The Blackout (Why #BlackLivesMatter Owes Nothing To You)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose, Race

“If I woulda known what I knew in the past, I woulda been blacked out on your a …” – Kanye West, “Black Skinhead

At any given moment, any given rally, for any presidential candidate, a set of protestors under the Black Lives Matter umbrella could bumrush the stage and lay out a list of names, stymieing the rah-rahs of the onlookers and bystanders in the crowd. The focus on Senator Bernie Sanders and former Senator Hillary Clinton have been particularly poignant because, for decades, the Democratic Party has taken the vote from people of color for granted, as if abstaining from the political process isn’t an option. Yet, as Kelly Wickham is quick to remind us, the BLM movement doesn’t actually have to do the bidding of any particular party. The means and ends are justified because the end is equity in survival.

So when my name was invoked in a discussion around the intersections of #BlackLivesMatter and public school advocates, I laughed because the education space has a similar set of leaders vying for the front of the discussion. I’ve seen a crowd of so-called white progressives converge on my blog the last time I pleaded with them to decentralize their narrow concerns and fight for equity by putting race, class, and gender in the center of the struggle for educational equity. For what it’s worth, it’s the same group that will have a visceral reaction to hearing that the New York State opt-out movement was mostly suburban and white, but did nothing to highlight the cases across America where students of color opted out.

In a few blogs I’ve read this year, the authors of certain posts (I’m not giving them views) thought it was high time for the leaders of the BlackLivesMatter movement to become allies with pro-public education folks and fight against the ostensible Gates / Walton / Broad / TFA coalition and set America straight. The comments on these posts were rife with quandaries about the leaders of the BLM, their intentions, and dubious connections to the very foundations public school advocates profess to hate.

Here’s a sampling:

Are the #BlackLivesMatter leaders part of TFA? How do we know that we can trust people of color to govern themselves with the likes of President Barack Obama, a Black person, leading the charge against public schools? Before he uttered the phrase “I can’t breathe,” did a younger Eric Garner say “I can’t learn?” Is any organization with Black people in it complicit because they take Gates money? Are the decontextualized lessons of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life appropriate for me to use right now and is he the only black person then and now that I can rely on to tell me the truth on Black lives? Can I really chant Black Education Matters while still centering myself in the activism of people who aren’t me?

I’m speaking in hyperbole, but I’m also not far off. Just before I almost hit the comment button, I thought to myself, “What would this bring me besides more burning bridges?”

Then again, if the bridges are that flammable, then maybe they were going to burn regardless.

The historical amnesia is astounding at best. Even a cursory reading of the history of public schools would lead the reader to conclude that people of color have disproportionately gotten the rawest end of the deal in our schools. While I am a firm believer that public schools are the only mechanism for checks and balances for equity, I also recognize that, before Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made snide remarks at the aforementioned suburban white moms, commissioners and superintendents of schools have historically ignored moms of color since public schools were created. Our school system isn’t just recently dysfunctional; it works as intended and has been resistant to progressive change as a legacy. Most initiatives towards equity have been scaled back if not outright squelched, de jure and de facto, including integration and equitable school funding. The remedies for such progressive policies included private schools and redlining. The actual status quo is surely intact.

In the swinging pendulum between who controls schooling, people of color have rarely had agency.

If there was a faux choice between the movement for black lives and the movement to save public schools, I would choose the first. Argue what one wishes about the intersections (one of them is playing out, as usual, in Chicago’s FightForDyett), but folks are literally dying at the hands of police, the folks our governments ask us to trust. Some of them never make it into to our classrooms because they had one foul, fatal encounter with the police, but, in the eyes of some white education reformers and critics, Black Lives Matter activists need to align themselves with well-meaning so-and-sos touting social justice and kids of color in their flyers and memes.

While education debaters argue over who’s in front of the hypothetical front lines of education, Black Lives Matter activists are literally in jail, hospitalized, or dead while in front of the actual front lines for equity in living. Instead of centering themselves in how we revolutionize the education system, pro public school advocates, especially white public school advocates, should humble themselves enough to ask communities of color what they wish to see in their schools. Akin to missionaries who thought the Bible might rectify the so-called savages, some folk think the pro public school narrative will be enough to create allies with the under-served.

We do have a few alternatives to the “two-sided education debate”, one of which I’m proud to be a part of. I submit to everyone that, in spite of the nonsense, we can have a public education that grants agency, pedagogy, and equity for all students. I submit that social justice isn’t a set of data we’ve squeezed out of our schools, but unearthing the system, remaking it to match the needs of our people. I submit that educators from head start all the way through graduate school need an entire rethink in our approach to systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. All this is under the realm of possibility with intention.

Any initiative where these priorities are underlined would put said group shoulder-to-shoulder with the movement for Black lives, not just the organization but anyone who’s ever been moved to action under this premise. This is what solidarity looks like.

I radiate with hope because we also have a set of people who’ve replaced trepidation with empathy, and have submitted themselves to the humanity of all involved. The question is: are pro public school advocates willing to do the same?