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On Martin Luther King Day, 40 Years After He Was Murdered

01/21/2008 06:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Martin Luther King's birthday. Have things changed? Even a little? Not in the important, fundamental ways. And in schools, where African American young people are sorted and classified and shunted aside, we white teachers have to look at our own blind spots.

We white teachers. .. .. aahhh, we just don't get it. Even when we "try" to be empathetic and understanding, we are looking across such a vast chasm created by our assumptions and blind spots. That chasm is created also by the vast material differences of life between the world we live in and the world of our students.

Let me take, for a moment, the example of African American urban youth. Last year I attended the Mario Savio lecture at UC Berkeley - in this case a conversation on Hip Hop culture with the great chronicler Jeff Chang. The moderator was Deirdre English, a former editor in chief of Mother Jones, certainly someone with decent left credentials. Her first question, almost a cliché in these situations, was, "What do you think of the sexism in a lot of hip hop lyrics?" Jeff was helpful, generous even. But the glaring truth was on the table: Deirdre English did not listen to hip hop; she did not think about hip hop; she did not understand hip hop or black youth. She was, like a whole passel of liberal teachers, clueless about the culture that is swirling around under her radar. How often do I hear white teachers bemoan the beat, the words, the attitude of black music?

I thought of that as I was driving along the other day and had the radio on to Bay Area station KMEL - I know, not the deepest, not the most rooted, hip hop station. Rather it is a poppish, corporate "urban youth" station geared to the kids. But it is what they listen to. I confess to falling behind on the latest hits since I'm not daily in the high school classroom and my own kids have left home. But I do listen and sometimes it is a jolt. Here's what I heard, the new piece by singer songwriter Alicia Keys:

So every time you hold me

Hold me like this is the last time

Every time you kiss me

Kiss me like you'll never see me again

Every time you touch me

Touch me like this is the last time

Dang, I thought. It hit me. It was obvious. She is singing a song about the strong possibility that her boyfriend will be shot down and killed before they can really make a life together. As songs have always done, this one seeks to help us understand the world we live in. She goes on:

I don't wanna forget the present is a gift

And I don't wanna take for granted the time you may have here with me

'Cause Lord only knows another day is not really guaranteed

Wow. Do teenagers really have to think like this? Do they have to live this? Sure, we had The Shangri-La's "The Leader of the Pack," the song about the kid who dies in the car race in the 60s. But this is a song about something commonplace, the killing of young black men. Take a look at the video for "Like You'll Never See Me Again." The scene is an ER, with heart jolt paddles being placed on the dying body of her boyfriend. The funeral home near my house regularly has large gatherings, spilling out to the sidewalk, of Oakland youths bidding farewell to their peers.

This is what we white teachers have a blind spot against. The Justice Department estimates that one out of every 21 young black men will be murdered, a death rate double that of US soldiers in World War II. This is a horrible statistic. But the worst part is that during World War II there was a whole country, a whole culture, which was directed towards supporting the families, towards honoring the suffering. The songs, the movies, the presidential speeches, all gave tribute to those who lost their lives and those who had to carry on.

But these youngsters are dying, being cut down really, with no acknowledgement, no validation even of their humanity. As a black police captain says on The Wire, "This ain't Aruba, bitch." (Apologies to Deirdre English). But Bunk, McNulty, and Lester were reflecting on the fact that if hundreds of white people were killed each year in the city, the 82nd Airborne would be called in. Apparently, with African American youth dying, that problem is just their thing. Aruba, of course, is a reference to the disappearance of an American cheerleader, Natalee Holloway, which has grabbed headlines for two years.

The point is, though, that we have no idea. We are clueless. We don't know what these young people are experiencing. And we are certainly not part of the solution - in helping them cope, helping them make sense of it, or helping change the circumstances.

So, they create their own culture. They write hip hop. They write rhythm 'n blues. They write slams. They make their own sense of it. Is it our job, white liberal teachers, to step in and "tut tut" over what they have gotten wrong? Do we understand, even a little, what is going on? This is a culture that has been abandoned, no treated with contempt, by white people from the beginning. Oh, we love jazz now but hated it then when it was expressing African American insights.

What's the answer? I don't know. A little humility would help for a start. A little understanding of the real world in front of our faces. Even a little outrage. Instead of patronizing African American youth, instead of viewing them as deficits, we need to recognize the heroism of survival and resistance reflected in the culture. Perhaps then we can begin to take real steps that will stop the war (the one at home).

Finally, imagine a world in which the actual discourse, the actual creative culture of African American youth, were honored and elevated as the most creative, cutting edge insight of our era.