against those who are more committed to ideology, or the well-being of “everybody,” or to some other group whose interests lie outside of the Black community. Invariably those with such amorphous commitments, whether knowingly or unknowingly aid the ambitions of those who would exploit the Black community.
When Black Lives Matter to us, we sacrifice time, money, resources, creature comforts, position, and reputation in an effort to secure the well-being of African people. This should be contrast against those who would rather capitulate, negotiate, dissociate, appropriate, expropriate, and misappropriate… they will do everything to avoid sacrificing anything.
When Black Lives Matter to us, our organizations cannot rely on the financial support of non-Blacks. This should be contrast against those whose work and existence or primarily subsidized by those outside of the Black community. I once hear this characterized as the golden rule. The one who provides the gold, makes the rules. It stands to reason, that organizations and individuals will do the bidding of those that pay the bills.
Making Black Lives Matter in Education
Fortunately, there are many things that each of us can do daily to reaffirm our commitment to the realization that Black Lives Matter. I will provide three examples here. First, insist on education that is life affirming for African people. Education can be life affirming in both its structure and its content. The type of education to which young Andrew was subjected is structurally dispiriting. Each day that a child is made to endure this type of derision, a part of their spirit dies. This is one of the reasons that our young people seem lost and hopeless. Life affirming content should be such that Black children learn to live rich and fulfilling lives. How to prepare and consume healthy food; how to groom and dress; how to select a husband or wife; how to nurture a relationship; how to rear children; and how to maintain a home are some of the topics that are no longer taught in schools. These topics are infinitely more relevant to our well-being than factoring quadratic equations or distinguishing between hydrophilic and hydrophobic compounds.
Second, create alternative educational spaces for Black children. If we really believe that Black Lives Matter, we would work to better prepare our children to have a high quality and quantity of life. We would not wait for those outside of our community to do this for us. Fortunately, we have many spaces that could be used. Our homes, churches, barbershops, beauty shops, parks, businesses and playgrounds can all serve as spaces for the education of Black children. Wherever there is a teacher and a learner, there is an alternative educational space. Look for ways to provide education in a space that you control.
Finally, support alternative educational options for Black children and families. Homeschooling families and organizations, Black owned and operated independent schools, African-centered schools, Black owned and operated community organizations, mentoring groups, and science clubs are all examples of alternative educational options. These individuals and organization could greatly benefit from the time, services and money of others in the Black community. Many other communities have supported substantial educational infrastructure for themselves. In most states, Black owned and operated independent schools are far outnumbered by Amish, Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim and Jewish schools. We can change this sad reality. Will you be part of the majority of us or the minority of us? Will you be satisfied to repost videos, SMH-ing them (#emptyslogansmakemefeelbetter)? Or will you demonstrate daily by your involvement, advocacy and sacrifice that in your eyes… Black Lives Matter?
Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit: ES2RP.org.