I am an educator. Every day, I see beautiful, eager black and brown faces ready to learn. They are excited. They are curious. And they are some of the poorest and ______. Well you probably know what I'm about to say next something about the "achievement gap".
Since No Child Left Behind, the achievement gap, i.e. the underperformance of students of color has been widely accepted. The education reform industrial complex has cast a wide net of incoming and outgoing data, exposing the extent of the gap and tinkering with possible solutions. Many (public, charter, non-profit and private sector institutions) operate from the premise that the students' neighborhoods and lack of resources contribute to the gap and hence more time, more snacks, more caring adults, more structure, more mantras, more technology, even "affinity groups"--NYC's Education Chancellor's latest mantra, will fill the gap and therefore get black and brown students ready for college and careers.
However, during the 1800s scientists including Josiah Clark Nott promoted the idea of genetic racial inferiority to justify slavery. Despite being repeatedly discredited, again in the 1990's the notion of the pseudo-science called The Bell Curve postulated black and brown academic deficits were due to their inherent inferiority. According to this unenlightened viewpoint, Blacks (in the 19th, 20th century and perhaps into perpetuity) were doomed to be incompetent, slow, lazy and beyond redemption.
The Bell Curve blames the victim. The Achievement Gap purports to be progressive and aims to help the victim. The Achievement Gap is an evolutionary leap past racial fault lines towards a more egalitarian society. Some educators even embrace "education is a civil right". However, over the past few years, a new gap has been gaining national attention, one thanks to books such as The New Jim Crow, highlight disproportionally high incarceration rates between whites and communities of color. This phenomenon is dubbed the "justice gap". Basically like the achievement gap, it highlights external forces contributing to black and brown peoples' inability to receive or achieve justice or equal protection under the law.
Metrics of a Marginalized Sub-nation
Unfortunately, our nation has not yet fully embraced the justice gap. While according to a 2014 poll by PRRI, 51% of whites disagree that blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, 73% of blacks disagree. This 20-point perception gap speaks to W.E.B. DuBois' 1903 assertion that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line". Sixty years later in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King marched to the nation's capital proclaiming "the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." Yet 50 years after "I Have a Dream" not even 16% of blacks believe that 'our' most basic and fundamental rights apply to them? How? Or more importantly, why would 73% of blacks state they are still tied to chains of discrimination? Why do African-Americans have such low expectations of our justice system? How does the rest of the world view this superpower of democracy while seeing footage of citizens crying foul decade after decade?
Carrot for the 40 Acres and a Mule
Discrimination? In the 21st century? What does that sound, look and feel like? Well, like energy, racism has not been destroyed, it has just changed form. Just like President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in 2003, and yet we are still at war, blacks are still wailing "A Change 'Gonna Come" seven years after 2008's post-racial platitudes.
The persistence of the perception gap about justice is rooted in the denial of the 14th Amendment. As if the first 10 were not enough, the 14th was passed specifically to address the justice gap, which engulfed blacks in the post-bellum south. In fact, "Equal protection under the law" was resuscitated several times throughout history including Brown vs. Board of Ed., and also for women's suffrage, sports and other pressing issues. For all these struggles, what do we have to show for it? Why in 2015 is justice still missing in action #jmia and what are we doing about it? In what ways are we progressing towards a "more perfect union"?
Perception is Not Reality
The truth is that what really needs fixing is something only a few, like President Obama, are willing to speak about, perhaps because it is so daunting a task. Through the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, the President is addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color...... doing the hard work to grow drug-resistant and violence-resistant kids, especially in communities of color, so they never become part of that officer's life experience. James Comey, FBI Director
Instead of calling for sweeping police reform and racial sensitivity retraining, the media fixates on the background of those assaulted by the police. Unfortunately, the propensity to view blacks through the lens of domestic enemy combatants, clouds many from enacting "equal protection under the law". This pathological position, analogous to the Bell Curve, views blacks as guilty until proven innocent. Hence seeming benign actions are misconstrued as violent and aggressive. In fact a recent study published in the APA concluded that "black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent" which would explain the two second delay before Cleveland Police Officer Timothy A. Loehmann killed 12 year old Tamir Rice, who held a bb-gun. The patently unqualified officer who was previously fired from another police department in reporting the killing stated,
"Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20."
