I believe that all parents, when they first hold their baby in their arms, have high hopes for their child and pray that their son or daughter will have endless opportunities in life. But for some African American parents, these hopes quickly fade to black.
I remember my joy quickly turning to a feeling of being overwhelmed when I looked into my first-born son’s eyes and thought about how difficult his life would be, simply because of the color of his skin and his gender.
I have often found myself confronted with conflict while raising my two sons. I know and tell them that they are important and special to this world, and they can be all they desire to be. However, that’s a hard lesson to teach when everywhere they look, my lesson is constantly contradicted by a world that devalues black males and puts white males on a pedestal. This sentiment is obviously conveyed by the way the education system in America functions. “…If 53% was the dropout for white males, it would be unacceptable; if 41% of their children were being placed in special education, that would be a major crisis,” says Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu. “If only 20% of their boys were proficient in reading in eighth grade, that would be a crisis. If only 2.5% of white males ever earned a college degree, that would be a major crisis in America.” What about our sons?
The educational system for students of color is in crisis. In 2012, education moved backwards to the days before Brown vs. Board of Education. This trend can be stopped through multi-issue organizing based in families and communities across the country. We must fight for specific policy wins that challenge the bias in opportunity in how our youths’ worth is estimated and how policies allow for the criminalization of youthful behaviors, which keep our children and community in harm’s way.
Schools should be equitable. We must bridge the gap between both sides of a policy: administrators and parents, students and teachers, “smart” kids and kids with special needs. We want these players to see one another’s perspectives and work together for a better education system for all children.
We need to fight for increased support and evidence-based solutions for issues that commonly plague public school systems, like the use of expulsions and other harsh disciplinary actions (arrests, alternative/transitional school referrals by teachers and schools that are over-burdened and under-resourced to rid their classrooms of “unwanted” children). The Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports is an effective tool for serving families and partnering with schools. Children need teachers who can work with them and give individual instruction instead of frustrated teachers and school administrators who label these students as difficult and push them out of school/class because that child might lower the test scores or require more personalized attention that cannot be given.
We need to support overwhelmed parents with tools for dealing with behavior challenges beginning in elementary school. Demonizing and branding children early in life leads to continued isolation, negative self-identities and low self-esteem that can stick with them for life. Uncaring systems see the solution as “lock up and lock down.” At Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), we see this as a never-ending cycle that exacerbates (instead of relieves) crime, unemployment, homelessness, mental illness and almost every other social ill you can name.
Actively build a better community—a community where teachers are allies, not cops; where our children’s futures are bright, not bleak; where parents are seen as part of the solution, and not always the problem; a community where a young person is able to feel the protection of a parent who has power and efficacy to get them what they need.
For those of us who have “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” we need to reach back to ensure opportunities for all, not look down on the communities that have been shut out. We must remember the words of James Baldwin, “For these are all of our children, we will profit by or pay for whatever they become.”
Gina Womack is the director and co-founder of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), a statewide organization dedicated to creating a better life for Louisiana youth. She has appeared on many panels speaking on issues around juvenile justice, the school-to-prison pipeline and the need for family and community involvement.