Editor’s note: The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, in partnership with the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham (CRC-C) and Chatham County NAACP branches, sponsored an essay contest for local 9th through 12th graders attending public high school in Chatham County. Prizes of more than $5,000 were awarded to the participants. Students are asked to examine the history of a topic of racial injustice and to discuss its legacy today. Here’s the winning entry.
The human brain can store essentially unlimited amounts of data. During our lifetime we’ll fill our minds with memories of those we care about, different situations we’ve been in, big questions, and our own assessment of life itself. Unfortunately, some important stories are forgotten or never reach the light of day, whether it be due to those in power silencing the minority, a lack of resources, or simply not having one million followers to shed light on a situation. Racial injustice is prone to be swept under the rug; therefore, it is a responsibility of us all to ensure injustices are seen and race conversations are discussed. Because once they’re out they will set the stage to weaken racism in our society.
Since the early days, the voices of minorities have been silenced. Maria was an enslaved woman captured by Sir Frances Drake who was raped and then left on ‘Crab Island’ of the Indonesian Archipelago. In the words of historian and author Jennifer L. Morgan, Drake leaving Maria behind gave the white crew the advantage of “hereditary freedom that would not be sullied by the birth of a dark-skinned baby.” From the beginning, the intention was to erase the sins of injustice to avoid repercussions. Undoubtedly, there are still challenges to face even if ‘the evidence’ survives. Isabel de Olvera was a mulatto woman who lived during the 1600s who sought to gain the required permission for women, especially women of color, to travel alongside Juan de Oñate and his expedition through Central America. She went through an eight month process, in which she needed others to vouch for her to prove she didn’t belong to anyone, either by slavery or marriage. The credibility of non-white voices has always been questioned. Due to rationalization and generations of avoiding or ignoring racial undertones and tensions, these issues leave legacies still hurting minorities today.
Addressing racial issue in classrooms is key to breaking the aforementioned legacy. Angelina Castagno of Northern Arizona University published data collected in 2004-05 on two schools in the same district, one with a demographic of predominantly white and upper-class students and the other majority lower class and people of color. They observe patterns in education that perpetuate silence around race and in turn keep racist views alive. Castagno says “within a framework of equity in which social justice and fairness are sought, silence is both indifference and highly problematic.” They say this in reference to racially charged situations and topics that pop up in the classroom and the teachers’ responses of either indifference, actively silencing, or appropriately addressing. Many of the teachers would see inappropriate behaviors, statements of ignorance, and curious questions about race and respond with silence or active condemnation with statements such as “it’s not polite to ask about race.” These responses subconsciously validate and reinforce racism without the need for outright intent or hate for a race, and with this, the cycle continues to send a clear message to minorities; that is, people of color and non-white injustices are not of relevance or importance to be addressed in the same measure as whites.
The big-ticket question is how to soothe this issue. What are practical ways to advocate and make sure injustice isn’t hidden, forgotten, or gone unnoticed? Increased quality in education and increasing political activity will not only decrease the amount of ‘looked over’ incidents, but also take jabs at racism itself as a whole. The previously mentioned social norm of silence upon race education approach must be changed and made better. This can be done by decreasing class sizes and appropriately training teachers. Helen Ladd and Ronald Ferguson, economists of Duke University and Harvard, found in analyzing 900 Texas school districts that high and low test scores were explained by teacher qualifications and class sizes. The quality of education must be increased by training teachers in ways to respond to racial questions and how to address racist behaviors or comments. If teachers can connect with students on a more personal level, are provided with smaller classes, and provided with resources and methods to respond to race, we are more likely to see positive effects.
Another effect of better education will be an increase in political participation. Researcher Mikael Persson’s article ‘Education and Political Participation’ supports the concept of education aiding and increasing political involvement, as it can trigger participation and spark interest. With more eyes watching, those in power will be discouraged to do or support anything that may be viewed as negative, which could include racism. In turn, more social justice issues can be pushed to the forefront. The more pressure placed on political leaders and media outlets the more likely injustices will be seen and racial conversations will lead to the weakening of racism itself.
Throughout history, violence, atrocities and hurt were committed against minorities by those in power. It is time that the story doesn’t just end there – that our society knows of the systemic racism in the United States, its past, and how whites have hurt the Marias, Olveras, and others in history. But also, our society needs to know how racial injustices and systemic racism are surviving today in our institutions with voter suppression, poor funding distribution,etc. To know how all of this goes unnoticed due to color muteness and hesitation to address the white elephant in the room. Let us improve our education to bring up a generation that isn’t afraid to claim their responsibility to push minority stories and justice. Although talking itself will not ‘end’ racism, the more people on board with racial activism will set the scene for racism’s death.
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