In the Wake of George Floyd: An Open Letter to College Educators Across the Nation

July
2020
Nadiyah Herron, Professor of Communication Studies, San Bernardino Valley College

As I dial in to the campus wide open forum on race relations, staff members begin to tell of untold horrors of encounters with racism. Relayed to them by students and personal experience, there is a pernicious undertone amongst colleagues: “Why should I care? This has nothing to do with me.” As human beings, our natural reaction to issues that do not directly affect us is to misunderstand, equivocate, or emotionally disconnect. For some sorely misguided perspectives, the civil unrest experienced after the murder of George Floyd was triggered by an isolated event by one member of law enforcement who exercised poor judgement. Many of my colleagues lament about the looting and just can’t understand the visceral reactions that subsequently unfolded across America. I’m immediately triggered and internally enraged that their focus is on the loss of property as opposed to the loss of human life. I breathe, steel myself beneath a familiar indignation and try to remain professional. As I scramble on the conference call to explain microaggressions in lay terms, I am rendered speechless. One professor admits, “I know that slavery was wrong. Students ask me if it really happened, but… (she stammers) I feel uncomfortable telling my students that slavery was wrong. I feel uncomfortable teaching it.” Wait. Did a college educated professor just say that out loud? Did a human being just say she has difficulty teaching that it is wrong to massacre another group of people based on their skin color? How have we embraced a culture in academia where some of the most brilliant minds in the nation feel uncomfortable teaching something that we should be shouting? We have nurtured a culture of fear, silence, and apathy under the guise of neutrality and integrity in instruction; we have nurtured a culture that is afraid to teach truth, that is, only if it can be neatly cited and peer reviewed. Perhaps it is a scary indication of the shortcomings of our educational system and as a result the very soul of our nation.

Do we as educators lack the resources or intellect to better serve our students? Unfortunately, the truth is much darker than we’d care to see: We lack the will to try. We lack the consciousness to take responsibility for the collective failings of student equity and the injustice ingrained in our educational system.

You should care because the classroom is one of the key battlegrounds against inequality, and students have consistently been leaders on the frontline. In 1947, before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, a courageous Mexican American farming family dared to question the law and the conscience of the American justice system. They fought for equal schooling for their children. They won. The Mendez v. Westminster case laid the groundwork for the case that would upend segregated classrooms across the country. Sixty-three years later, we are still waiting for equity in the classroom, wildly grasping at diversity through a haze of racial tension as inequality persists.

You should care because we know that research shows that students internalize unfair treatment they experience in the classroom (Tauber, 2007). When you see them as limited, small and subhuman, they begin to believe the same about themselves. We should not tolerate such conduct from a professional segment of persons, who have been entrusted to educate, enlighten, and inspire. The truth is, if the classroom is the symbolic barometer of the climate of our nation, then instructors must intentionally embody the role they play being the link to the future health of our nation or risk certain ideological genocide. We must have equality in the classroom and restructure the function of instructors who refuse to change.

Classrooms are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Of the current undergraduate college student population, 52.9 percent are white, 20.9 percent are Hispanic, 15.1 percent are Black, and 7.6 percent are Asian, while the demographics of the faculty that serve them remain stubbornly monochromatic (US Census, 2018). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, among full-time professors, 81 percent are white, 11 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander. Black males, Black females, and Hispanic males accounted for 2 percent of full-time professors, while Hispanic females and American Indian/Alaska Native individuals make up 1 percent or less. There is a glaring gap in representation between faculty and the student population we claim to serve. These statistics speak to the chasms and polarization that have long impeded meaningful progress in the aim of social justice and mobilizing for change in the classroom.  Moreover, this profound gap is the primer for a slurry of potentially harmful interactions, similar to what we saw with Gordon Klein, the accounting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. His response to a question related to the recent civil unrest earned him a suspension and a petition calling for his dismissal. Furthermore, this resulted in a catastrophic break down and loss of trust in the sacred relationship of teacher and pupil. If academic minds can come together and solve Fermat's last theorem, we can solve the problem of racism in our lifetime. If we can put a man on the moon, then surely, we can achieve improved student equity, and social justice in the classroom. We can begin by closing the representation gap in institutions of higher learning across the country. We should care because the future of our nation will look like the student population we serve today. Their tomorrow rests upon our shoulders.

