A conversation between Marc Porter Magee and Derrell Bradford

This week we pause from our interview series with some of the country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers on how our education system must adapt in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, 50CAN’s CEO, Marc Porter Magee, and Executive Vice President, Derrell Bradford, hold a conversation over race and police brutality. The conversation touches on parallels between the education and criminal justice systems, lessons from the protests happenings across the country and the unexamined racism behind appeals to nostalgia.


Marc Porter Magee: Well, we are back with a new video interview, and we’re going to do something a little different this time. So Derrell and I have been taking turns interviewing different people inside and outside of 50Can to talk about this new reality, and we thought, this time, it’s been such a big couple of weeks for the country, we would just try to tackle some of what’s been going on by talking to each other together. And when we started The New Reality Roundup three months ago, what we wanted to do was try to elevate the challenges in an education system where schooling was continuing without schools. And we know, as education advocates, our education system is fundamentally unequal, and it is absolutely the reality that where you’re born, where you grow up helps determine the kind of educational opportunities you’re given. So we’ve been working on that for the past 10 years, and when we went into this new reality, we knew there was going to be a challenge, that those inequalities would not only continue into the world of distance learning but become exacerbated. And so we’ve been trying to uplift stories of creatively working against that, and the last two weeks, we’ve seen that the inequalities that are happening inside of education are mirrored across all of our institutions and, particularly, in policing and the reality of police brutality. And we’ve been having the conversation as a country for the past two weeks about what we can do about that on almost an unprecedented scale, with protests in nearly every city in the country, and so we want to bring that into the conversation, too. So that’s what we’re hoping to tackle over the next 10 minutes or so. So, Derrell, we’ve got a pretty full plate on our hands here.

Derrell Bradford: And 10 minutes to talk about it. Yes.

So maybe we could just start by talking about what we see as the parallels here, this idea of institutions in America that a lot of times enjoy popular support – our public education system, our policing system – but we know are grounded in incredibly unfair realities about how kids and Americans are treated.

Yeah. So I just want to say it’s difficult to talk about either of these issues right now because the country is obviously raw about the killing of George Floyd. I know it’s affected me a great deal. And school’s out and has been out in a way that has upended normally traditional relationships between people and their kids and these institutions, and so I know it’s been hard to kind of just talk about this because it’s a sensitive time. That said, if your job is our job, you are constantly looking at how race and the police and public schooling intersect with one another because they do. And it’s not sort of opportunist to point out that the kinds of similarities we see in how people are treated based on where they are and who they are and what they look like present themselves across both of these institutions.

The Black Lives Matter folks, they get a– it took me a long time to actually be able to articulate it well, but all lives can’t matter until black lives matter is like saying if 10 people are standing there, and one person is hurt, you give the hurt person the Band-Aid first. And that makes a lot of sense. I think that makes common– if you’re in healthcare – right? – if you’re in anything, I think that makes common sense. And so our public education system is an all-education-matters system. Right? It has a set of norms that are built for communities that aren’t the ones we normally serve the most, that don’t have the empathy and local context of what happens there. I mean, it’s not like black folks don’t want the police. The polling shows that black people in America support police and policing, and they want safe communities. They just want it on their terms, and the same way they want schools on their terms, and I think it’s an important moment to point that out so we can have a better discussion afterwards.

Yeah. I like that metaphor. It was surprising. I think it’s shifted, and the polls suggest it’s shifted, but when the Black Lives Matter first emerged, you did see a lot of people pushing back on it. And I think it’s taken a while, really, for people to absorb the reality of what’s going on and for that to form into something approximating an understanding of the injustices of the system. And I think your metaphor about someone being hurt and we need to respond to that is particularly powerful when you realize that it’s the government doing the hurting. In the case of police brutality, it’s a police force that we know is discriminating against black people. We know, also, that our education system was built on discriminatory boundaries. We know it’s very unfair in the opportunities kids get, and, therefore, it’s not very surprising when the outcomes are unfair, too. But I wonder if it’s harder or America’s still waking up to that reality of that injustice because perhaps it’s not personified in the same way that you see with one of these horrific police videos.

Yeah. I mean, one of the best and worst things about America, man – you know this – is that when it’s working, it’s like a dream you don’t have to wake up from. So when somebody says this great dream you had, you need to wake up from it, immediately, you’re going to wake up groggy. And then maybe afterwards, the mind sharpens, and you realize that there’s sort of like a clear and present danger out there. And I think cell phone video, in particular– right? Just like we argue for transparency policy on the school side, cell phone video, in particular, has shone a bright, hot light on things that people actually did not believe were happening or could not believe would happen. Right? Like, “How could that ever– someone must have made that up. It couldn’t be real that a random police officer would pull you over and treat you this way and make you feel for your life and whatever.”

And now, the footage is there, and you’re seeing things where if a black person asks you to follow the rules, as in like Christian Cooper in New York, somebody wants to call the police on you, and that could go sideways. We know that it could go sideways. And so I just think a lot of folks – and we need folks to – are waking up from this dream, and it’s painful. But they’re actually waking up from it in a way that they haven’t in the past. And that’s going to be better overall. I don’t want to harp on this, but it’s the same thing with schools. Right? Whenever you talk about what America is supposed to be– Frederick Douglass is great on this. Right? Black people in America are the only people who have both been in physical bondage and intellectual bondage through policy. Right? And so we can’t ever meet the highest expectations of who we want to be as a country unless we look at that and decide we’re going to attack it. Not two weeks from now. Not after the next unfortunate George Floyd incident happens. But, really, today. And I think, in the best cases, that’s what we’re seeing in the streets everywhere.

