Remembering the Children In Values, Words and Deeds

A recent shooting at an office holiday party in San Bernadino, Calif. left many of us saddened, angry and frightened. Whether the attack was retaliatory or terroristic in nature, it underscored the point - yet again - that our peaceful lives can be disrupted at any point by a crazed coward with a gun. We may, like our courageous friends in Paris, determine not to be cowed by terrorists and hate-mongers, but our collective peace of mind is an unfortunate casualty of repeated gun violence, no matter how much we wish it were not so.

But as we mourn the loss of the privilege of carefree movement through our days, there's another set of victims we ought to consider: The children. We need to think carefully about those left behind, orphaned by indiscriminate killers, and those children in war-torn lands who never had such carefree privileges to begin with.

The San Bernadino killers had a 6-month-old baby. What will her life be like now? Many of those who were killed in that massacre were parents. Imagine the grief of their sons and daughters. It's unthinkable. And yet we must think on it. As adults, we must think about the children.

Europe is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Children are suffering (some even are perishing) as their families attempt to emigrate for a better life. Other children, stuck in neighborhoods wracked by extremism across the globe, have no chance at emigration. What will happen to them?

No matter the sins or struggles of the adults in their lives, the children in these situations are blameless.

When we denounce terrorists or generalize about an entire religious group, when we rationalize our justifications for keeping fleeing families out of our towns, if we aren't careful, we can forget the children.

Sadly, this is something that is easier and easier to do when we live our lives in a bubble of homogeny. Xenophobia, classism and racism all are driven by stereotypes and overgeneralizations. Refer to anything said in the past months by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for evidence that that is true.

Recent comments by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia underscore this point. In his opposition to race-based enrollment guidelines at the University of Texas (otherwise known as affirmative action) Scalia had this to say:

"There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less -- a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas. "They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them."

The words we use are clues to what we believe. Scalia is clear: He believes many Black students would fare better at less rigorous schools. Translation: Those Black students aren't as smart as their white counterparts. Therefore, they don't deserve the opportunities offered at a place like UT. Scalia is forgetting that these students are often the children born into disadvantaged communities, or families with few options. And he forgets how many students of color continue to succeed in Ivy League schools, public or private institutions of higher education.

In his rant, Scalia is nurturing his ignorance, and forgetting the children.

As distasteful as his commentary is, particularly considering his influential position, at least Justice Scalia is upfront about his bigotry. Far too many are more discreet about their biases. But language reveals expectations. When politicians, police officers, college professors, homeroom teachers or any of us use words such as "minority," "poor," "special education," or "slow," we unveil our implicit biases, telegraphing what we truly believe the children with those labels are capable of.

At NUA, we understand the nature of intelligence. We know that harboring low expectations is more than just a shame; it's an active barrier that denies children opportunities. We know that it is detrimental to label and separate children - whose plastic brains are fertile grounds - based on assumptions about intelligence and social ideas about who can learn and who can't.

When Trump and Scalia and untold others spout racist, xenophobic commentary, they spread fear and lies that comfort like-thinking adults - and forgets the children.

Many articles and scientific journals have confirmed what we at the NUA have always known: All our phobias and "isms" are made far worse when segregation and "like-thinking" is the order of the day.

"When surrounded by people 'like ourselves,' we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas," a recent article in the New York Times says. "Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation. Increasing diversity ... [prompts] sharper thinking for everyone."

How much harder would it be to deny a family of refugees safe harbor in our cities if we knew and laughed and dined with people who looked like them? How much more might our hearts break for the babies left behind by Middle Eastern suicide bombers if we had good friends from the Middle East? Diversity is not just a feel-good nicety. It makes us smarter. And perhaps it can keep us safe.

So how do we ensure that we are simultaneously remembering the children, keeping our biases at bay, and creating a more inclusive and tolerant world? I've said this before and I'll say it again: The classroom is the great equalizer for children and communities, here and around the world.

In the kinds of classrooms NUA and many others work to create, all children are welcomed, cherished, understood and believed in. Their home lives, circumstances and humble beginnings are considered, but are not the end of the line. In fact, their backgrounds are used to foster a diversity of thinking and the skills to appreciate differences while seeking out the beauty in what is the same.

With so many children in our cities and around the world in turmoil - because of terror, trauma, "soft" bigotry and harsh racism - it is up to us adults, educators, and defenders of the human race to fight for the values of social and human justice. Our classrooms, done right, can and should be "incubators of change."

Our children deserve nothing less. All of them. No matter where they come from or who their parents are.

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.