MLK, The Kerner Commission Report, and Today’s Schools

By Michael Brosnan

 

As we well know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There have been numerous reflections on his life and work — as well as on the continuing challenges for the causes for which he gave his life. What has gotten less attention is the fact that this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, which, following on the heels of the uprising that erupted after King’s death, dug deeply into the question of race in America.

The title of a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened,” burrows to the core of the problem, then and now. The article notes that the unrest and uprisings in 1968 were a reaction among mostly young urban blacks to “bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination.” Sound familiar?

The Kerner report surfaced the levels of racism and inequity in our society at the time and made it clear that the federal and state governments were unresponsive to the problem. It also made it clear that the ongoing racial tension was the result of policies established by white-dominated public and private institutions — and maintained by the collective white culture.

“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report notes. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, white society condones it.”

The report adds, “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

I re-read sections of this report earlier this year, just before I read Creating the Opportunity to Learn, A. Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera’s book examining racism in the educational system and in our classrooms. If those of us who were young back in 1968 could ever have claimed a certain amount of innocence when it came to race relations, we certainly can’t today. What troubles me is how, in light of King’s death, in light of the Kerner Report, in light of all we say we believe in our founding documents and in our various church doctrine and in our basic moral beliefs, we’ve managed collectively to resist racial equity and justice in the fifty years since. For those of us who are white educators, it may not always be easy to see the ways in which we are implicated in continuing racial injustice. We get up in the morning, go to school, try our best to help the children before us. But it should be crystal clear by now that our systems are inequitable, and that our schools, because they function within these systems, are also inequitable. So it should also be crystal clear we need to improve our efforts. To not do so amounts to a conscious act to support the status quo — which, of course, is racist by design and intent.

Boykin and Noguera write, “Approximately 75 percent of Black students [today] disagreed with the statement ‘My teachers support me and care about my success in their class.’ By contrast, this was the case for only 37 percent of White students and 32 percent of Asian students.”

The authors also note that “meta-analysis of research between 1968 and 2003 indicate that teachers have more positive expectations for White students than for Black and Latino students.”

During the school year, teachers are busy from the moment they wake to the moment they fall asleep. It may be tough to find the time to step back and reflect. Some teachers are also busy in summer — working a second job or teaching in a summer program. But there are often better margins to the day in summer, so I encourage educators who care about social justice (which I hope is all of us) to spend time reflecting on race in America and how it plays out in the classroom — so that we can all be part of the solution. If not this summer, then next.

In addition to fulfilling our civic duties to help our communities, state, and nation be more equitable, here are some summertime suggestions related to education:

  • Read a well-researched book on race in America and reflect on what it means for your classroom. How does this information impact your teaching and your perspectives on the students? How does it impact the lives of your students? How does it shape the culture of your school? Talk about it with other adults in your life.

  • Read a book on multicultural education and reflect on how you might change your practices to support students well across difference, especially race. Is there bias in your curriculum? Should your department or division have a conversation on its commitment to a multicultural education?

  • Take part in a summer workshop that focuses on inclusive education. There are many options out there. The goal is to learn from experienced educators how to create an inclusive classroom and curriculum. If you attend a workshop or conference that is focused on your area of expertise, ask questions and start conversations on the topic of race and learning. Help each other develop skills to teach all students well across race.

  • Reflect on the experiences of your students of color. Would any of them be among the 75 percent of Black and Latino students who say their teachers don’t support them? If you’re uncertain, consider ways you might be able to answer this question more clearly in the future. Along with strengthening your relationship with students of color and their families, consider surveying them occasionally to see how you might serve them better.

  • Develop the practice of teaching all students the skill of self-advocacy. The more that students can ask for help, or ask for clarification about some aspect of a subject, or reach out to adults for advice and support, the better they will do in school and life. Some students do this more naturally than others. But we should aim to teach all students the skill of self-advocacy and make it clear that we are available to them when they need help or have questions or simply want an adult to talk to.

In addition to reflecting on your own teaching and classroom, you might also consider ways you can help your school become more inclusive. The work will vary from school to school, of course. The goal is to consider systemic changes that will improve the culture and climate of the school — and serve all students well.

In some schools, this may involve setting up affinity groups and training teacher-facilitators. In others, it may involve digging into the data about the degree to which students are tracked differently by race. Are you setting up Latino and black students for a lower track than white and Asian-American students? In others, it maybe a matter of developing strong relations with parents of color.

Some years ago, I edited an article about race and education in which the author, an African-American head of school, wrote about the importance of all of us using our “thimbleful of power” to address racial inequities. Now, I find myself using this metaphor often. Like others, I’m sure, I can feel overwhelmed and beaten up by the various cultural forces that support a racist status quo. I used to think I could simply present the facts, highlight workable solutions, appeal to our collective conscience, and our culture would shift quickly. But fifty years after the assassination of MLK and Robert Kennedy, the release of the Kerner Commission Report, and the passing of the 1968 Civil Rights bill, we still struggle to do what is — or should be — obviously right.

I take solace and find hope in all those who are making a difference — who are using their thimbleful of power well. The process may be uncomfortably slow, but I’m sure that, if all of us engage now, we will be in a much better place fifty years hence.

 

Michael Brosnan is the senior editor for Teaching While White and author of The Sovereignty of the Accidental, a collection of poetry. More information at www.michaelabrosnan.com.