The Civil Rights Act is 50 years old. These two pictures were taken 50 years apart. Behold our progress. #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/8PNn8eteO2
— Jackie Summers (@jackfrombkln) August 13, 2014
In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, many of us are trying to make sense of how to come back to school and engage our students around #Ferguson. It’s not easy. In some communities, there’ve been significant efforts to defend the police, including raising money for #DarrenWilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown; in fact, some argue that more money has been raised for Wilson than for the family of Michael Brown (others believe this to be the result of false counting – Wilson has one account to collect donations, Michael Brown and the #Ferguson movement have involved many possible points of donation.
For me, however, the events in Ferguson aren’t controversial. They aren’t a political topic to be avoided. They are fundamentally about the degree to which some of my students feel safe in my classroom, my institution, and the world. They are about how my students feel welcomed and cared for, about their place in this society. And though it isn’t (mostly) my experience with the police – at least in part because I am white – many of my friends, colleagues, and students traverse a war zone on the way to school or work; they face the constant possibility that they too could end up like Kajieme Powell, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Kimani Gray, or Trayvon Martin. In the least, they face potential harassment or assault – like this 8 year old girl. It’s clear that it doesn’t matter whether you are poor or rich, young or old, armed or unarmed – it is more dangerous to be a person of color in this country than it is to be me, than it is to be perceived as white.
My students enter my classroom knowing this, walking through it, experiencing it every day. It isn’t a “political topic” to be avoided; avoiding it is a choice to be silent about circumstances that are continuing to harm our students. So I think we are obligated to teach about it. The question is how. Part of it involves changing how we teach – making more space and a better invitation into our classrooms. It involves choosing to engage conversation, even when its hard, rather than ignore it because it seems controversial. Part of it needs to involve changing our institutions, making them more inclusive and more oriented toward justice. Another part of it also involves what we teach.
Discussion and engagement around this list by Sociologists for Justice (annotated here) can help students understand the deeper issues behind events like those in Ferguson. Any of the articles will do. I wish, though, that they were open access. There are loads of open resources though. Have your students check out the Dream Defenders and listen to their campaign. Invite them to read Janee Woods’ Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder, Rebecca Carroll’s Why are white people scared of black people’s rage at Mike Brown’s death?, and Mia Makenzie’s Things to Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By The Police.
And get them involved long term. If they aren’t already, get them hooked on blogs like Black Youth Project, For Harriet, Black Girl Dangerous and a thousand others that move them out of the mainstream news and into news that better represents the views and experiences of black people and people of color generally in the United States.
Your students–all of your students–need you to engage around this issue. Silence is alliance with the kinds of attitudes and thoughts that are killing them.
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