Leaders of K-12 schools, colleges, and universities sometimes release formal statements when acts of racial violence and injustice occur locally and elsewhere in our country. Many are writing now to their communities about the death last week of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. While these statements are meant to represent solidarity and support, they can miss the mark if not courageously constructed. Dozens of leaders have sought our counsel on what to say in this moment. This essay includes some advice we have offered them on ways to make statements more substantive, trustworthy, and actionable.
We acknowledge that police officers have killed unarmed people across all racial and ethnic groups. But if a statement at this particular time is specifically about the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, then it should specifically address Black people’s long-standing, catastrophic interactions with law enforcement officers and the persistent anti-Black racism that has plagued our nation and its educational institutions. We also insist that leaders cite Black people explicitly, as opposed to referring broadly to “people of color” or “historically disadvantaged communities.”
While we strongly prefer action over written words, we understand that students, educators, parents, and others in local communities often expect (and sometimes pressure) leaders to swiftly release statements. Here are six things we suggest leaders who seriously aim to make a difference do in statements:
Say how you personally feel about police officers killing unarmed Black people. Also say why you feel the way you do."
1. Acknowledge that citizens across the country are protesting not only the death of George Floyd, but also police killings of many other unarmed Black people over time.
2. Say how you personally feel about police officers killing unarmed Black people. Also say why you feel the way you do.
3. Use words that explicitly name racial violence. Do not soften the intensity of systemic racism with broad language about diversity, equity, and inclusion. If the statement does not include words such as “racism,” “racist,” “white supremacy,” or “anti-Blackness,” it is insufficient and therefore should be revised.
4. Call for readers of the statement to ask Black students, Black teachers, Black staff members, and Black families how they are affected by this; what support they need from their schools; and what they would like to have happen in this moment and beyond.
5. Urge readers of the statement to help students and colleagues across all racial and ethnic groups more deeply understand the realities of Black people’s interactions with law-enforcement officers locally and elsewhere. Also encourage readers to form interracial coalitions that peacefully oppose anti-Blackness and pursue racial equity for Black Americans. Be sure to stress that Black people should be involved in these coalitions, and we all must stand alongside them.
6. Articulate actions you plan to take to confirm that Black lives do indeed matter. For example, specify how you will work to eliminate racist discipline policies and practices in your school or district; address the misdiagnosis of Black children for special education; provide Black students equitable access to gifted programs, Advanced Placement courses, and other academically rigorous experiences; integrate anti-racist and Black studies curricula across your academic programs; hire, support, and advance the careers of more Black employees; and provide multidimensional, sustained professional learning experiences for teachers, counselors, staff members, and administrators across all racial and ethnic groups.
Statements that include these elements indicate a clear stance on care for and affirmation of Black students and families. They have the potential to motivate and inspire readers and perhaps bolster their confidence in superintendents, principals, school board members, and other administrators. However, it is what leaders do in the days, weeks, and years ahead that will ultimately make a difference in the dismantling of white supremacy and anti-Black racism that occurs within and beyond schools.