Jada Wiiliams of Rochester N.Y., never imagined when she wrote an essay comparing the racist oppression faced by Frederick Douglas to her current lived experiences as a Black student, that it would end with her teacher claiming offense or in Jada having to leave the school. “Most White teachers that I have come into contact with over the last several years of my life, have failed to instruct us – even today,” she wrote. Her parents were forced to pull her out of school when they noticed that her grades suddenly began to drop in several of her classes. In tears, she told ABC News, “I did feel overwhelmed because I didn’t know that it would become this huge.”
The fact that her grades declined after handing in this essay adds validity to the charges of racism that Williams bravely made in her essay. RCSD Interim Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, who is clearly on the defensive, stated that, “Teachers, regardless of their color, are able to teach us.” Most of the teachers in the Rochester district are white. Although teachers are forced to take sensitivity classes, regardless of their intent, the fact remains that they have been raised in a culture steeped in white supremacy.
This incident will serve as a very harsh teaching lesson to young Jada. Though Whiteness has attempted to claim that we are post-racial, or that we have at least reached the point where the kind of virulent racism experienced by Blacks during slavery and Jim Crow has so severely declined as to make it negligible, ongoing attacks against racial minorities continue to be pervasive in almost every social institution – the exception, of course, being inside (some) Black families. This means that charges of racism are often reduced to the minority in question being too sensitive or playing the so-called “race card” to invoke sympathy.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research reported in 2006 that the graduation rate for the year 2003 was seventy percent. When the numbers are divided by race and gender however, the success rate drops drastically.
- Nationally, the graduation rate for white students was 78 percent, compared with 72 percent for Asian students, 55 percent for African-American students, and 53 percent for Hispanic students.
- The gender gap in graduation rates is particularly large for minority students. Nationally, about 5 percentage points fewer white male students and 3 percentage points fewer Asian male students graduate than their respective female students. While 59 percent of African-American females graduated, only 48 percent of African-American males earned a diploma (a difference of 11 percentage points). Further, the graduation rate was 58 percent for Hispanic females, compared with 49 percent for Hispanic males (a difference of 9 percentage points).
This suggests that though Jada’s paper was completely experiential, clearly some sort of race bias must be in place. Black children arrive at school as eager to learn as their White counterparts, and yet by the third grade, many have either fallen behind, or else they are routinely labeled as “problem children.” The only true universal subjects are math and science because they are not open to interpretation; the answers are either right or the wrong. All other subjects are graded based on the teachers’ evaluation of performance, which leaves much room for racism.
A teacher need not evaluate unfairly to added racial bias to the classroom. All he or she has to do is to spend less time instructing minority students in their class or fail to encourage them to excel in the same manner as they do white students. In The Biography of Malcolm X, one of the most memorable scenes for me was that of the white teacher telling Malcolm to seek a manual labor job, even though he was clearly intelligent and desired to go to law school.
The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision brought an end to segregation in schools, and for the first time, Black students were exposed to White teachers. This has not necessarily been positive for Black children. The history that is taught in schools is framed through a lens of White supremacy, with additives like Black History Month being thrown to mask enormous inequalities in education. Today’s students are forced to learn the oppressor’s truth by a white supremacist educational system that presents heavy-handed biases into history, language, and even the arts.
Jada’s teacher was only able to personalize her essay because it has become the common belief that living with racism is less harmful then being accused of being a racist. The teacher’s reaction, while not surprising, is disappointing. Instead of leading to persecution, Jada’s essay should have been an impetus to create change that ensures all students are performing to their best abilities and receiving equal treatment.
Though Jada faced persecution for speaking her truth, The Frederick Douglas Foundation of New York presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award. It is my hope that this award will serve to encourage her to keep speaking her truth in the face of resistance and empower her to continue to seek excellence.