Combating Racism – Building Strong Children

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

~ Frederick Douglass

For the past two weeks, I've written about the disparities in our educational systems between Black and White children in an effort to share some of our history and make a case for integrating schools.

But what about the curricula in our schools? Or the teachers? Or the condition of our school buildings? This newsletter is devoted to the ways we can help “build strong children.” I encourage you, even if you have no children of your own, to examine the ways we can all be more proactive in combatting the racism that hinders our Black youth.

1. If you or a friend or family member is an educator, as my niece Freddi currently is in Chicago, watch or share this this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about his experience as a Black student when he told people he wanted to be a scientist and astrophysicist. Tyson’s experience reminds me of a Black friend whose high school teachers tried to dissuade her from taking AP classes, because, with the best of intentions, they thought the AP classes would be “too much” for her. Talk to educators you know about being educators who support and encourage, not educators who dissuade.

2. Work on ensuring that Black educators are hired where Black children are being taught. If you want to know more about why and how this makes a difference for Black children, check out this episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast (which really begins at 3 minutes 50 seconds). There are some interesting ideas about how schools can support the achievement of Black students — from ensuring Black students aren’t closed out of gifted programs by using test results instead of white teachers’ recommendations; to the influence that having a Black teacher has on a Black student’s education; to the importance to fostering a school ethos where Black students think, “This school is here for me.” According to interviews by Gladwell, the probability of Black students with white teachers being identified as gifted is about 50% of the probability of a similar Black student taught by a Black teacher. Having a black teacher makes a difference. Studies have shown increased test scores and decreased chances a Black student will be suspended when Black students have a Black teacher. A study of 100,000 North Carolina Black students over a 5-year period showed that having even one Black teacher in grades 3-5 reduces the chance by 39% that a Black student will drop out of high school.

3. Black and low-income children are especially susceptible to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These can take a number of forms:

> Physical, emotional, sexual abuse
> Physical and emotional neglect
> Household dysfunction

  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Maternal depression
  • Incarcerated relative
  • Divorce
  • Homelessness

> Community Environments

  • Bullying
  • Racism
  • Community Violence
  • Discrimination
  • Poor housing quality
  • Poverty
  • Community disruption

Teachers need to provide caring, nurturing, and safe and stable environments in which they and school administrators help children to cope with these adversities. There are many ways that teachers, school counselors and administrators can create trauma-sensitive environments that build children's resilience to overcome ACEs:

  • Build their understanding of their skills,
  • Help them grow a true belief in their own abilities,
  • Connect them with other people and communities to build their support system,
  • Offer them a chance to contribute to the well-being of others; teach that giving service feels good,
  • Teach them to make decisions on their own so they experience a sense of control,
  • Acknowledge the child's experience of ACEs and how it may influence their behavior. Ask "What happened to you?" instead of "What's wrong with you?"
  • Empower them to problem solve and work through their struggles, and
  • Help them identify their emotions, talk about them and express them appropriately.

4. Find out how slavery, the Civil War, and the Jim Crow era are being taught in your local school. Advocate to be sure history is taught correctly and thoroughly, and that certain parts are not skipped over or barely mentioned. Advocate that many voices be used in the study of history. Is the school teaching about post-Civil War convict leasing, the parent to our current mass incarceration system? Are Black explorers, scientists, politicians, discussed? Are Black male and female authors on reading lists? A great starting list of classic African-American books for high school students is here. Is history explained correctly in history books? As an example of a failure to teach the reality of slavery and its ramifications, check out this image from the Freckle Student Dashboard.

There are a lot of great resources out, like:

5. If you or a friend is an educator, read or share bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, in which she writes about teaching students to “transgress” against racial, sexual and class boundaries to achieve the gift of freedom, which for hooks, is a teacher’s most important goal. And consider purchasing it from one of these Black-owned bookstores.

