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.

Change Is Overdue

Tonight I spoke once again at a Geneva School Board Meeting, imploring the Board to address the current racist bullying at the Geneva Middle School with meaningful policies and staff development. It brought back the bullying our younger son endured in the 1980s. It brought back the tragic 2010 suicide of a Geneva student bullied for his sexual orientation and gender identity. I spoke to the Board then, too. Their response: one evening speaker for the community and one session of training for a handful of educators.

Change does not happen with one-off efforts. It requires a sustained, ongoing commitment to training and a clear vision of values. Staff need to practice effective interventions before they’re needed. Research shows that students must feel safe to learn. The primary job of the school Board is to ensure that all students have the best learning opportunity possible. That means that they need to make sure all students are safe to learn.

Students need to learn that bullying and racism are not acceptable, and that there are clear and established consequences for those who persist anyway. Students, too, need to learn how to speak up. Role-playing with trainers can make a huge difference.

Yet here we are again. The mother of one of a Geneva student has told the Board how he has been bullied and subjected to racial epithets. Our Superintendent claims that the Board does not tolerate such behavior, but his words are empty without meaningful actions to accompany them. Surely the last year has laid bare the systemic racism that supports this bullying, yet it appears that little has been done. Once again, I find myself imploring the Geneva School Board to honor their commitment to all of their students by providing meaningful training about implicit bias and about how to intervene effectively. I am asking what their process and protocols are to address bullying and how they might improve them. Every school district needs to take a clear stand against bullying and against racism. Every district needs a clear policy that is enforceable and enforced, that provides safety for students and consequences for bullies who won’t reform their ways. And every educator needs to learn how to pay attention to the signs of bullying and how to intervene effectively, instead of ignoring the issue or making things worse.

Geneva schools served my older son – and no doubt most of their students – well. After more than thirty-five years, though, we don’t see much progress for students who are bullied. That progress is long overdue. The School Board needs to take meaningful and effective action now. We all will be watching.

The Youth Are Our Teachers

Yesterday two fierce, intelligent, courageous young women reinforced my belief that we adults can learn from youth. My teaching memoir, Tales Told out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher (due out next year), tells the stories of my learning from my students. Yesterday two 2020 graduates of a nearby high school in a very white community organized a Black Lives Matter rally. They faced opposition; indeed, the original site was changed after the homeowners of the subdivision where the public park is located lodged such vigorous protest.

Bethany Duffey and Izzy Mohatt brought together a diverse group of people and wonderful speakers to help us all learn. My heart broke listening to Marcia Lane-McGee’s description of her experiences as a black student in a white Catholic school. She resurrected painful memories for me. My first teaching job was in a white, working-class Catholic school in Madison, WI, which took in expelled students from the public schools. One of my students was a year older, two heads taller, and infinitely blacker than her classmates. Though she responded well to my encouragement and pulled her grade up to a C, the principal lowered it to a D because, in her eyes, my student couldn’t possibly have done that well. Impotent to change her mind or protect my student, I was grateful to be leaving the school. I knew her action was wrong. Listeners yesterday knew that Lane-McGee’s being ostracized for the color of her skin was wrong.

18-year old Isabella Irish, whose organization of a Black Lives Matter rally in nearby Batavia inspired the Elburn organizers, said “Black power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny. In today’s America, African-Americans don’t need to be accused of a capital offense to be discriminated against and murdered.”

I have been aware of my white privilege for decades. Doing my high school research paper on James Baldwin’s writing fifty-five years ago first opened my eyes to the world beyond my white suburban community.  Reading Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility last year with a group of fellow activists had pushed me to want to do more. But I still hadn’t found my voice until the murder of George Floyd. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local and regional papers. Our group met last Saturday to develop an action plan, and each of us is taking ownership of specific steps.

But these young people didn’t wait on us. They saw injustice and stepped up. I am humbled and inspired. And I am grateful to them, not just because they generated a rally with enough space and social distance for us to feel safe to go despite the pandemic. I am grateful because they remind me, at a time when our country feels torn asunder, that young people like them can lead us from darkness into real, systemic change.