Education is an applied field. This means that the work of educators must translate to practical knowledge useful for improving social conditions for youth, families, and their communities. Education is not about the ahistorical transference of irrelevant facts. Rather, to be educated is to be a lifelong learner duly prepared to ask questions of and help to solve complex societal problems. Preceding education with the word “urban” conjures many images, one likely being that of Black and Brown bodies, poor and disempowered, languishing in a public education system that has failed to provide the type of education that levels the socioeconomic playing field. An urban education underscores the imminent challenge facing schools, which is responding to the risk factors facing young people associated with urban living, and preparing those young people to deal constructively with their circumstances. Why in 2015 is one such risk factor for Black men, and urban youth broadly, assault and murder at the hands of public servants? This is a space of modern day urban education that must not go unchecked, undiscussed, or unchallenged.
Discussion on Violence in Classrooms
The glaring trend of violence against Black men and boys, the failure of the “authorities” to provide answers to our lingering queries, and the legitimate resulting confusion around the sketchy events of one (of many) Black man’s death, precipitates the anarchy we see in Baltimore. This is resistance of the highest order, and though many may disagree with this community’s tactics, we have to interpret the actions of Baltimore citizens from various historical and political perspectives. Any teacher in the US teaching in an urban setting that is silent on recent events is failing his or her students and missing out on an important “teachable” moment. The Baltimore “riots” provides a text for which to achieve the aforementioned aims of education, chiefly, carving out space for a dialogue that supports students’ critical thinking around matters of oppression and privilege.
What Should Students Know?
People are saying violence is not the answer and that we need to “pray for Baltimore”. This has been an especially popular social media-touted adage over the last several days. Few would argue that praying in times like these is a bad thing. Still, urban youth would benefit from thinking and teaching around where prayers are targeted and what prayers to pray. Pray for Baltimore. Yes. Even more however, pray for boldness: the willingness to stand up against systemic oppression and structural racism, to disrupt ignorance when and wherever it is made visible despite the discomfort it may impose. Pray that there be courageous police officers who will stand up in opposition to their colleagues who brazenly harass, demean, and disrespect the historically disempowered. Pray for due process, judges, and juries with visions of social justice that supercede legal loopholes and logic that further marginalize the already battered and broken. There is a lot to pray for, but we have to help young people to realize they must not minimize the strength of their prayers, and the influence of their voice simply to advocating that justifiably angry Black folks stop being violent. This modern day rebellion was not intended to be palatable, nor should it be. Pray for the problem, not just the unfortunate outcomes. We must invite students to unpack the hegemony undergirding the “riots” and the privileged response that we must merely “pray” for peace, as if that should be our only response.
Morever, let’s be clear here, students must recognize that the mainstream media has an agenda. Urban educators should be helping youth to analyze how the stories being told on the 24 hour news cycle fuel a narrative that distracts us from remembering 240 years of oppression and corrupt systems that bring us time and time again to THIS place of pain and physical opposition. This visceral oppression runs deep down in the bloodlines of the young men and women of African ancestry who are being broadly constructed as unwieldy thugs and looters. In THIS political moment, we must help young people to understand their choices, which are either to focus on the consequential destruction of physical materials, or the destruction of physical lives – both those TAKEN (not lost) and those suffering under state-sanctioned, state-supported, and state-exonerated violence. An urban education centers institutions and structures as sites for explaining inequity and violence against citizens.
This is an Opportunity
Thinking and teaching the #BaltimoreUprising is not about assigning blame to individual police officers or attempting to rationalize the vigilant uprising of fed-up Baltimore residents. These events create an opportunity to question the values and priorities of our society and to inquire of the factors that lead to the rage so prominently displayed on every major media outlet. Educating urban youth without accounting for the challenges they face, which includes foregrounding how and why they are implicated in longstanding social problems is educational malpractice. When we know better, we have to actually do better.
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Chezare A. Warren’s research interests include urban teacher preparation, culturally responsive teaching, and critical race theory in education. He has studied the utility of empathy for White female teachers’ cross-cultural interactions with Black boys—work for which he received the 2014 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE). Currently, he is looking to examine the school conditions and teacher dispositions that produce high academic outcomes for students of color, particularly Black males in K-12 education contexts.