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COLUMN: Dear Black students: Don’t let white efforts at miseducation deny your legacy

Black students
Black students
Supporters of an activist group, Concerned Student 1950, chant during a march through the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. The group was protesting racism on campus. Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Dear Black students,

The last seven months have presented you with a whirlwind of challenges that undoubtedly disrupted your schooling: The coronavirus pandemic, police killings of unarmed Black people, uprisings for racial justice, Western wildfires and a contentious presidential election in which efforts to disenfranchise voters in Black-majority cities have been bold and deliberate. You have to make sense of misinformation campaigns by politicians who think saying “fake news” will make their lies go away.

With all the distractions and attacks, it may sometimes be difficult to recall our legacy. For generations, we have fought for freedom and freedom’s antecedent, a quality education. Always, the upholders of white supremacy have tried to control us by obstructing our path to the schoolhouse through law, propaganda and duplicity. Now, they are doing it again.

Quoting his owner in his book, Life of an American Slave, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “[I]f you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass knew that an undereducated populace will be controlled. What we witnessed during this election was evidence that miseducation doesn’t just allow the continued control of Black people. The 57 percent of white people who cast their ballot for Donald Trump — who has yet to accept the truth and concede the election — represents a white achievement gap that marks a generation unfit for the workforce, college and democracy.

Even if half of America chooses ignorance, we should not.

Experts are predicting that you will experience significant learning loss as a result of this year’s school closures. Certainly, the disruption this past year will impact academic achievement. But Black students, you must not fall prey to the duplicitous attempts by this administration to undermine democracy and undermine the idea of truth itself. And you must do all you can to fight for the education you deserve, one that will prepare you to be informed citizens, activists and leaders.

Related: Donald Trump and the white achievement gap

There are objective and subjective truths that we must uphold in spite of a federal government that disavows or ignores them. Speaking truth to power is our legacy. We’ve been truth whisperers for some time. When Thomas Jefferson and other drafters of the Declaration of Independence wrote that “all men are created equal” and then later designated Black people as three-fifths of a person in the U.S. Constitution, we understood the truth and fought every way we could until our full humanity was recognized. When those who wish “to make America great again,” deny climate change, the basic math in our electoral counts and murder by police, we must continue to demand truth, because our lives depend on it. When lawmakers seek to control women’s bodies, we will remind them that for centuries, Black bodies were controlled, and that we will not tolerate the corporal domination of anyone anymore.

While the current barriers to a quality education are new, they are not unprecedented.

Black people are not a monolith. We will disagree about politics and policies. However, we should not disregard facts, science and logic. We should embrace a democratic culture of informed debate and the democratic values of diversity, inclusion and equity, even when others seem willing to cast these aside in exchange for power.

Likewise, we must exercise our creed that it takes a village to raise a child, that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. It’s in this tradition that we must continue to demand that our leaders and our schools embrace these values, too.

Like previous generations of Black students, you must not only master language arts, social studies, math and art, you must do so while still demanding equal treatment and funding for schools, diverse teachers, safe and healthy learning conditions and rich curricular offerings, including the study of Black people’s contributions to American history. And this year, you must do this with schools closed, amid a terrifying pandemic and an economic crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in a century.

While the current barriers to a quality education are new, they are not unprecedented.

I’m encouraging you to put the events of 2020 into the context of our legacy. Our struggle is not simply a quest for public education as an end; Black people’s quest for education is rooted in former slaves’ self-determination to form culturally literate communities.

The stakes are too high to stop fighting for truth, justice and the chance to learn. Illiteracy helped maintain the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow. Right now, we are seeing how cultural illiteracy across the nation is undermining democracy itself.

So stay vigilant, Black students. Although the struggle is long and hard, truth and justice will prevail and ignorance will wither away with the unsustainable falsehoods that carry it.

This story about Black students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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