The permutations for blaming the victim through black pathology abound- "he", had a wallet, a bb gun, was running, was walking down a dark stairwell, was selling untaxed cigarettes, had on a hoodie, was playing music too loud, etc. Are any of these worthy of skipping past a right to a fair trial (5th amendment), obtaining a warrant before search and seizure (4th amendment) and protection from cruel and unusual punishment (8th amendment)? Many states and many Americans are against the death penalty, yet it is acceptable and sanctioned by prosecutors and grand jury after grand jury for so many black men and children to be killed summarily?
On the flip side, there are numerous documented cases of white mass shooters, who are armed and have criminal intent, who are somehow able to be subdued, apprehended by law enforcement and stand trial. In fact, in a CNN compilation of the 25 deadliest mass shooters, I counted seven who received a trial including the Aurora Batman shooter and Scott Evans Dekraai who killed eight people but was arrested without incident as he tried to leave the scene. This is disturbing because this confirms there are ways to handle individuals who are armed and dangerous, yet unarmed black men and boys are not always afforded that opportunity. Indeed, a recent report called "Who Are the Police Killing", states "The rates for younger African Americans remain 4.5 times higher, and for older African Americans 1.7 times higher, than for other races and ages.
As a teacher of history I'm a bit bemused. How do I teach black and brown students about our founding documents and also current events? What are students really absorbing if I follow the script of the authorized, decontextualized curriculum? What lessons are they learning about equal enforcement under the law in the 21st century?
Beyond Keeping Calm: Keep Questioning
Achieving is an equal opportunity pursuit, a paradigm of unconditional justice. However, for the justice gap, America has not been able to realize its full potential to allow "liberty and justice for all". In-Justice unfortunately has 20/20 vision, thus perceptions become disastrous realities. Despite these heart-wrenching discrepancies, I'm still encouraged by recent uprisings. Social media is buzzing and paradigms are shifting. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. depicted in the movie Selma, would be pleased by the "fierce urgency of now" put forth by the #StolenLives #BlackLivesMatter #DreamDefenders #BrownFriday and #UnarmedCivilian hashtags and mobilization, nation and worldwide.
Conversely, people are still not able to fully embrace the #justiceGap. Last year some #BlackLivesMatter supporters were confused about shutting down the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "What does Snoopy have to do with Mike Brown?" Unable to make the leap, MLK would argue
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere"
citing Macy's recent $650,000 settlement to black shoppers who, after spending their hard-earned money in the store, were detained by the police and accused of credit card fraud. How could black people acquire that much money legally? Apparently, when you are black your green doesn't count? Again, the penchant to pathologize black people overruled good sense and the rule of law.
There is still work to be done. After the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, there were many references made to the rule of law; a tone-deaf statement to those languishing in the justice gap. What does the rule of law mean to Ramarley Graham's family? He was chased by undercover NYPD officers into his home without a warrant and shot and killed in his bathtub with his grandmother and six year old brother watching. The officer wasn't even charged. How do I face my students the next day? I am tasked with closing "the achievement gap". But what use is getting them to read and write on grade level if they could be subtracted by police who shoot first and tell lies to walk away freely?
"The level of fear about youth safety in the presence of cops is so severe that one parent developed a dress and behavior code to prevent their children from being 'unfairly targeted and potentially harmed by cops." Upworthy- based on a Nightline interview of attorney and author Lawrence Otis Graham
Common Core Standards mandate students to engage in critical reading of non-fiction text. If that happens, then my students will relive the moment Fredrick Douglass experienced to lead him to assert, "I truly knew the extent of my bondage". Indeed the achievement gap will never close until we as a society, especially educators, tackle the justice gap head-on.