On Saturday July 13th, 2013, a jury of six women found George Zimmerman not guilty on all charges in the murder of Trayvon Martin, a young Black man who was racially profiled, considered “suspicious” simply because of the color of his skin, and then murdered on the street by a neighborhood watch vigilante. We are outraged and disgusted by this verdict. It highlights the enormous injustices of our system, indeed forcing us to question the idea that “justice” even exists within the legal system of our country.
The deep racism and historic inequality of our legal system is mirrored in the systemic inequality of our education system. It is no coincidence that the majority of schools being closed in Philadelphia, and across the country, are schools with majority Black and Brown students in low income neighborhoods. As educators, we have a responsibility to discuss, address and develop an analysis around not only this case, but also other forms of oppression and institutional racism, so that we can be prepared to have real conversations with our students.
We must talk about race. When the majority of educators in Philadelphia are white and the majority of our students are students of color, we have to be willing to talk about that dynamic. When the default in our schools is to punish, suspend, expel and arrest our students when they violate our school norms, rather than help them learn from their mistakes and repair the harm they’ve caused, we have to see this as a direct extension of how black and brown people are criminalized in all parts of society. When our state is the leader in sentencing youth, mostly youth of color, to life without the possibility of parole, we have to be willing to talk about race and the connections to the school-to-prison pipeline. When we hear our colleagues blaming “those parents” for the dysfunction in our schools, we have to be willing to confront the implicit racism in their attitudes.
The killing of Trayvon Martin reminds us that we do not exist in a post-racial society. We must be willing to challenge ourselves and move outside of our comfort zones. As educators, we know that growth often comes from being uncomfortable. Therefore, we have a responsibility, as educators, to push ourselves, our colleagues, and our schools to confront racism, engage in difficult and honest discussions, and help validate and heal the pain that is still too real in our students’ lives.
Talk with your colleagues about the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Talk with your colleagues about ways to discuss the pain and betrayal of Trayvon Martin’s murder with your students. Talk with your colleagues about the role race plays in the classroom. And, of course, push yourself to think deeply about your own personal beliefs and stereotypes that you may hold as a result of living in an unequal, racist society.
Trayvon Martin’s death was an atrocity. We must learn from it and push ourselves to act so that the next Trayvon Martin — one of our beloved students or a member of our own family — can walk safely home without fear of being gunned down.
One thing you can do right now is sign the NAACP’s petition requesting that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman.
Additionally, here are some links to places to begin the self-education we all need to be more effective educators.
- A comprehensive list of readings about race, racism, race and schools, privilege, etc: http://www.timwise.org/reading-list/
- The classic article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh: http://www.isr.umich.edu/home/diversity/resources/white-privilege.pdf
- Decarcerate PA is working to end mass incarceration in PA. Their work is important to us in the fight for quality education. Check them out at http://decarceratepa.info/, and specifically their information sheet on how to work to end the school-to-prison pipeline: http://decarceratepa.info/sites/default/files/education_not_incarceration_factsheet.pdf
The fight continues.