You will probably recall that in July 2009, noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his own home after a neighbor called the police to report a suspected break-in. Gates is black; the arresting officer, white.
The incident drew national attention and President Obama responded at the time by saying, “I don’t know . . . what role race played in that. But . . . what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
The President invited Dr. Gates and the officer to the White House for a beer and a conversation and said that he hoped the incident could become a “teachable moment” for the nation.
A teachable moment is defined as “an event or experience which presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life.”
It is clear that, with respect to race relations and police practices, that teachable moment left the national consciousness as quickly as it arrived. Nothing changed in the decade following the Gates arrest; we did not learn, we did not grow, we did not evolve.
But all of that has suddenly changed. We are now at an inflection point in American history. We appear ready for a paradigm shift that will address our nation’s original sins of slavery and subjugation. We are well beyond a teachable moment. Now is the time for action.
The two precipitating events that have brought us to this tipping point are, of course, the utter devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the videotaped killing of George Floyd while in police custody.
These two national tragedies have combined to form a perfect storm strong enough to jolt us from the hidebound systemic racism that has come to define America’s institutions – from policing to schooling, from housing to lending practices, and in almost every other conceivable realm. That is why we call it “systemic.” It is woven throughout the very fabric of our national identity. It is appalling. It limits our potential as a nation. And it must change.
The pandemic has laid bare America’s longstanding, deeply embedded societal inequities. Simply put, COVID-19 disproportionately harms people of color and the poor – in terms of health, in terms of employment, and in terms of the ability to receive a meaningful education.
The New York Times reports that “Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors” and “have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.”
COVID-19 has also revealed the inequities that run throughout our education system. The “digital divide” is real, and it is devastating. Students simply cannot participate in remote learning if they don’t have access to a computer or other smart device and to the internet.
And then, in the midst of COVID’s devastation, came the video that shook the world. Before our very eyes, we watched in abject horror as a black man pleaded for his life while a white police officer slowly and methodically killed him. The gathered crowd begged for the torture to stop. The officer knew he was being filmed, but assumed there would be no repercussions – because, until now, there rarely have been consequences for such acts.
His name was George Floyd. Say his name. Then say the names of all who have been persecuted and prosecuted and killed by those sworn to uphold the law.
By coincidence, in the same year that Dr. Gates was arrested, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a now-famous TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” As described by one columnist, Adichie’s talk is about “what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative” and that “each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity.”
It is a stunningly beautiful and insightful talk and I urge you to seek it out if you’ve never heard it before.
As brilliant as the talk is, though, it is not a new concept.
Every year, on the Fourth of July, I read two documents. I begin by reading the stirring words of Thomas Jefferson declaring that henceforth the American colonies were free and independent of the British monarchy.
No one wants to eliminate the teaching of that history. It should be taught, and it should be celebrated; but it must be placed in its proper historical context. Students must understand that the Declaration of Independence was written and signed exclusively by wealthy white males, many of whom were slaveholders.
But the story of the Founding Fathers is only one of the stories. And as Adicihie warned, there is real danger in telling just that story.
The other document that I read on Independence Day is Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Written a decade before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass made the point – so obvious now, but so radical at the time – that, from an American slave’s perspective, there was nothing to celebrate in our nation’s freedom or independence. He warned us, in the most profound terms, of the danger of the single story, the single perspective.
Last month I asked Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emerita of the Board of Regents, to address the Board on the issue of race relations. An icon of the civil rights movement, the Vice Chancellor has lost none of her fiery edge, even as she nears her 95th birthday. And she did not disappoint. In the wake of the George Floyd murder and the nationwide protests demanding a systemic response to systemic racism, she challenged us to teach our students that there is more than one story. She dared us to teach African American history in our schools. Not just slavery, but the entirety of the black experience in America.
She is, of course, right. The Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department must be a part of the solution. Education can and must play a role in combatting the systemic racism that is so deeply enmeshed throughout our society. It is why the Regents and I have for so long worked to make the teaching of civics and civic engagement an integral part of what is taught in New York’s schools. It is particularly important for our schools to take on this role now – because we have an administration in Washington now that is fomenting a hateful culture war designed to pull us down and drive us apart, rather than lift us up and draw us together.
The teachable moment has passed. The actionable moment is upon us. As Douglass instructed in no uncertain terms: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed . . . It is not light that is needed, but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”