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November 16, 2015 6

Understanding Mizzou and Ourselves

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Medium

Recent events at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri have prompted seri­ous intro­spec­tion. With the deep hurt and rage caused by the death of an unarmed black 18-year old, Michael Brown, serv­ing as the back­drop to per­sis­tent man­i­fes­ta­tions of racism on Missouri’s flag­ship cam­pus, young peo­ple of color and their allies are demand­ing more of our edu­ca­tion and other insti­tu­tional sys­tems. They have sounded a cry for jus­tice that rings far beyond Mizzou.

Stu­dents are not only speak­ing out against overt exam­ples of racism. They are say­ing that the bias they expe­ri­ence is both more sub­tle and more per­va­sive. They are try­ing to tell us that racism sim­mers con­stantly beneath the sur­face of their inter­ac­tions on cam­pus, even when oth­ers do not see it.  Their voices deserve to be heard clearly and taken seri­ously. Their con­cerns require our atten­tion because they reflect deep his­tor­i­cal roots. Their res­o­lu­tion will have impli­ca­tions far beyond Mis­souri and the col­lege campus.

Indeed, the struc­tural inequities in soci­ety high­lighted by stu­dents at Mis­souri exist at all lev­els of the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, includ­ing K-12 and post­sec­ondary schools. Sys­temic injus­tice man­i­fests itself in schools that remain deeply seg­re­gated more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion – not only sep­a­rate but grossly unequal.

This is not an opin­ion but an unfor­tu­nate fact.  We can see this in the huge dis­par­i­ties in school fund­ing and resources; the lack of diver­sity in our teach­ing force as well as the cur­ricu­lum; a dis­ci­pli­nary sys­tem that dis­pro­por­tion­ately pun­ishes stu­dents of color, and a raft of other poli­cies and prac­tices that feed racial and socioe­co­nomic achieve­ment gaps and other neg­a­tive outcomes.

Today, almost three quar­ters of African Amer­i­can stu­dents and eight in ten Latino stu­dents attend majority-minority schools. More­over, roughly four in ten of those stu­dents attend schools that are more than 90 per­cent seg­re­gated.  Schools with the high­est minor­ity pop­u­la­tions are less likely to offer high level sci­ence and math classes.  We see that, on aver­age, their teach­ers are paid sig­nif­i­cantly less annu­ally than schools in the same dis­trict with the fewest minor­ity stu­dents.  Their teach­ers are less likely to be certified.

Achiev­ing diver­sity in edu­ca­tion is crit­i­cal. Diverse schools are cru­cial to the devel­op­ment of a soci­ety that hon­ors inclu­sive­ness. We need plu­ral­is­tic edu­ca­tional envi­ron­ments so that stu­dents can explore a full range of ideas, per­spec­tives and expe­ri­ences and to rethink their own premises and prej­u­dices. Test­ing their own hypothe­ses against those of peo­ple with dif­fer­ing views is the essence of education.

But the solu­tion can­not come merely by cre­at­ing more inclu­sive learn­ing envi­ron­ments in higher edu­ca­tion.  We have to dig deeper, and find ways to acknowl­edge and address the under­ly­ing struc­tural inequal­ity. Struc­tural racism and uncon­scious bias per­me­ate so many aspects of Amer­i­can life, not only in our schools, but more broadly through­out our insti­tu­tions.  This very real frus­tra­tion is what fuels the #Black­Lives­Mat­ter move­ment.  Dig­nity, equity and oppor­tu­nity can­not be abstrac­tions for any seg­ment of our soci­ety – they need to be the com­mon denom­i­na­tors of every Amer­i­can dream.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded over 100 years ago to stop the defama­tion of the Jew­ish peo­ple and to secure jus­tice and fair treat­ment to all. This time­less mis­sion has fueled our con­stant com­mit­ment to stop anti-Semitism and big­otry in all forms and to secure civil rights and social jus­tice for all peo­ple.  Through­out the 1950’s and 1960’s, this mis­sion inspired our ded­i­ca­tion to the strug­gle for civil rights, fight­ing along­side our broth­ers and sis­ters in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity to achieve land­mark vot­ing and anti-discrimination leg­is­la­tion. We made enor­mous strides in those years, and those civil rights laws pro­vide impor­tant legal safe­guards that per­sist today.

But now, we and other civil rights orga­ni­za­tions must address the real­ity that laws are some­times eas­ier to change than atti­tudes, and that both sub­con­scious and overt racism per­sist in Amer­ica.  Unfor­tu­nately, we can­not just wish away the struc­tural racism and uncon­scious bias that per­me­ate so many aspects of Amer­i­can life, includ­ing our schools and other insti­tu­tions.  In this moment, we need to acknowl­edge the real­i­ties around us and recom­mit our­selves to this work.

