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Schools Remain the Frontline in Battle to End Racial Stereotyping, Inequality

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Summer, it seems, has arrived with a vengeance. Oppressive heat in the Southwest. Floods in the Midwest. Sweltering heat, humidity and rain in the East. A hurricane season that looms large on the calendar and in the minds of those who last year experienced Sandy and its aftermath.

And there's the ubiquitous challenge of finding a summer job, especially for children of color and those living in poverty. The unemployment rate for African-American youths, for example, is more than 40 percent, a number so large I can't understand how America tolerates it.

Yet high unemployment is neither the only test facing black and brown citizens, nor the only phenomenon that should offend Americans' collective sense of fairness.

For during the summer months, when students are out of school and out of work, it also is a challenge to sit, walk, run, drive or assemble while black. New York City, known as one of our country's most progressive, has a "stop-and-frisk" policy. Nearly 9 of 10 people who have been detained by police under that policy are racial minorities -- a statistic even NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg finds perfectly acceptable, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

We can't ignore what is all around us. As an African-American parent, I warn my 18-year-old son to be home before midnight, avoid crowds and remain alert while with friends to the dangers of "driving and hanging out while black." Every time I say those words, it deeply cuts into my sense of right and wrong and confirms for me the tremendous challenges America must confront if it is truly to become a post-racial society. My son should not have to limit his experiences because of his skin color; no one should. But the sad truth is that many people pay a vicious price for being born a minority.

I believe that Trayvon Martin, a young black man, was one of them. Watching the televised trial of his accused killer, George Zimmerman, I am reminded that Trayvon died a victim of the attributional ambiguities and stereotypes that are projected on a racial class. There is no doubt in my mind that if Trayvon had been a white teenager out for a walk the night he was fatally shot in the neighborhood where Zimmerman was on the neighborhood watch patrol, Trayvon would be alive today.

My son looks like Trayvon. So many African-American young men look like him. That makes this case an African-American parent's worst nightmare, and explains why we keep our fears so close as we try to keep our children safe from harm. We can't ignore what is all around us. It could happen to any family: Our child could be killed for no good reason.

So what can we do about these challenges in our country, which ebb and flow like extremes in the weather? I am convinced that schools remain the front line, where the battle to end racial stereotyping and inequality continue to be fought. Schools are where diversity must be institutionalized. As racial diversity increases in our country, children must learn to embrace diversity in the classroom.

During a recent trip to South Africa, I learned a proverb that promotes a pathway of hope -- beyond racial stereotyping and the pernicious effects of competitive individualism that, when abused, can harm a nation.

"Umtu Gumtu Gabantu" ("People become people by virtue of other people")

My wife and I saw it in action as we watched preschool children who sang not for themselves, but for each other: "My name is... I am five years old. I go to school." Their classmates would sing back: "Thank You. Thank you very much. Keep it up."

I have seen teachers address issues of racism, stereotyping and teasing because of economic, racial and cultural differences, right in the classroom. Differences are respected and used to foster problem solving, decision-making and creativity.

School districts that voluntarily engage in desegregation initiatives -- the suburban West Metro Education Program (WMEP) and the East Metro Integration District (EMID), which partner with Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively, are two good examples -- are skilled at this. Issues of stereotyping and racial discrimination are not avoided. They are explored by students, with teachers as guides.

This approach can have practical benefits. Eden Prairie, Minn., a school district that has partnered with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education for seven years, used culturally responsive teaching to improve academic performance. Its achievement gap has narrowed by nearly 60 percent in that time, and Eden Prairie continues to successfully address the vestiges of racism that challenge our society, education system and the economic well-being of our nation.

Forty-seven years ago, the late Robert F. Kennedy traveled to the University of Cape Town in South Africa and gave a speech that reverberates to this day. President Obama paraphrased part of it during his recent trip to South Africa.

Said Kennedy:

"We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because of the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do."

We can't ignore what is all around us. We must come to challenge the demons within us all that question the equal rights and opportunities all Americans deserve as their birthright. Doing the right thing might not be easy, but it is the only course. We should expect no less from the nation the rest of the world looks to for guidance.

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. Eric can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org.