Yeah. And I think it’s interesting, your point about nostalgia. Obviously, we’ve heard in some of the discourse of the past two weeks the police are not Mayberry police anymore. They’re showing up with armored vehicles and SWAT gear and weapons and tear gas. And I think there’s a similar waking up from the nostalgia of public education or that dream of what we were told. I know you and I have tussled sometimes with Diane Ravitch, and one of her big lines is, “We need to get back to those neighborhood schools that we all know and love,” and she’s thinking of these suburbs, white picket fence–

Mayberry. Yeah.

Yeah. Mayberry. Same thing. Right? Yeah. Yeah. But we know, I mean, Diane grew up in segregated Texas and went to an all-white school, so we know the reality in her mind is filtered over time and forgetting about the structural inequality that is baked into those systems. Very different reality if she’d grown up black in Texas or Hispanic in Texas. So how do we– but nostalgia is a very powerful thing. How can we break that nostalgia, talk about what’s wrong with the systems we’ve built, and still pull people together around the idea that all kids deserve a great education?

Yeah. I think the first thing is there’s just a conversation you’ve got to have about law enforcement that’s like the conversation you have about great teachers and teachers who need to do something else. That the fact that you want a person like Officer Chauvin never to be able to be in charge of public safety ever again does not mean that you don’t think the police are important and have a constructive role in helping us maintain a society that is ultimately free because our freedoms are protected. Right? And the same thing when we talk about teachers. It’s like there are lots of people who are good at it. There are lots of people who would be good at something else. That’s not an assault on teachers. It’s a recognition of how important it is that someone is excellent at that job. So I just want to throw that out there. I think it’s important backstop.

The other thing, though, is just to your point about nostalgia. So you could tell me all you want about how great it is to drive a car, Marc. I have never driven one. I see them on the street. I know if I’m in front of them, it’s not going to end well, but as long as you’re telling me about an experience you’ve had that I’ve never had, there’s going to be a gap there. And for lots of people in this country, their experience of going to a school is not like the one that nostalgia lays out there. Right? And that’s because of location, history, economy. I’ve only ever gone to one school in my life that I was zoned for, and I kind of wasn’t zoned for that one, either. It was like my mom was living in one place. I was staying at my grandmother’s place because she was going to watch me, and the school was there. And so I’ve been black my whole life. The experience of being black and navigating the system is different than if you were white and you grew up in 1950. But that experience, all its trade-offs, highs and lows, is largely hidden, and you got to respect it. And other people have similar experiences. So if your neighborhood school is great, more power to you, but that’s your thing. Be sensitive to the equivalent of the, “I’m telling you this is going on even if there’s no video,” of what happens to other people who try to navigate these systems. I just think that would be a good place to start.

Yeah. And I think that’s the key of it. It may take a video for people to change their minds. We should be able to hear about people’s experiences and absorb them, and maybe, as we’re kind of expanding that zone of empathy and trust, that makes it possible to see the reality in a lot of different circumstances that maybe we’ve tried to wish away.

That’s the worst thing about being a human being. Loyalty. Right?

Exactly. Well, and it also seems– I was looking at a chart today, and it showed trust continuing to decline in America. It’s been on the decline. And it’s almost like, as we’ve grappled with our differences and our realities, it hasn’t so far been able to result in a trust around a common way of viewing the world. And I know you and I tackle every day trying to figure out how do you build coalitions as there’s increasing partisanship and divisions. But, ultimately, we got to get there. I guess one hopeful thing maybe to end on is just these protests themselves. I saw a political scientist say they may be the largest protests ever in America if you just count the sheer number of people involved against all the different cities over a two-week period, and the polls seemed to suggest it’s increasing in popularity. And Black Lives Matter, which started out as perhaps a truthful but controversial assertion is starting to take on a popular vibe. So what does that say about how change happens?

Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. It’s like that line from, I think, The Sun Also Rises where somebody goes, “How’d you go bankrupt?” and the guy goes, “Slowly, then all at once.” I think you’re kind of seeing this here. It really felt like the energy behind what Black Lives Matter stood for from a policy standpoint was gone, and then it wasn’t, and that’s been heartening. And there are obviously still– there’s a lot of space between– we talk about this all the time, Marc. Between social movements and policy change. And how that last bit is navigated matters a great deal. And, like I said, personally, I like breathing. I would love to see some success on this one. But the thing, I think, that got me about what’s different about the current thing than other things is that– Marc, you know I’m a rabid soccer fan. The Germans seem to have figured out how to play soccer, so I watch German soccer. And a striker for a team in Munich, he’s the captain of the Polish team. So he’s a white guy. He’s from Poland. He’s a very good player. He had a Black Lives Matter armband on in the Bundesliga, and I was like, “What is this? Where did this come from?” Because it’s not like even black English players who are playing in Germany. It’s a Polish guy playing in Germany who got this. And that was powerful to me. Like all the stuff we talked about, Marc, this time could be different. Let’s see if it is.

Yeah. Well, I think we’ll end it on that hopeful note, and we’ll hope that this social movement translates into policy victories and then a better reality. And then maybe if we can do it in policing, we can do it in the other institutions in America.

Nice. It’d be nice. Good talking to you, man.

Yeah. Thanks, Derrell.

More Interviews
Share This