I am a member of an ethnic group that at different times and places has suffered a great deal of discrimination, persecution and homicide while many of the perpetrators—some private citizens, some agents of governments—went unpunished. My great-grandparents and many others escaped those dynamics by coming to the United States, a country where our particular ethnic group is rarely victim to those barbarities.
After being born in Philadelphia, I was educated about this history at home in Willingboro, New Jersey; in my public elementary school and in the synagogue and Hebrew school I attended. While Willingboro began as a suburb that barred African Americans, by the time my family lived there African Americans made up almost half of the population. I became educated about the fact that while my ethnic group escaped a great deal of discrimination, persecution and homicide, African Americans had always suffered, and in many cases continued to suffer, these barbaric acts.
I respect, appreciate and agree with the rallying cry “#Blacklivesmatter,” but given an opportunity to expound I would say that Black lives have mattered in this country since the first slave ship arrived, but only insofar as Black bodies could be exploited for profit. Ensuring that Black bodies can be exploited has meant that Black minds have had to be subjugated. The subjugation of Black minds started when slave traders and slave owners made it almost impossible for African Americans to speak their native languages, practice their native cultures, learn to read and write and build and maintain families. The subjugation of Black minds continues today as we neglect to educate millions of African American children.
Nevertheless, we know that even the strongest efforts at subjugating human minds fail, and an impressive history exists of African Americans who developed their minds to become leading intellectuals and to overcome the exploitation of their bodies – from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Dubois, and on and on.
Of course, the subjugation of Black minds has been the way that our power structure has kept Black bodies under society’s control. When Black bodies get out of our society’s control, many Americans of all races experience fear. This experience of fear has been the legal justification for the slaughter of thousands of unarmed African American boys and men throughout our problematic history, up to the present day.
For those of us who are committed to disrupting and dismantling the system of exploitation, mental subjugation, discrimination, persecution, incarceration and homicide with impunity that is promulgated against African Americans, our best strategy is to help empower African Americans with education that will lead them to overcome the system. That’s why I taught at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore. That’s why I founded KIPP Ujima Village Academy and KIPP Baltimore. And that’s why I lead MarylandCAN and advocate for policies and practices that will lead all children—including African American children— to achieve at high levels in school and in life. Those who promote and sustain these policies are part of the effort to dismantle the white supremacist system that exists. Those who obstruct these policies and practices, while perhaps well intentioned, are perpetuating the system.
The recent homicides with impunity of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and of so many others are absolutely tragic. My hope is that if anything positive comes from these horrible events, it is a coming together of all of those working on behalf of African American children—whether they are working in education reform, criminal justice reform or the other efforts to dismantle our institutions of exploitation—around a bolder and more urgent consensus for fundamental change that will right these historic wrongs once and for all.