This column was part of The Republican’s series, One People, One House, and was published in The Republican on September 13, 2020.
On July 26, as the body of Congressman John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time, America faced an inescapable historical moment. The country is coming to grips with the realization that racial hierarchy, one of the pillars of American society since colonial time, is no longer acceptable. The majority of the country believes that people should no longer be apportioned more or less life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, based on their race. This is a very hopeful moment for the United States and, all across the country, people are sowing the seeds for a more equitable society. Elms College was ahead of the trend; we have been working on this effort for more than two years.
But before I share the example of what we are doing at Elms College, it is relevant to examine how the nation got to this crossroad. The perspectives that I can offer are those of a black immigrant and an educator.
I grew up black and proud of it. America taught me to be a person of color and defensive about it. That evolution may be helpful in providing a different perspective on the issue of race in the United States.
Everyone was black in my hometown of Haiti. My classmates and I learned proudly about Haiti as the first black republic. We knew about the Haitian revolution as the only successful slave rebellion and we could narrate its story: black men and women armed with just their machetes and their righteous anger, rising from the dehumanizing conditions in which they had been shackled for decades, to dispossess, defeat, and expel their white oppressors and the most powerful European army of the time. We were not deterred by the international rap on Haiti. We understood that the Haitian revolution would never be condoned by the global community because it was the ultimate threat to the idea of racial superiority. That’s how I grew up contextualizing my blackness.
I came to America as a college student and learned that in this multiracial society, I am a person of color. I don’t know when I started to feel self-conscious about that label. My first encounters with overt racism were not pleasant but to a certain extent they did not phase me because I had read or been told about similar situations: feeling actively unwelcomed as the only black person in a restaurant in downtown Jefferson City or being stopped by a police officer who called the white family that I was going to visit to verify that they were expecting me.
What was unsettling is the discomfort that crept insidiously, little by little, with every news story of crime and criminality assigned to black men; with the war on drugs being waged primarily against communities of color; with the caricaturization of communities of color as lazy, welfare recipients; and the myriad of statistics showing how communities of color achieved less and owned less. Developing a defensiveness about being labeled a person of color did not come to me because of overt prejudice. No, it came from the unique way in which American society perpetuates racism subtly.
Take higher education, for example. I am passionate about the fact that education is the great equalizer and that American higher education has been a tremendous force for private as well as common good. It has made it possible for many, including this writer, to turn farfetched hopes and dreams into incredible stories of success and achievement. Yet higher education is not immune to the subtle perpetuation of ideas of racial hierarchy. I can’t count the various conversations in which I have participated across many institutions large and small with well-meaning colleagues who would made me cringe by broadly associating students of color with needing remediation, being retention-risk, or having lower graduation rates. That is when students of color are not characterized as primarily interested in athletics and the major causes of student conduct issues on campus.
Following the Civil Rights era, our county has maintained the idea of racial hierarchy in a subtle way, through an elaborate and well-orchestrated set of policies around voting, housing, crime, banking, healthcare and education which reinforce one another to ensure that the self-fulfilling prophecy lives on.
So what has changed? What brought us from the comfort of subtle, well-crafted policies to the turmoil in the streets and the clamor for all people to be equal not just in some wishful creed but in real ways?
The veneer of subtlety has first been removed right in the tone from the top. There is nothing subtle about a President calling Mexicans rapists, stating that immigrants from Haiti and Africa come from shithole countries, asking Black and Latina Congresswomen to go where they came from, and placing a ban on individuals from Muslim countries.
It has been further eroded by the fact that all Americans can have first-hand evidence of crude racism that shocks the conscience. We can all witness Derek Chauvin’s assumption of impunity for nonchalantly murdering George Floyd in plain sight. And we can recognize Amy Cooper’s presumption of racial hierarchy in her false accusation against Christian Cooper.
And that’s the hopeful part that this moment brings: it is no longer possible for us to deny that society is structured to perpetuate the oppression of certain groups of people for the benefit of others. Consequently, people of goodwill coming to that realization are grappling with what to do about it.
This is what we have been doing at Elms College. Education is the world that we know and where we can make a difference. For the past two years, we have been focusing on the achievement gap between black and brown children in the urban schools of Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke. It is tempting for many to imply, without stating it, that this achievement gap is a result of the children’s lower ability to learn. It is easier to blame it on irresponsible parents and a lack of family structure. We, at Elms College, have asserted that it is in large part because of a lack of well-prepared teachers who look like the children whom they teach, who can relate to the environment from which these children come, and more importantly can inspire them through words and examples to be the best that they can be.
We believe that this work is so monumental that it cannot be done alone, it requires partnerships. The good news is that these partnerships are possible. Philanthropists, leaders of school districts and charter schools, interested stakeholders, and members of our college community have come together to advance this work through Elms College’s Center for Equity in Urban Education. We start from the common belief that all children deserve a great education that gives them an equal fighting chance to thrive- unencumbered by the burden of having to disprove any myths associated with being a person of color in America.
Partnerships between people of goodwill, from all races and backgrounds, are the hope for America to learn from our current moment of reckoning, reject overt or subtle concepts of racial hierarchy, and live up to our ideal of being the melting pot of equality and opportunity.