When news of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville began to take center stage in our national conversation, I think I had just become numb and at the same time retroactive sensitive to all 135 instances of police abuses and bigotry against Black bodies, young Black male bodies in particular.
Prior to social media telling the world and validating, for so many of us, what we have always known, it seemed somewhat deja vu. It was only after a brief comment that the NYU Metro Center Executive Director David E. Kirkland made in his office, “We need to have a critical conversation on race,” that I began to think hard and long about the first 16 years of my life. I am 85 years young now, but I was reminded that early in my life, early in the struggle for racial justice, there was no technology, no social media, nothing that would indicate that this has happened so many times before. So, I guess I just lost the sense of shock and the need to comment.
Recently, I was reminded of an encounter with a gentleman (“Tony”) in Larchmont, New York, who blamed President Obama for the death of the five Dallas police officers who were killed in 2016, following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. That encounter pushed me to entertain the notion of sharing with my NYU Metro Center family a perspective that has, perhaps, guided me over the course of many heartbreaking years. I do not at all want to undervalue or disrespect any of the words or comments that many of my colleagues and friends have so elegantly made about social injustice. However, the words and the protest and the marches and the elegant calls for unity and the elegant paragraphs are no longer enough for me!
I want to see something happen to really make our country right, not again, but rather for the first time in the future for my children's children and for your children's children sake.
If this is to happen, White America must take a lead in responding to their "own” biases and privileges and hatreds while also reshaping how they view themselves and others in the world. In the U.S., the elephant in the room, the stuff of America's DNA, is RACE. (I know it is a man-made construct but one that still greatly impacts our country.)
Therefore, my future endeavor will be to strongly encourage my White colleagues, friends and family to take the lead in righting the ship they have captained. Whites must deal with the question of race with and within White America.
To my Latin, Asian and other ethnic friends and colleagues, I do not in any way devalue you or feel that you should not be part of the conversation. However, for me, the U.S. still painfully and greatly suffers from that elephant in the room. Color is the backdrop to race and that unfortunately often breaks down to Black and White. That is the sordid and sad history of the U.S. It is bigger and bolder than any other construct of the U.S.’s so-called melting pot. It is a relationship that is still mired in decisions made 269 years ago.
Most of our work here at the University (as non-classroom educators) is anchored in studies, papers, and theoretical workshops. We learn what not to do in race relations, in terms of bigotry and prejudice. However, most of that work is not anchored in any way that impacts majority classrooms. It is not anchored by a thorough redesign of White America.
What might a call for action by White educators look like on the part of our White colleagues and friends and loved ones who desire to heal our nation of the disease of racism?
I would like to see a different kind of revolution that flips the equation and have White educators be bold in their own segregated communities with their fellow White colleagues, community members, and faith-based institutions.
Some simple ideas could include:
- Would you run non-patronizing after-school classes within your own communities for children of privilege within the construct of race?
- If you live in a segregated RESIDENTIAL neighborhood would you lead the discussions that HUD is now raising across America about integrated housing?
- Would you lead the efforts to take on the housing issues in Westchester (NY), New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island where so many of you live?
- Would you run for public office so that you can propose and take bold ACTION and carry the message that you so valiantly proclaim?
- Would you take an active but serious role in working within a political party to change public policies that reinforce systems of structural bias?
- Would you run for school board or become active in your community and school district to help impact the change you champion?
- Would you take the lead in challenging the devastating acts by our politicians who are trying to undo the Civil Rights Voting Act?
- Would you take the lead in entertaining the notion of how to share "power and privilege," not just talk about it? Sharing power is something uncomfortable, but it is healthy for the larger group.
- Can you as educators help your neighbors, your friends, and your family members understand the need to share power with Blacks in specific but also other ethnic minorities?
- Could our knowledgeable and caring White educators head to Appalachia, the Rust Belt, the forgotten prairies, the rural bigoted towns spread across America to do some important work and teaching?
Black America must not and should not have to carry this burden of crimes of humanity inflicted against it alone anymore. We simply cannot do this anymore in the way that we've done it for these hundreds of years. We have led in trying to help the U.S. get its act together. Now the “Black Man’s Burden” must end. White America and particularly White educators must lead their own to change if racism and its terrible consequences are to stop someday.
P.S.: Any African American or American of African Descent born in the country 60 years or less is the first generation to be born with full formal rights as a citizen of United States.
About the author:
Dr. LaRuth Gray is a retired Superintendent of Schools in Westchester County and currently serves as Scholar in Residence at NYU Steinhardt's Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Gray is also formerly affiliate faculty at NYU and Deputy Director of NYU Metro Center.