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November 16, 2015

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

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

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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