THE BLOG

A Nation Founded on Equality Continues to Stumble Over Skin Color

03/14/2014 11:09 am ET | Updated May 14, 2014
  • Eric Cooper Founder, President of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education

Associated with the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and '70s, these three words enabled many African-American slave descendants who were born with birth certificates identifying them as "Negro" or "colored" to slowly emerge from the shadows of discrimination to become empowered and confident.

Yet recent events remind us that this battle, too, is far from won. And that we must continue the steady march toward equality.

Along the path of this march, there is no better institution to help us whittle away at biases than the school, where universal themes -- such as racism -- can be used to facilitate critical thinking, reading comprehension and collaborative processing to teach tolerance and accelerate achievement for all students. Extending the conversations into the home as part of a form of student field work might further engage families.

"Black is Beautiful" inspired many immigrant-descendants of a proud African race to consider that perhaps theirs was no accident of birth, much as others endeavored to persuade us otherwise.

Certainly, our ancestors' voyage to the United States as an enslaved people and subsequent journey into the American way of life effectively stripped our culture from us. As late as the 1950s and '60s, we were screamed at for entering public schools, sitting at lunch counters, desegregating colleges and universities and drinking from water fountains. We dared to walk on forbidden streets after sundown and had the temerity to swim in community swimming pools, as if we had the same rights as other Americans. And for blacks who swam in those pools, can one ever imagine the sadness when the pools were drained because of a perceived contamination of the water?

Some declared that we had turned a page and entered a post-racial society with the election of the nation's first African-American president in 2008. Yet cases of racism, violence and overt discrimination in schools, housing, the workplace and penal institutions persist.

Even the seemingly simple truth of "Black is Beautiful" is routinely challenged as those with dark complexions continue to face racial and cultural stereotypes.

For instance, the blog Jezebel last fall reported that only 6 percent of runway models during New York Fashion Week were black.

More recently, Lupita Nyong'o won rave reviews as one of the most beautiful women on the red carpet during the Academy Awards -- not to mention accolades for her performance in 12 Years A Slave, for which she won -- an Oscar for best supporting actress. Sadly, the beauty that is so obvious to millions of people escaped Lupita at a point during her life. She shared that she once contemplated purchasing whitening cream to lighten her beautiful ebony skin.

Lupita is like countless African Americans who have internalized the propaganda of white privilege. In an instant, she conjured for me the doll studies conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark (1939, 1947), which became the basis for the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

A study published in 2009 reported that when asked their preference, black children believed the white dolls were prettier, nicer and the ones they would like to play with; they often made white bias selections because they have learned from society that these are the "right" choices. Interestingly, only 57 percent of black children picked the black doll as the one that "looks like you."

As someone fortunate enough to have studied with and learned from Kenneth Clark at Teachers College, Columbia University, I am deeply disturbed by the realization that stereotypes rooted in skin color continue to run deep.

Studies on language and culture by Lisa Delpit of Southern University and her students, the 2005 documentary A Girl Like Me about the importance of color, hair and facial features for young African-American women, or the CNN reports of the same in 2010 all point to the continued need to address internalized shame and its relation to stereotypes.

Just the other day, I read viewers' reactions to a trailer for a remake of the film Annie, with a beautiful, talented black child playing the title role. The racist vitriol of some of these posts sickened me, a trajectory of anger encased in the bile of harsh words.

The fact that we continue to see racism all around us -- and even internalize it -- in a nation founded on the equality of humankind is confounding and disturbing. In 30 years there will no longer be a majority demographic in the United States. It is better we engage now in preparation for the inevitable mosaic that is diversity.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets @ECooper4556.