Black Lives Matter
I hesitated for a long time and put off writing this piece. But my automated Twitter paper kept intervening. It collects news stories based on hashtags that I list and tweets them in an online paper. Since the Supreme Court ruling though, it kept headlining this piece from a conservative blog/newspaper about the “disappointing ruling that supports race-based affirmative action.” I kept deleting the tweets, but forgetting to edit my paper. This meant that every few days, I would have to delete that same tweet. The blog was untrue, and biased, and making me angrier each day that I saw it.
The reality is that race-based affirmative action went out the door in 2003 in public universities with Gratz v. Bollinger. It’s important to really acknowledge that: the allocating of points in the admissions process is unconstitutional. But that doesn’t mean schools can’t use race as a factor in a non-quota way.
California ended affirmative action earlier in 1997, and the stats for admitted Black and Brown students plummeted. Some say this was proof that they weren’t supposed to be admitted in the first place. Others, like me, see it as proof that without the system there isn’t a reason to look at qualified Black and Brown students. The current University of Texas case proves that assertion; there were nearly two hundred Black and Brown students with better grades than Fisher, and they were not admitted in the first nor second round of admissions.
You may wonder why these students are not filing their own lawsuits. The majority of students I work with are these types of students. The reality is that because their applications are that strong, they are likely getting into other schools and with better funding packages. It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be concerned about how students of color are spoken about in discussions of higher education. Justice Scalia’s remarks about the University of Texas being too difficult and too prestigious for Black students underscores that point.
This brings me to the title of this piece, something I am obviously borrowing from the current movement to value Black lives. I am also writing this as the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are in the news.
I am also a full-time teacher in a predominantly White school. I am constantly nervous when students ask my opinion on such matters or when I can’t help but speak up. The shooting at Columbine High School happened about a month before I graduated from college with my teaching credential. This weekend, I visited UCLA and parked about fifty feet away from where a school shooting occurred a few months ago. I’m on high alert each day that I go to teach, especially as the only Black person on the campus.
Being that person, I do get a lot of questions about race, especially with each police shooting that is recorded (an important distinction). Many times the students still conclude that the person must have been doing something wrong, otherwise the police wouldn’t have been there. I always ask them to name the “wrong” and the students will conclude that hoodie-wearing and playing with a toy gun and standing in front of a convenience store are hardly “wrong.”
So we get to this place where we can agree that there is an injustice happening in the other community. But we disagree again on what to do about it. Enter Black Lives Matter.
Last year a complaint was filed against Harvard University. Asian organizations were complaining that Harvard, as a private institution, was using race too much and allowing too many Black students into the university. They cited stats from pre- and post-affirmative action UC Berkeley and Cal Tech and said Harvard’s admit data should be comparable. The complaint was dismissed. The first reason is likely because Harvard is private; they can do whatever they want. The second reason is likely because each year Harvard enrolls over 40% Asian and 40% White applicants. When we are looking at Black students, we are talking about 6% at most, in a really good year. It’s petty to look at that 6% and want it, but not look at the percentage of legacy students in those larger percentages.
It is also the epitome of privilege. It seemed odd that nowhere in the discussion or in their imagination did those 6% actually deserve to be there, but everyone else did. Consider the comments about Malia Obama’s acceptance to Harvard. Malia, who attended one of the most prestigious private high schools in the country, whose parents graduated from Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard Law, couldn’t possibly have done anything to deserve a place at Harvard.
Black Lives Matter is about the rendering of Black people as invisible. When we look at police shootings, it is about how easily police officers take out a gun or go to deadly force. When my brother was a victim of excessive police force, the officer in question only stated his size and race as the reason for rendering him unconscious; it wasn’t anything that he actually did. And then when we consider the opposite, how White people interact with the criminal justice system, it seems that their lives do matter. Consider Brock Turner and the concern the judge had for what time in prison would do to him. Does anyone ask those questions when Black and Brown males interact with the criminal justice system?
That, by the way, is my response to people who go to All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter. Yes, all lives do matter, but let’s not pretend that by acting like a hierarchy doesn’t exist that we’ve solved the problem.
Some of that lends to Jesse Williams’ recent comments about how movements move forward. People have to actually know or see the other person in order to have empathy. He talks about how quickly (in comparison) the Gay Right’s Movement has moved along–most everyone has LGBT people in their family or in their community. This is similar to the Women’s Movement. But for Black people, you are likely related to a Black person in order to really know any. With being less than 10% of the population, that would mean less than 10% of the population would be in a position to care.
There is a place where everyone has to go, a place where most everything should be visible, and that’s school.
And we aren’t in schools.
As a teacher, I know there are circumstances that have created the lack of Black teachers. For most of my teaching career, I have been the only or one of a handful of Black teachers at a school, and I’ve only taught in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City! To put that into further context, I was also the only Black teacher at a village school in the former Soviet Union as a Peace Corps volunteer.
This has consequences:
1) Students don’t see Black and Brown people as capable. We can say Black and Brown folks are capable of everything, but when we look around and don’t see them as our English, history, math, science, and language teachers, we aren’t proving that at all.
2) Students don’t even see Black and Brown people as capable of telling our own stories. I recall working at a school where White men taught the ethnic studies classes. When I came in as a guest speaker, the later debates were different versions of “what does she know anyway?” It was shocking to me, and almost humorous, that my words could only be valid if the validation was done by someone in a position of power. That is extremely dangerous.
3) Black students are not seen as capable. We’ve seen studies showing how Black teachers hold Black students to a higher standard than their White counterparts. And we also know that Black students are disciplined at higher rates than other students, for committing the same infractions, and therefore introduced to the criminal justice system at much earlier ages. Those impacts are long-lasting.
4) Other students have an inflated sense of self and their capabilities. This is a difficult one because at the end of the day, we want all students to feel that they are empowered and worthy. BUT when we create a situation where some groups of people feel that they are above the law or social norms, we only serve to continue to perpetuate our ills. Consider again the impact of the Brock Turner decision and his father’s words about what he actually did wrong. What positive contribution can he possibly have in the world moving forward?
This is the major reason why we have to have Black and Brown people in education and why race-conscious admissions policies matter. It isn’t about getting a free handout; it’s about acknowledging the universal need for people of color to interact in various ways with other groups and how our presence has a positive impact on everyone including in dismantling hierarchies. It’s also about providing a reality check for all of our privileges.
Years ago, as a graduate student at Cal, our working group hosted a conference in line with our studies. We were all studying Afro-Latinos in various iterations. I probably consider that time of my life to be the second most stressful (after this time) because I identify as Afro-Latina (my parents were born and raised in Nicaragua and Panama) while I was born in the United States. Studying what one is has an additional pressure because there is responsibility in maintaining integrity for your folks. During the conference’s (titled “Beyond Visibility: Rethinking the African Diaspora”) initial panel, one of the speakers started with, “Some of us are just at visibility.” Once we understand we have a visibility problem, well…let’s just see what happens once that occurs.