When I was 12, I found a box of old, dusty books in the family garage. A stack of westerns, some V.C. Andrews, and the thickest book I’d ever seen aside from the Bible: Roots. The cover did not have a synopsis. A quick flip of the pages told me it was a story about Black people. I couldn’t imagine where it had come from (my former-hippie mom?) and didn’t want to ask in case anyone might object to my reading it. My father and my grandparents had made it clear how I was supposed to feel about Black people.
So I read that massive book without mentioning it to anyone, and in doing so inadvertently indoctrinated myself into understanding that the messages I was receiving from my family and from my school were, at best, not the full story, and, at worst, outright lies. At 12, I was able to make the thin, immature connection between the stories I read in Roots and the microaggressions and blatant racism against Black people I witnessed daily — how the whole world seemed so ready to dehumanize Black people and put barriers in their way no matter what they tried to accomplish. Roots was my introduction to what I would later learn was called systemic racism.
What if I hadn’t stumbled upon Roots in a box of books in my garage? Where would I be now in terms of what I know, how I behave, and what kinds of social activism I engage in?
I know for sure that I wouldn’t have learned the true history of systemic racism in my public school classroom.
Our Education System Is Racist Because It’s Not Antiracist
The hundreds of instances lately of white people exclaiming, hand-to-chest, “I had no idea racism was this bad!” makes the deficiencies in our education system painfully clear. The thing is, though, our schools are racist. They can’t be “not racist.” As New York Times best-selling author and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research Ibram X. Kendi has said repeatedly, “not racist” is not a thing that can exist. “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist,’” Kendi says in his book, How to Be an Antiracist. “It is ‘antiracist.’ … One either endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist or racial equality as an antiracist.”
The history we teach our students is about white people, written by mostly white people, taught by mostly white people, and assumes white as the default while “othering” every historical figure who is not white. We learn about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. as solutions that ended a problem rather than as individual, tragic stories in a fight for racial equality that persists to this day. Our education system, as an institution, is not antiracist. Therefore, it is racist.
What We Teach Is Racist Because It’s Not Antiracist
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most openly racist humans and quite possibly the biggest hypocrite who has ever lived on planet Earth. How the hell do we teach classrooms full of students, many of whom are Black, that this man who has literally been carved into a fucking mountain that we stole from indigenous peoples is a hero because he wrote “all men are created equal” into the Declaration of Independence? The man owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime, and not for lack of abolitionists sending him hundreds of letters begging him to free them and do his part to end slavery. Instead, this absolute monster of a human being was scratching notes into his financial ledgers about how much he stood to earn every time one of his slaves had a baby. He estimated 4% for year per birth. Did you learn that in history class? Because I sure didn’t.
That is a single example out of countless. Sometimes I encounter in other white people an ignorance of racism so profound, so complete, that I don’t even know where to begin a rebuttal. And yet, as a fellow white person who shares so many similarities in education and childhood environment, I am familiar with the potential for their ignorance. How do you even begin to educate someone on systemic racism when their knowledge of racial injustice has been whitewashed every single step of the way?
The Way We Fund Schools Is Racist Because It’s Not Antiracist
But racism isn’t just evident in the material that is taught. The actual, literal structure of schools is racist. Our schools rely heavily on property taxes to fund them, and property taxes are predicated on the value of homes in the school district. In many underfunded school districts, depressed home values can be traced back to redlining, the practice by lenders of denying loans to borrowers based on the location of the property for which they sought credit (i.e., Black neighborhoods).
Redlining was banned in 1968 thanks to the Fair Housing Act, but many of the neighborhoods negatively impacted by the practice remain economically depressed to this day. Which means schools in those areas, inhabited largely by Black folks, are also underfunded, which means a significant percentage of Black children are not given the same opportunities as the white kids ten minutes down the road who live in more expensive neighborhoods, neighborhoods that were always given the benefit of the doubt when it came to credit because the residents of those neighborhoods were white.
Systemic Racism Is A Bigger Problem Than Google Can Solve — Education Has To Play A Role
Lately I see a lot of people coming out and saying there’s no excuse for not knowing about and understanding racism, because “just google it.” I agree with this to a point. But it bears consideration that the history of racism in America is vast, complex, woven into the fabric of our social structure, and is not being taught in schools. Not the whole truth, anyway. And we’re asking people who don’t know what they don’t know to “just google it.” We’re asking people to take it upon themselves to push back against what teachers—people they were told to trust—told them was true.
I am a learning-obsessed, social justice-loving, bookworm freelance writer whose laptop runs Google searches upwards of 14 hours per day, and I can barely keep up. Yes, people need to make time to learn. But also, if our schools taught the truth about racism—the whole, real, dirty truth—we wouldn’t have to tell racist Lisa to “go google” the War on Drugs so she can learn how it unfairly incarcerated millions of Black men for the express purpose of preventing them from voting, because Lisa would already know. Ignorance about systemic racism is a problem far more complex than can be addressed by a few Google searches.
How do you dismantle the racist system that continues to underfund schools largely populated by children of color when the people with the power to do the dismantling haven’t even been taught the history of that racist system—indeed haven’t even been taught it exists? How do you have a conversation about defunding police with a person who honestly thinks our police and criminal justice system are on everyone’s side equally because the education they received coupled with their lived experience tells them this is true?
We have to fix education—what we teach, how we teach it, and how we fund it. If we don’t, it’s going to be almost impossible to fix the rest of it.