This February, my students joined their peers across the country to celebrate Black History Month. They acknowledged the significant and varied contributions African Americans have made and studied the oppression and resilience of black people throughout history. As they learned about the struggle of the past, they begin to recognize it in their own present — when a cashier squints suspiciously when they walk into a store, when they turn on the news and see another person who looks like them lose his life to senseless violence. These lessons are anything but history.
I know this very personally. My father grew up in rural Mississippi, with an elementary education in the Jim Crow era. Because of him, I was cognizant of race from an early age, and he was adamant about education as the primary way to overcome the burdens of racism and discrimination. Ultimately, the stories of his childhood and the struggles he faced propelled me to earn my Doctorate. But even with all my academic achievements — points of pride for the both of us — I continue to worry about how I am viewed by society. I worry most about the perception of my young black students. And so, since becoming an educator, I’ve seized every chance to dialogue with them about how to overcome society’s low expectations.
The truth is that we have no time to waste. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
While the “whites only” signs of the ‘60s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.
Though it can be a struggle to help my students overcome the barriers they face, every day they prove what is possible. This past academic year, I had 25 eighth-graders test into High School Honors Biology. We were one of just two schools out of 16 in the district to have students earn high school credit in Biology. When I think about how my students are viewed based on their low-income backgrounds or the nature of their community, it fills with me pride when they are able to disprove the negative stereotypes and realize their potential.
We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers — many who experience it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from further away. We must work toward these long term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.
As Loyola students and graduates, we can play a central role in this. We can get involved in the schools and communities just outside of campus. We can remind the next generation that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that kids see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and they always will.
Jonathan Moore is a 2007 Loyola Chicago and Teach For America-Phoenix alum. He is the principal of Dr. Bernard Black Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona.