The guilty verdicts in the Derick Chauvin trial bring a sense of relief and justice for many across the nation. Close to a year ago, the brutal murder of George Floyd led to some of the largest protests for racial justice that the United States has ever witnessed. We cannot cease the fight for justice even so. Systemic racism still persists in our society, and everyone can and must play a role in eradicating it. Derick Chauvin was found guilty because everyday citizens, including a 17-year-old high school student, were willing to stand up and record the last horrifying moments of Floyd’s life. Bystanders took action. They saw something and they captured it. They did not remain silent. They did not say it was someone else’s fight. They called out wrong and let the world know that it was not acceptable.
In this moment of racial reckoning, the Chauvin verdicts must not stop the quest for racial justice. In fact, this is the moment to keep the conversations going, to ramp up our vigilance, and to keep our eyes on the prize: We must eradicate any and all forms of racial discrimination. At a time when Black and brown people continue to be senselessly murdered and anti-Asian violence continues unabated, educators have a responsibility. There is no more time to waste.
When 17-year-old Darnella Frazier recorded Floyd’s tragic murder, she changed the world. Young people, like Darnella, are hungry for change, pleading for a new normal. In large numbers, they are demonstrating the courage to stand up for what they believe. Educators must follow suit. While the spotlight on Floyd’s murder has focused our attention on racial justice in policing, these calls for justice are not new in our schools.
Here are four actions that educators can and must take immediately:
- Discuss the George Floyd murder and the Chauvin trial in your classrooms. No matter the subject matter and in an age-appropriate manner, educators must talk to students about the murder and trial and address the outpouring of emotions that we have witnessed across the country. Teachers should create spaces where students can safely and bravely share their feelings around this defining moment in their lives. The role of policing in our communities, the importance of capturing moments of distress with cellphones, the fairness of our judicial system, and the power of peaceful protests can and should be talked about.
- But talk about race meaningfully. Many educators still feel reluctant to address race and racism in the classroom because of their personal discomfort around the strong emotions they can elicit. Here is some advice: Always consider the racial demographics in your classroom. Avoid situations where there is one student of color expected to serve as the spokesperson. Help students understand how racial exclusion of decades and centuries past has led to racial disparities today. Don’t shy away from talking about white supremacy, structural racism, and implicit bias for fear that students can’t handle the discussions. Education scholar Rich Milner says that good intentions, without action, are not enough when it comes to conversations about race. Students want to discuss topics about race but often find themselves with teachers who are either unwilling or unable.
Seeing policies and practices that harm students of color but not calling them out is being complicit.
- Education leaders must lead. Teachers often explain that they don’t talk about race because their administration won’t support them should parents complain. This moment in our history should be a loud wake-up call for education leaders to develop their racial literacy to steer and sustain these discussions. School and district leaders have access to extensive data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, to support courageous conversations about race. Leadership must query their staffs about a host of pressing issues, including why so few children of color are in gifted and talented programs, how to better support English-language learners, why Black students are overrepresented in disciplinary referrals, and why we celebrate Black and brown students when they excel in athletics but don’t when it comes to academics. Education leaders must anticipate the resistance and work through it. Finally, all school personnel should be prepared for their colleagues’ contradictory reactions to the Chauvin ruling. Many of the very people who were elated with the guilty verdicts are often the same people who consistently speak down to, overlook, pathologize, mistreat, and disregard Black students, families, and co-workers.
- Recognize that silence is complicity. For educators in mostly white rural and suburban neighborhoods, race-related conversations are vital. For educators in mostly Black and brown urban and rural neighborhoods, race-related conversations are vital. In racially mixed schools, race-related conversations are vital. Choosing to remain silent is a slap in the face to racial justice. Remaining silent when we witness or hear about acts of racism is just as problematic as committing a racist act. Seeing policies and practices that harm students of color but not calling them out is being complicit. Not advocating for students of color when we see their brilliance and potential contributes to the problem.
We should not be celebrating the guilty verdicts in the Chauvin trial. Justice was served. Instead, this should be a moment for all of us to recommit to being better, to doing better in the fight for racial equality and justice. Schools can and should be the shining examples of what our society can look like when we have the moral conviction to be better. We have a long way to go on the journey to justice. Let’s not rest or become complacent until all forms of racism are a thing of the past. Even as I write this, the news flashes that officials in Columbus, Ohio, have released police body-cam footage of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant being fatally shot by a police officer.
Our work is far from over.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as How We Can Improve College-Completion Rate