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The Chapel Hill Shooting: Why Our Lives Depend on Closing the Global Achievement Gap

02/13/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Two nights ago, a few miles down the road from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, three young students were shot, execution-style. The alleged shooter is a white, middle-aged man who apparently had a history of yelling at neighbors, harassing these particular tenants (who, we all know now, are Muslim), and walking around with a gun lodged in his waistband.

It's challenging to unpack this scenario. It's hard to look at this and see how white privilege may have enabled a man to feel like he could treat people so badly, and to have the security of openly carrying and using his own gun to execute his young neighbors. It doesn't matter, really, that these three young students were raising money to work on dental care for Syrian refugees or passionately helped local homeless populations. Even if they didn't do these great things, they didn't deserve to die. But it turns out that even in the great, educated liberal enclave of Chapel Hill (a town I love, having lived here since I was nine), white privilege, bias, and gun violence seep in. Hate kills.

But no place is perfect, and even in a place that preaches progress and instilled in me an appreciation for social justice and diversity will have problems. But the issue at hand is that we, as a nation, don't seem to take this seriously. We don't seem interested in making real progress in addressing white privilege, or acknowledging the harm of racist rhetoric spewed by popular celebrities and news stations. We so often see women, minorities, poor and/or non-Christian religions as others, and therefore not as valuable as white people, or whose rights aren't as important as rich men's. We tweet about it for three days and maybe see Selma and remind ourselves we have a black/Latino/gay/poor/etc friend, and then kind of forget about it until the next event stirs our consciousness. But the problem is, we keep having so many of these events. And I'm not ready for each one. I still haven't recovered from the Newtown shootings, or Trayvon Martin, or Janay Rice, and all the kids and minorities and women hurt before them. I can't even keep up with all of these events and tragedies, all preventable.

Oh. Preventable.

Why is it that most of the mass shootings in the United States are by white men, yet white men are never really called terrorists? How different would the news cycle look if the identities of the Chapel Hill shootings were reversed, in which a Muslim man shot three white college students execution-style in their home? Would the term "parking lot dispute" even come up? (The fact that some killers [white] are simply diagnosed with mental illness, while others [non-white] are called terrorists is a whole other issue). The problem here is that the victims don't seem to matter as much. We don't seem as worried that hate keeps motivating violence in our country, our cities, our backyard. We don't even seem that concerned about convicting white men of crimes committed against "others."

I read an interesting book recently titled The Global Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner, who is the Expert in Residence at Harvard University's Innovation Lab. In it, he suggests that aside from the oft-discussed achievement gap between the poor and the middle-class in the United States, there is a second achievement gap, which he calls the Global Achievement Gap. This concept is based on the idea that the world is changing rapidly, and the skills that our parents and grandparents had and succeed with are no longer the only skills we need. Wagner discusses some of the survival skills we need now, including better critical thinking skills, agility and adaptability, and effective oral and written communication. But the one that stuck out to me the most, and which seems increasingly relevant, was the idea of global consciousness. This is the idea that global collaboration is essential for many, from tech and engineering companies, to the military. According to Wagner's explanation of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, we need to "use critical thinking skills to understand and address global issue; learn from and work collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and community contexts; and understand other nations and cultures, including the use of non-English languages." Not only that, but there is a strong tie between the skills we need to succeed as employees, and the skills we must utilize in order to be good citizens. These are core competencies, and really, high school graduates should be learning this before they graduate. Understanding other cultures goes beyond taking high school Spanish. It is part of keeping our communities safe. It is part of dismantling the white supremacy so entrenched in the muscle memories of our country's psyche that these events keep happening.

Prevention.

I think it's important to acknowledge that while we are constantly worried about No Child Left Behind and Common Core, we are ignoring the very real skills our citizens need. Who is teaching kids problem-solving, or entrepreneurism, or how to collaborate and appreciate diversity? Tests don't really assess that. After the Ferguson protests, a white friend of mine said all she could do was pray and hope. I was startled. I don't think that's enough. I think parents should have conversations with their children, including and especially white male children. Acknowledging privilege is hard but essential. And I think in school, we need to incorporate this global consciousness. I'm a teacher, and I admit I don't know the answer. Do we start including more diverse literature, and let kids understand from a young age about different religions and culture? How do we encourage love over hate? Somehow, it's a conversation we need to have. We need to discuss the possibility that the solution to our increasing ignorance, our systemic racism, our allowance of violence, may very well be in the classrooms of our children.