6. If you or a friend or family member is an educator, ensure anti-racism is in your teaching practice. Some resources for this are these books: We Want to do More than Survive by Bettina L. Love, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Guide for White Women who Teach Black Boys by Eddie More, Ali Michael, et al., and Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Other resources are:

For white teachers of middle school students, the website The Collaborative is an excellent resource.

Finally, each link on this page is a montage of video clips of teachers and students talking about teaching Black boys.

7. If you or a friend is an educator, buy books that feature people of color as protagonists and heroes, no matter the racial make-up of the class. A few good lists can be found on:

bell hooks, a Black American author, professor, feminist and social activist, and one of the heroes of our time, has authored five children’s books.

  • Happy to be nappy. Chris Raschka (illustrator). 1999.
  • Homemade Love. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2002.
  • Be boy buzz. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2002.
  • Skin again. Chris Raschka (illustrator). New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2004.
  • Grump groan growl. Chris Raschka (illustrator). New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2008.

You can also purchase educational toys that feature people of color, such as finger puppets or Black History Flashcards.

These items can be used year-round, not just in February, Black History Month. The racial make-up of students doesn’t matter — kids of every race need to know American history and be exposed to people from different races, religions, and countries. If you as a teacher, or your friends who are teachers, are interested, buy them for students’ classrooms. Don’t be hesitant to reach out to Facebook friends that you haven’t talked to in years.

8. Buy books, choose TV shows and movies, and opt for toys for your children, nieces, nephews, godchildren, etc. that show people from different races, religions, countries and that teach real American history. For suggestions, see #4 above.

9. When possible given the current pandemic, arrange for cultural exchanges and cultural ambassadors for your local school’s classrooms. The International Classroom program at UPenn and People to People International are options. The Department of Education has an excellent list of resources for cross-cultural interactions. Cultural exchanges via the internet can also be very valuable. Actual human interaction between people from different races, religions, and countries (i.e.: cultural ambassadors) and students in the physical classroom is ideal, but caution is necessary as long as coronavirus is spreading.

10. Seek out a diverse group of friends for your kids.

11. Write to your federal legislators in support of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2019, which will invest $100 billion over 10 years in fixing America’s public schools. Investing less in incarceration and more in education will go a long way. Because of limited education funding, schools desperately in need of renovations need to compete against each other to be next on the list for the renovation. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), a part of the Department of Education, reports that in 2012–2013, “21 percent of schools were in fair condition, and 3 percent were in poor condition.” Three percent of schools is millions of American children. The NCES also reports that “the building systems/features were rated as being in fair or poor condition in their permanent buildings in 14 to 32 percent of the schools.” This article gives examples of school facilities in poor condition across the country. Our kids deserve so much better.

12. Read this Education Week article by educator and activity Bettina L. Love about the harm done by schools to their Black students. (The article includes references to other powerful articles by the same author.) Ensure your local school/School Board has a clear and strong policy of zero tolerance for racial slurs, physically touching a child to discipline them, invasions of privacy like strip searches, hair style discrimination, etc. “Zero tolerance” means loss of a job, loss of a pension, and mandatory reporting to state Department of Education. If and when school officials don’t comply with their own policies, or when a school refuses to create these policies altogether, use resources at your disposal like social media, local news media, connections to the School Board, etc. to hold them accountable.

13. To raise children who understand race and are comfortable talking about it, several resources include:

These thirteen ideas are just a few of the many different approaches to improving the education of Black and White children in this country, particularly as it relates to our collective history and the racial educational inequities described in my last two newsletters. Assuring the healthy development of all children is essential for our society to achieve its full health, social, and economic potential. Teachers have the capacity to inspire or discourage. We need to engage diverse stakeholders in developing policies that will address the adversity that is embedded in communities but have their roots in systems. Families, communities, organizations, and governments - all of society - must be involved in order to achieve these goals. Whether you have school-age children or not, these actions can move us in the right direction. I encourage you to commit to one or more of them in the coming weeks.

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