If a Black student makes it to your classroom, know that they have defied the odds. Know that their existence in your classroom means that they have overcome and continue, with an impossible courage, to participate in a system designed for their failure: A system that regularly inflicts penalty based on the color of their skin, through systemic forces, economics, educational bias, institutional inequality, and hostile interpersonal encounters on Black persons in this country. A system that created laws to prevent them from gaining wealth and then criminalizes their poverty. A system that would make it illegal for them to read and then punish them for being illiterate. A system designed to send them from the classroom to the prison pipeline. A uniquely American system that assaults them on every front.  From disparities in their healthcare to a mass media that manufactures and reinforces disparaging portraits of their identity by telling you that they (as Black people) are sub-human, validating the abuse they receive. Know that when these students sign their names on the papers and assignments that they turn in to you, they are more than likely signing the name of the man who owned their great-great-grandparent in slavery. Pause. Realize how deep the veins of systemic racism run. Know that they’ve more than likely had to anesthetize themselves from the pain of systemic barrages of mechanisms of subordination over their lifetime in order to sustain some psychological bandwidth for normal living. In truth, Abraham Maslow would be perplexed by their perseverance: they’ve been deprived in all their deficiency needs yet they still seek to fulfill their full potential.

Many are defeated before they even walk through the door. Even still, they walk through your classroom door. In spite of all these obstacles planted by seeds of racism, they still walk through the door. They are often met with teachers who express their dissent for their skin through microaggressions in the classroom and a pathologizing of their culture. These affronts are coupled with assumptions of criminality (Blacks often portrayed as violent in America, when they more often than not are on the receiving end of that violence), resulting in over policing on college campuses. They face ascriptions of their intelligence, while they are more accurately experiencing historic growth in education. “The percentage of Black high school graduates enrolled in college jumped last year to 70.9%, exceeding that of both Whites and Hispanics. Further, high school graduation rates for Black students rose to over 70%, which outpaced the growth for any other group” (Nielson, 2015). Just because they’re brilliant doesn’t mean they do not feel. Know that, ironically, the first time many of them experienced racism was in the classroom. Know that they will more than likely continue to experience the weight and trauma of racism throughout their lifetime. I know this, too, has nothing to do with you. So the question remains: Why should you care?

As the nation recovers from the polarizing events that follow the death of George Floyd, and we return to our campuses, classrooms and community, as educators, we must acknowledge some pretty daunting realities. This is not just about the death of George Floyd. We must acknowledge that his death is only a singular occurrence in a scathing epidemic of collective race-based violence and systemic oppression perpetrated on Black people in this country since its inception. We must cease in our failure to recognize the undeniable truth: America is a country built on a foundation of hate that encompassed slavery, white supremacy, and mass genocide. A foundation that cannot stand if we choose to. Will we continue to be passive and intentional participants propagating the system of racism through prejudice, fear, apathy, and silence in the classroom? Or will we begin to develop a consciousness to be a part of something bigger than ourselves? I beseech you, colleagues, to be a part of the change. No, I beseech you, colleagues, to be the change! You have the opportunity to be a part of a solution for justice that will ripple through generations.

The academic community must adopt an iterative process of developing and enforcing meaningful strategies in the aim of peace, from systemic violence and racism aimed at minoritized communities in our educational system to society as a whole. We are here today, because a man, propelled by centuries of racial injustice, kneeled on another man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. There were three other people there, and had one taken one of those seconds to speak up, we might not be here today: A simple admonition of the excessive force. My call to action is simple: Speak up. Say something. “Because of the prejudice and racism inherent in our environments when we were children, I assume that we cannot be blamed for learning what we were taught (intentionally or unintentionally). Yet, as adults, we have a responsibility to try to identify and interrupt the cycle of oppression. When we recognize that we have been misinformed, we have a responsibility to seek out more accurate information and to adjust our behavior accordingly” (Tatum, 1992). Inequality persists in the classroom; it is time that we adjust our behavior accordingly. This will require collective efforts of deliberative engagement, authentic dialogic interaction, with inter-organizational, interdivisional, and interdisciplinary alignment. The future of this country will be decided in our classrooms. The future of this country will be shaped by you. It. Is. Time. To. Care.

References

National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Fast Facts: Race/Ethnicity Of College Faculty (61). https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61#. [Accessed 14 June 2020].

Nielson Company. (2015). The Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse. https://diversity.eku.edu/sites/diversity.eku.edu/files/african-american-consumer-untold-story-sept-2015_1_1_pdf.pdf.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. (1992). Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: the Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom. Harvard Educational Review, Spring ed..

Tauber, Robert T. (2007). Classroom Management: Sound Theory and Effective Practice. 4th ed. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.

US Census Bureau. (2019, June 4). More Than 76 Million Students Enrolled in U.S. Schools. The United States Census Bureau.  www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/school-enrollment.html.

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