The COVID-19 pandemic has placed near-unparalleled obstacles before American educators. It also offers opportunities to rethink what we are doing. But the unspoken truth that needs to be expressed is that this latest pandemic developed within another 400-year-old pandemic of rampant racism and the inequities facing Black, Indigenous, and people of color—BIPOC—in the United States.
Like all superintendents, I find myself having to justify my decisions while focusing on efforts to keep our students’ and staff members’ best interests first. An added issue in my case is that I am African American and constantly working to overcome the overt and covert racism that BIPOC leaders deal with. Unfortunately, I even experience racism in my own community.
This dual pandemic has revealed racists across our country. Even during this global crisis, racism found a way to raise its ugly head. As the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd reminded us, BIPOC Americans continue to face racism and unscrupulous practices when confronted by law enforcement officials. We need to tackle racism head on. For educators, this means having the courage to dismantle systemic racism in our schools.
Despite the pandemic, the Alexandria, Va., city public schools that I lead continue to make racial equity a top priority. Last year, we adopted a five-year strategic plan that forges a path to becoming an anti-racist school system. We started by changing the name of one of our high schools—T.C. Williams High School—whose football team was the subject of the movie “Remember the Titans.” Why do that? Because the school was named after a racist former superintendent who vowed in the face of Brown v. Board of Education to keep our schools segregated. But we must go beyond name changes to tackle systemic racism throughout our nation’s public schools—in curriculum, funding, and opportunities for advanced classes.
Many BIPOC families across the country have been disproportionately hesitant to send their children back to school in person for fear that COVID-19 will take their lives. The data show that BIPOC people experienced longer waiting times in emergency rooms than white people and, in some instances, received substandard medical treatment even before the pandemic.
We must continue to encourage our BIPOC communities to get vaccinated and protect their families from the coronavirus. But it is also imperative that we understand why many in these communities may mistrust the medical establishment. Consider the cruel Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted by the federal government from 1932 to as late as 1972. One of the most infamous biomedical studies in history, the “experiment” left African American men intentionally uninformed about their infection as scientists researched the effects of untreated syphilis—even after penicillin emerged as an effective treatment. Knowing this history may shed some light on why the BIPOC communities are hesitant to take scientists at their word about the value of vaccinations.
So, let’s speak this unspoken truth about racism: The COVID-19 pandemic arrived more than a year ago; our nation’s racial inequities have been around for more than 400 years. Both pandemics continue to shape our lives. We must strive for the day that people’s skin color does not determine their life experiences. We must strive for the day when our BIPOC communities feel heard, seen, and respected. We must strive for the day that all commit to being anti-racist and celebrate our diversity as a source of American pride and strength. When that day arrives, the need to march and protest that Black Lives Matter will evaporate.
We can’t wait another 400 years. There’s no better time than today to take the first step.
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