At the beginning of the week, we released a brief statement from Pivot Learning condemning the murder of Mr. George Floyd. As the week has progressed, I wanted to share some additional personal reflections.
Decades ago, I walked into my first classroom of students with emotional disturbance. The first thing I noticed was that nearly all of the students were Black males. I pointed this out to the principal who seemed a bit confused by my remark. It wasn’t a surprise to him. He just assumed it was the way things were. The kids were emotionally disturbed. Because their parents were emotionally disturbed. And their parents were disturbed because their communities were emotionally disturbed.
There was no mention of white racism. Centuries of state-sanctioned violence and oppression. Or the immense privilege of the mostly white people applying labels to Black youth that vastly diminish their chances of graduating, attending college, avoiding prison and earning a living wage—essentially the rest of the lives. I began questioning who was emotionally disturbed and who wasn’t.
We don’t need another grotesque video of the killing of yet another Black man or woman by the police to answer that question. Our racist system is emotionally disturbed. Frankly, it’s disturbing that the only times that most Americans are moved to action is when the murders of Black men and women like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are caught on film and provoke mass demonstrations. Really, what good is outrage unless it changes the mundane, daily manifestations of that racist system in beliefs, policies and practices? In our schools, this racism begins with the belief that Black children are not as smart and capable as white children, and exacerbates it by instructing them that they need to conform if they ever hope to succeed.
We can protest police violence and racism against Black Americans and hope that our voices, combined with many others, produce changes in policing and the criminal justice system. And, for those of us in public education, we should also be looking deeply within ourselves, questioning our beliefs, and assessing whether our “normal” practices in teaching, staffing, funding and discipline address racism and injustice or promote it. And if they do, we must end them, no matter how long we’ve done them and how hard it is to make these changes. Until we do, we should be the ones labeled emotionally disturbed.