One thing seems to have united people at rallies and protests in Ferguson, Mo. — Michael Brown’s death on Aug. 9 has to change America.
No one likes the ongoing narrative of young, unarmed black men being shot to death by police. Brown, as an 18-year-old African-American, was just a recent example. He was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.
Generations of African-American and Latino parents have had “the talk” with their children, cautioning them about what to do when confronted by police because too often young people of color are viewed as suspects first and not citizens. But the talk is hardly enough.
A roomful of educators this month took on the topic at the 24th international convention of the National Association forMulticultural Education in Tucson, Ariz., where the theme was “Dismantling Borders through Multicultural Education.” They know schools and colleges can help dismantle racism, prejudices and discrimination about people of color in America.
Chris Knaus, professor of education and director of educational leadership at the University of Washington-Tacoma, asked educators to break into small groups and share words that came to mind when they think of black males. In the context of Brown’s death, teachers from throughout the U.S. and other countries shared such words as feared, racism, hate, police, death, incarceration, family, cycle, criminal, poor student, lost and misunderstood.
My partner Bette and I then shared with people our experiences having visited Ferguson, attended rallies, gone into businesses that were damaged in the unrest after Brown’s slaying, talked with people and stopped at the memorials where he was killed. The community is suffering and struggling to heal.
Undoubtedly many of the negative words about African-Americans that the educators shared are in the minds of police, people in America and schools when they see black boys and men. That bias has its roots in slavery and continues to impede the progress of black people.
We then asked the educators to go back to their small groups and discuss how schools could change that mindset. What they shared was encouraging. The educators said schools should:
▪ Teach civil disobedience in action. Schools should be safe places for discussions about Brown and the value of multiculturalism in America.
▪ Offer a curriculum that focuses on building relationships with police so officers can see all people in a positive light. Police and teacher training must include cultural awareness and responsive practices.
▪ Authorities in the classroom and on the street must be held accountable and challenged on their bigotry, prejudices and stereotypes. They have to understand the value of diversity, social justice and the pitfalls of disparities, poor education and incarceration.
▪ Provide open dialogues through such events as town hall meetings so the community can understand the historical context of racism and oppression and bring out the healing, humanity, hopes, promise and dreams parents have for their children.
Mentorships have to be established to better connect schools with the community. More people in the black community also must vote and be willing to share their stories and experiences in schools and community meetings. Such dialogues could be transformative and reframe education from one that helps perpetuate stereotypes to one that begins to eliminate the walls that separate people.
Educators at the convention were encouraged by the ways that Brown’s life — and death — could help change America. But Knaus said educators must move with a new urgency because while the discussions are occurring, more black males are at risk of failing in schools, getting into dangerous confrontations with authorities, being taken into custody or killed.
For Brown’s sake, the time to act is now.