Kristin and Troy Jackson are proud parents of Collin and Caleb Jackson, happy 11-year-old twin boys. Both are reserved, the Renton mom explains, until they know you better.
Last year, Collin and another student were engrossed in reading their books — not following the teacher’s instruction to transition to another activity. Collin often reads when he’s supposed to be doing something else, she explains, so there’s no doubt that the incident occurred. But the other student, who was white, was reading too, and when he was caught, he told on Collin. Thinking back, Kristin says it’s almost as though the white child already knew, at just 9 years of age, that he could use privilege to influence a punitive outcome for Collin.
Both boys were questioned by the teacher, but the teacher believed the white student’s account. Collin was reprimanded, but the other boy was not. “He was really upset,” says Kristin. “He felt the teacher was calling him a liar.”
In that moment, for every child who observed that incident, and for Collin, who experienced it, long-held ideas of black inferiority were validated. When this offense lands on a black child, it brings an awareness at first, and a reminder thereafter, of his difference, how he is set apart, a member of the non-preferred class, and this reinforces, time and again, a sort of societal badge of servitude, which begets resentment and anger.
This is not an isolated incident. In 2012, Seattle Public Schools was the subject of a federal investigation into the imbalanced severity and frequency of its discipline of black students. In the Greater Seattle area and nationally, the black male student demographic has consistently ranked as most often removed from the classroom, suspended, and expelled from school.
“They would kick me out of class for talking too much, for 30 or 40 minutes at a time,” Logic Amen, assistant principal at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, told City Arts magazine of his time in grade school. Eventually, through this loss of instruction, Amen says, he truly didn’t know what was going on in class. But this is the norm, he says, “in an overtly racist academic institution.”
Outcome inequalities from low test scores to truancy to high dropout rates to inability to obtain and retain employment to crime, incarceration, recidivism; and impacts to mental and physical health and wellness, even death, aren’t indicative of the mindsets of black students. These aren’t cultural markers.
It is educators, a largely white, female populace, who are intimately linked to a wide range of outcomes and factors critical to the lives of black boys. In fact, when black teachers are managing the classroom, behavior-related removal of black boys is reduced significantly; by 2 percent to 3 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
So how do we mend this disparity? The answer could be cultural competency development at every level of the academic hierarchy, says Erin Jones, former OSPI Assistant Supervisor turned independent consultant in the field of equitable education.
A black woman adopted by white Scandinavian parents, Jones was raised in the Netherlands, without the ever-present protective consciousness that comes with being black and raised in the U.S., but she’s come to know it well.
“It is our primary role as educators to be a mirror to reflect the beauty and talents that reside within each student,” Jones said in a recent lecture.
Jones says that it’s the duty of school districts, boards and educators to first gain knowledge themselves in the practice of equity literacy, and then erect a framework of equitable education, throughout their administrations. Her conversation is all about doing equity, no longer just talking about it. Her whole being promotes this vision.
Jones most recently spoke at the Teaching Equity South Sound Conference, closing out what has been, for her, a whirlwind year of equity initiatives. Jones has keynoted, led or participated in more than 20 equity trainings in the greater Seattle area and beyond in just the past month.
Raising black men in the inequitable context that seems to define many American cities today takes advocacy, bravery, consistency, strategy and diligence. This climate demands more than good parenting.
This is a call to action for true educators. What would it take for an educator to first learn and then deliver a culturally relevant, culturally sensitive quality education? What would the Greater Seattle area look like 10 years from now, if today we began to require ethnic studies training, curriculum and delivery?
Reach out to change-makers like Erin Jones. Learn to recognize subtle biases and inequities. Prioritize consideration of the needs, challenges and barriers experienced by black students in each discussion and each decision about classroom, school or district policy and practice.
Let us all finally begin to uphold and highlight the humanity and value of black boys, who should have the protection, care, support and right to someday become black men.
Carla Bell is a Seattle-area freelance writer focused on civil and human rights, social impacts, abolition, culture and arts. Her work has appeared in Ebony magazine and a number of other publications.