A month ago, someone posted a racist threat against black students on a library computer at Berkeley High School. The threat expressed support for the KKK and stated that there would be a public lynching on December 9. In response to this threat, many students walked out of classes to protest of this act of racism, to say that #BlackLivesMatter.
This all seems so long ago now. Across the country, university student protests against racially hostile environments emerged everywhere: Missouri, Yale, Claremont McKenna, among so many. And then Paris. And then San Bernardino.
Here in Berkeley, BHS administration and police have identified the student responsible for the threat. They do not claim that it was a hoax, but they do not believe the student intended to carry out the threat initially posted on campus. Events have been planned for December 9 to raise awareness about issues of racism and race on campus.
But let us do more to listen to students, and keep our attention on race and racism in Berkeley, and let us go beyond criticizing the obvious and easily condemnable instances. I call upon parents in Berkeley, and white parents in particular, to engage — and to engage deeply, to listen, learn, and act. I write to you as a white man, a parent in Berkeley, and as BHS alumni, class of ’97.
Undoubtedly, some will dispute and question my call. (Probably, you will be able to look down in the comments section below this and see what those naysayers have to say.) All of these will deflect real critiques made by students and real problems on campus, in this city and country. And all of these reveal a profound disinterest and outright resistance to confronting these problems.
Ever since I’ve been aware, racial disparities in academic achievement, graduation rates, and college attendance have existed at Berkeley High alongside an often-stated appreciation for the “diversity” that exists at BHS. So while wealthier white students who move on to universities benefit immeasurably from their “public school” experience (I was one of these students), the black and Latino students who graduate and attend university at far lower rates often aren’t able to access the economic, cultural, and racial capital possessed by their white counterparts.
But do these disparities mean that all black students are struggling academically? Or that race is simply the determining factor for a student’s future. I shouldn’t even have to say it: certainly not. Black students I went to school with attended Spelman, UC Berkeley, Howard, Harvard, UCLA, among so many fine institutions.
So some might argue that we should be talking about socioeconomic status instead of race. But racism doesn’t distinguish by academic performance or socioeconomic status — when racial bias affects students, teachers, administrators, parents, store-owners, neighbors, or police, it touches all. And so, at the same time that the children of executives, nurses, artists, professors, lawyers, and the like are profiled as trouble-makers, students who lack the support systems that all student-success requires are expected to achieve through hard work alone. This is the work racism does. It obliterates individuality and particular life circumstances.
Threats of racist terror, like the one made last month, touch all. They are extreme, to be sure, but they are only exceptional in their explicitness. They point to the reality of racism that is, for now at least, ever present. A little less than 100 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the constant threat of racist incidents:
“They do happen. Not all each day — surely not. But now and then — now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere — in Boston, in Atlanta. That’s the hell of it. Imagine spending your life looking for insults or for hiding places from them shrinking (instinctively and despite desperate bolsterings of courage) from blows that are not always but ever; not each day, but each week, each month, each year” (Emphasis mine).
Racism is terrorism: precisely because it is impossible to know when the threat is real, the threat is always real. White supremacists such as Dylann Roof who do kill make any threat not only a possibility but a reality. And these incidents — whether acts of explicit terrorism, stereotypical profiling, or harmful slight — make visible what is always present, but in the 21st century so often just under the surface: the presence of institutional, systemic, racial discrimination and inequality.
So when students protest extreme threats, they are also protesting against the personal, even unintentional slights that occur on a daily basis, and when they protest these, they are also protesting the historical, systemic racial inequalities that allow and provoke both acts of extreme terrorism and the casual comment or look.
When students protest, we should listen. We should listen as parents. And as white parents we should listen closely. Students of all racial identities protested last month, and that should hearten us because it indicates an interest in racial equality. But interest doesn’t always mean understanding or the ability to confront.
We can be proud when students say or tweet #BlackLivesMatter. And we can feel positively about an assembly “highlighting the contributions of African Americans.” But these are far from enough.
Calling out racist hate speech is okay; connecting those instances to broader issues of racial inequality is better.
A tweet is okay; a family reading of Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, or Claudia Rankine is better.
An uplifting assembly is okay; teaching students how systemic racism actually functions in the 21st century is better.
PTA rhetoric about excellence for “all students” is okay; recognition of how race affects educational values, expectations, and instructional practices is better.
We must confront racism personally and institutionally.
My four-year-old is on paper a little multi-ethnic kid, but he’d look white to you — and he’ll probably look white to neighbors, teachers, administrators, police officers, and employers, and that’s what will matter. Believe me, I don’t look forward to talking with him about this. I don’t look forward to introducing difference — asking him to notice and think critically about himself, his family members, and our closest friends.
But asking him to think about difference beyond surface-level, multicultural celebration is not asking him to separate himself or to move through the world with a “guilty” conscience about his privilege. I will be asking him to love himself, his family, his friends, and his community enough to recognize and confront the reality of the world — the racial biases and discrimination that are fact.
I know that racism studies me and will study him; it lives in everyone’s bank accounts, educational success, and ability to move through the world — it works through us. It is my duty as a parent to help him study racism and disrupt it — not only as an act of love but one of self-preservation: his ability to see, analyze, exist, and thrive in a just world is at stake.
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