Make America Great: Get All Our Children "Off the Reservation" 

About a week or so ago, ESPN sports journalist Bomani Jones caused a ruckus by wearing a provocative T-shirt on television.

The "offensive" shirt was a spoof of the Cleveland Indians mascot and branding. Instead of a feather-wearing, red-faced man, Jones' shirt featured a blond-haired white man with a dollar sign adorning his head. Instead of "Indians," the mascot represented a fictitious team called the "Caucasians."

On social media and in the blogosphere, white people (mainly) were outraged. To which Bomani replied: "If you're quiet about the Indians and now you've got something to say about my shirt, I think it's time for introspection."

Yes, I think it is time for some introspection. It's time for all of us to give some real thought to America's racist and destructive history, beginning as far back as our country, as we know it, begins - with Native Americans.

Once a year we celebrate Christopher Columbus, an invader and plunderer with a bad sense of direction. But there's really no disputing that Columbus didn't find this country. Indigenous people already were here, working the land, in community with the animals, thriving. 

But after the Europeans arrived, and the Native Americans were hoodwinked, massacred and eventually conquered, slowly but surely their history began to be rewritten. 

Today, of the diminished numbers of Native American people left on this continent, many suffer from shockingly disproportionate rates of alcoholism, suicide, diabetes, tuberculosis and other diseases. Their struggles, however, are all but invisible. The "Indians" and their problems have been relegated to far-flung reservations.

Sadly, African Americans know that story all too well. Our African ancestors were bamboozled and brutalized too. We understand the cry of our Native American brothers and sisters, because we also bear the scars of America's sins.

Today, while America sits captivated by the presidential debates and nonstop election year campaigning, 3.5 million educators valiantly attempt to educate the nation's schoolchildren and youth. All the while, millions of children and their families, in cities or urban and rural centers, struggle with the challenges of poverty. The potential of unfulfilled dreams looms large in a cycle that seems never to be broken. 

Author Charles Murray made the startling prediction in 1994 that in thousands of neighborhoods across the United States, "the underclass will become even more concentrated spatially than it is today." In his book The Bell Curve, Murray proclaimed that by "custodial state, we have in mind a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation's population while the rest of America tries to go about its business."

Twenty-two years later, Murray's prediction has become a reality. As with Native Americans, too many Americans have turned a blind eye to the consequences of concentrating poverty, crime and despair in disadvantaged communities while not affording all children a pathway to educational achievement. Instead, indifference has built ramps to the newest "reservation" that breeds crime, community blight, poor health and an education system that prolongs these inequalities.

Compare the statistics on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to those of African Americans living in Detroit, Jackson, Miss., or Baltimore. Our urban cities are shinier, perhaps, but our problems are the same. 

In fact, our urban "reservations" grow larger every day.

If this election is to stimulate a shift in American values, we must begin where change is often forgotten first and yet where it is needed most - on the reservations. All of them.

If the promise of America is to be realized, then the hope of those who struggle with poverty must be addressed. The future of American democracy is framed by how, as a nation, we respond and come to terms with both race and poverty, and the vestiges of our country's first crimes. 

The organization I support, the National Urban Alliance of Effective Education, is moving toward a partnership with the Onamia/Osseo schools in Minnesota, where half of the student population is Native American. The pedagogy we teach may be as crucial there as it is in New York City, Buffalo, NY, Minneapolis or Eden Prairie, Minn. Using culturally appropriate strategies, educators create opportunities to "get off the reservation."  With district educators who take the lead, work is underway to spotlight the way to bring more dynamic peoples to the proverbial American table.

But these efforts alone can't solve what hundreds of years of brutality, theft, discrimination and segregation have created.

While there is no one simple answer to education and social reform, there is indisputable proof that an educator with high expectations supported by exemplary research, engaged students, supportive family and community engagements are critical ingredients to educational achievement and improved life stories for our young. 

Future programs - and bigger and well-funded initiatives - must support American teachers, the public school system, its staff and the surrounding community where "reservations" continue to flourish and grow. To get beyond rhetoric, we must continue to foster the belief that public education should combine policies, programs, practices, data and beliefs that lift and accelerate all student achievement.  Not to do so will ultimately imperil the elusive American dream. 

All students matter--even the ones we conveniently forget about.

This election must reassert our commitment to education, equity and freedom of opportunity in America. There is no reason for society to continue to place Native Americans, Black people, Latinos and poor people on "reservations" without the chance of escape, when we have found an effective way, through education and through dynamic socio-cultural-economic partnerships, to reach today's youth and to give them the hope for leaving these "reservations" forever.  The data in support of this is there.

It is high time for the vestiges of institutional racism to be eliminated so that we never relegate Americans into "minority" categories  -- those which are lesser than, not equal to the false, long-standing myth of white supremacy.  

Yes, let's continue to make America great, shall we?

Let's write better life stories for all of America's citizens, not just those whose ancestors came here willingly, but also - perhaps even especially - those whose forebears were forced here, or were here long before any of us ever were. Time to reconcile America's "original sin." 

This land is your land...this land is my land...


Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.