The High Cost of Ignorance


From tulsahistory.org

I have been grappling with the extent of my own ignorance for weeks now. I graduated from an Eastern public high school nationally known for excellence, then earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and later a Masters degree from Southern Connecticut State University. Despite studying history at all three schools, I had never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. How is that possible?

I’d never heard of Black Wall Street and Tulsa’s affluent black community, the Greenwood District. I did know about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store, because the news about that awful case continued during my childhood. The Tulsa Race Massacre started in a similar way, when a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. The accounts from that elevator ride varied, yet the Tulsa police arrested Rowland the next day.

Then “An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District” (tulsahistory.org). The next day, Greenwood was looted and burned. “In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died” (Ibid.). According to the New York Times, “The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.” Twenty years ago, the state of Oklahoma published Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, acknowledging $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars. According to the New York Times, “Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren” (Ibid.). Indeed, calling it a riot instead of a massacre may have insulated insurance companies from claims.

The spate of articles, interactive internet pieces, and documentaries acknowledging the hundredth anniversary of this carnage educates us all about this slaughter and the racism that provoked it. This staggering loss of life and property is a tragedy; so is the loss of future opportunity. The dead remain in part uncounted and uncelebrated. The magnitude of this event and its inhumanity haunts me.

Last summer forced me to explore the way this country’s wealth was built on the back of slaves, the inexcusable inequities of wealth and housing and healthcare, and the very real dangers for people of color in their interactions with police. We cannot allow this to continue. If we believe in our country’s Declaration of Independence and truly “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then we must act to end racism and inequity.

Education is the first step toward making our society fair and just. Only when we learn the truth about our history will we be empowered to change it. I live in Illinois, which just adopted “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards.” Although they only affect preservice teacher training programs and don’t take effect until 2025, they are a baby step in the right direction. The United States of America can only achieve its aspirations for a fair and just society by teaching citizens the ugly truths about our country’s past so that we can build a better future.

First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.