Of course, the bur­den of address­ing racism and bias must not fall solely on the shoul­ders of com­mu­ni­ties of color or other minor­ity groups.  All seg­ments of soci­ety have a respon­si­bil­ity to lis­ten care­fully to the voices and frus­tra­tions of this gen­er­a­tion of activists who want what we all want—a more just soci­ety. We are pre­pared to take on this chal­lenge and to renew our effort to ensure jus­tice and fair treat­ment for all.

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September 18, 2015 6

What Ahmed Mohamed Can Teach Us About Having ‘A Wrong Impression’

Ahmed MohamedOn Mon­day, Ahmed Mohamed, a four­teen year old high school fresh­man with a tal­ent for tin­ker­ing and tech­nol­ogy, brought a home­made dig­i­tal clock he con­structed to school to show his teach­ers. His engi­neer­ing teacher was impressed but later in the day when it beeped dur­ing Eng­lish class, Ahmed’s trou­bles began. He showed the device to his Eng­lish teacher who noti­fied school offi­cials who then noti­fied the police. “She thought it was a threat to her,” Ahmed said, “so it was really sad that she took a wrong impres­sion of it.”

The clock was con­fis­cated and Ahmed was sus­pended from school for three days. After being ques­tioned at school by police offi­cers, Ahmed was put into hand­cuffs and brought to a juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter where he was fin­ger­printed and had his mug shot taken. Since that time, the charges have been dropped.

Ahmed’s story quickly pre­cip­i­tated a national out­cry on social media where mes­sages of sup­port came from Mark Zucker­berg, Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Obama, who extended a spe­cial invi­ta­tion to Ahmed to the White House for Astron­omy Night in Octo­ber. White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said, “This episode is a good illus­tra­tion of how per­ni­cious stereo­types can pre­vent even good-hearted peo­ple who have ded­i­cated their lives to edu­cat­ing young peo­ple from doing the good work that they set out to do.” Con­versely, Irv­ing Police Chief Boyd said this mat­ter was not caused by stereo­types and “would have been the same regard­less” of his religion.

While we were not on the ground at MacArthur High School on Mon­day, we acknowl­edge that school secu­rity is crit­i­cal and school vio­lence is always on the minds of school staff, whose job it is to remain vig­i­lant. In addi­tion, this inci­dent raises ques­tions about stereo­types and the pos­si­bil­ity of implicit bias. It is also very impor­tant that school staff get to know stu­dents to pre­vent mak­ing assump­tions or form­ing “wrong impres­sions,” as Ahmed aptly put it. He is obvi­ously a young per­son who loves tech­nol­ogy and mak­ing things. The ques­tion for us to pon­der is: Are all stu­dents regarded as threat­en­ing because they make a quirky clock or can a student’s gen­der, reli­gion and national ori­gin be a fac­tor in our own eval­u­a­tion of what feels threatening?

The school year in Irv­ing began on August 24 so this week marks the fourth week of school, ample time to see what every­one else is see­ing now—that Ahmed appears to be a bright and inquis­i­tive teenager with a pas­sion for STEM (Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, Engi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics). He nobly stated that he wants to use this moment to “try my best not just to help me but to help every other kid in the entire world that has a prob­lem like this.” He’s talk­ing about stereo­typ­ing, and he’s right.

Whether this was a sit­u­a­tion of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, bias or some­thing else, edu­ca­tors should be mind­ful that con­text is impor­tant. Mus­lims are reg­u­larly marked by the stereo­type of “ter­ror­ist” which has impli­ca­tions for how wel­come or unwel­come Mus­lims often feel in their com­mu­ni­ties and on school cam­puses. For edu­ca­tors com­mit­ted to their role as lead­ers in build­ing respect­ful learn­ing envi­ron­ments , com­bat­ing bias and proac­tively teach­ing about race and racism, this con­text should be con­sid­ered and man­aged in a way that meets mul­ti­ple goals: safety and inclusion.

As we start the new school year, Ahmed’s story is an impor­tant reminder to explic­itly teach about stereo­types, bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion, that uncon­scious bias can seep into all of our interactions—both large and small and that implicit bias can shape our assump­tions and expec­ta­tions about oth­ers. Most impor­tantly, cre­at­ing an anti-bias learn­ing envi­ron­ment and inte­grat­ing cul­tur­ally respon­sive teach­ing prac­tices goes a long way toward assist­ing edu­ca­tors in know­ing their stu­dents and treat­ing them with respect.

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June 22, 2015 1

What Should We Tell Our Children About Charleston?

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we grieve, protest and fur­ther inves­ti­gate the hor­rific mur­der of nine African Amer­i­can parish­ioners at the his­toric Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, many peo­ple are ask­ing: What should we tell the children?

Par­ents, fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers are some­times uneasy about dis­cussing issues of vio­lence and injus­tice with chil­dren because they want to pro­tect them from ter­ri­ble and scary top­ics. How­ever, it is impor­tant that chil­dren have a lan­guage for dis­cussing the unfair­ness and injus­tice they see in the world and that as adults, we model that these con­ver­sa­tions are ones we are will­ing to engage in as we assure them that we are work­ing to coun­ter­act injustice.

Except for very young chil­dren, it is impor­tant to raise the issue with chil­dren. It is likely that with online access and the 24/7 hour news cycle, many young peo­ple have already heard about it and may be look­ing for an oppor­tu­nity to learn more. In talk­ing with chil­dren about emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing top­ics, remem­ber to:

  • Give them the time and space to express their feel­ings (what­ever those feel­ings are) and actively lis­ten with empa­thy and compassion.
  • Find out what they already know, clar­ify any mis­in­for­ma­tion they have and answer their ques­tions. If you don’t know the answer, be hon­est about that and find out the answer together.
  • In an age-appropriate way and using lan­guage they can under­stand, share your own thoughts, feel­ings and spe­cific val­ues about the topic.
  • Give youth infor­ma­tion about what is being done to make things safe and what actions are tak­ing place to coun­ter­act the injustice.

Here are spe­cific talk­ing points you may want to cover with young people:

Words and sym­bols matter

We have heard that the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, told racist jokes and spewed biased ide­ol­ogy. A con­tem­po­rary of Roof’s said “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seri­ously like that.” Hate has the poten­tial to esca­late and the Pyra­mid of Hate illus­trates how biased behav­iors and attitudes—when left unchallenged—can lead to more seri­ous acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion and bias-motivated vio­lence such as the one per­pe­trated in Charleston. If those atti­tudes, beliefs and behav­iors were ques­tioned and addressed, per­haps there would have been dif­fer­ent out­comes and those nine lives would not have been taken.

Sym­bols are forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that con­vey impor­tant mes­sages to chil­dren about what we value, what is impor­tant and what kind of soci­ety we want to cre­ate. Hate sym­bols, espe­cially when dis­sem­i­nated and per­va­sive, com­mu­ni­cate that hate and bias are accept­able. Roof had patches on his jacket of flags of regimes in South African and Rhode­sia that enforced the vio­lent white minor­ity rule. He was also seen in sev­eral pho­tos with a Con­fed­er­ate flag, which has come to sym­bol­ize racial hatred and big­otry. Iron­i­cally, the flag is still dis­played in South Carolina’s state­house grounds in Colum­bia and activists and elected offi­cials have been press­ing for its removal for years.

Racism is sys­temic and can be overcome

While Roof was not a for­mal mem­ber of a white suprema­cist orga­ni­za­tion, he espoused white supremacy ide­ol­ogy that is preva­lent, online and world­wide. In address­ing this topic with young peo­ple, we need to give them hope and inspi­ra­tion by show­ing them that we have come a long way on issues of race and other social jus­tice issues by push­ing for leg­is­la­tion, edu­cat­ing peo­ple and tak­ing action. At the same time, it is also impor­tant that we con­nect the dots so that young peo­ple under­stand that issues such as school seg­re­ga­tion, racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and vot­ing rights are not indi­vid­ual acts but are part of a larger sys­tem and that if soci­etal change is going to take place, the solu­tions also need to be systemic.

Activism makes a difference

Since the mur­ders last week, there have been protests across the coun­try and in Charleston and Colum­bia, SC specif­i­cally call­ing pub­lic offi­cials to take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag as a first step. On Sun­day, in a mov­ing demon­stra­tion of empa­thy and con­nec­tion, church bells across Charleston tolled for nine min­utes to sym­bol­ize the nine vic­tims. We know that our nation has a long his­tory of activism that has brought about sig­nif­i­cant social change–from mar­riage equal­ity to immi­gra­tion reform and the recent “Black Lives Mat­ter” move­ment. One of the most impor­tant prin­ci­ples we can con­vey to our chil­dren is that their voices and actions make a dif­fer­ence and will help to build a bet­ter world.

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