Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old, was fatally shot in 2012 by a white neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of criminal charges. Did Trayvon's death and its aftermath have anything to do with "racial profiling" and the fact that half of black males in this country are arrested by age 23?
Four months ago, 18-year-old Michael Brown, also black and unarmed, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer who said he feared for his safety because Brown was acting aggressively. The world now knows that the officer will not face criminal charges. Should this story surprise us, considering that blacks are three times more likely than whites in the United States to be suspended or expelled from school for perceived behavioral difficulties?
Another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, 43, died in July -- the event was captured for the world to see on a friend's phone -- after an officer on Staten Island, NY, used a chokehold to subdue him. Mr. Garner was being arrested for illegally selling loose cigarettes. To the absolute chagrin of many Americans, the officer will not face criminal charges. Blacks are almost four times more likely to experience the use of force during police encounters and one in three black males can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Is this an example of racism, or the effects of cultural and economic challenge one might ask?
Last month, Tamir Rice of Cleveland, a 12-year-old black boy, was killed after an officer mistook his air pellet gun for the real thing. Also in November, Akai Gurley, 28, unarmed and black, was shot and killed in an unlit stairwell in Brooklyn.
It's too soon to know if officers will face criminal charges in the deaths of Tamir and Mr. Gurley. Yet in demonstrations throughout the country, people are talking about what it means to be black in America -- not only in terms of the justice system, but also everyday life, where black unemployment has been double that of whites for 50 years and the percentage of black households in poverty is triple that of whites.
Racial stereotypes -- faulty perceptions based on race -- have blunted black Americans' achievement in just about any area you care to measure: from education and employment to housing and economic success.
Let's take, for example, another stereotype that gets a lot of traction: that blacks who do well in school are derided by their peers for "acting white" and that black males in particular are not interested in getting good grades.
Not true. In "Color-Blind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics And The Retreat From Racial Equity," author Tim Wise writes:
"...many in the post-racial liberal camp, including President Obama, have made reference to the supposed tendency for black youth [to put down black and brown students for doing well], this slander upon the educational aspirations of black students bears little relationship to the real world of African-American young people.
Actual research -- as opposed to the anecdotal reports of individual teachers or talking heads -- has found that black students suffer no greater peer-based social penalty for doing well in school than students who are white."
Wise also cites the Minority Student Achievement Network, which
"...examined 40,000 students in grades seven through eleven and found no evidence that black students placed less value on education than their white peers. Black males were found to actually place 'greater' emphasis on getting good grades than whites or Asians; in fact, white males were the 'least' likely to say good grades were 'very important' to them."
Yet these are the types of stereotypical assumptions black males face 24/7, 365 days a year -- expectations that, sadly, can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
In "Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us," author Claude Steele shares the story of black students at prestigious Stanford University. When told a math test would measure their intelligence, their scores plummeted. When intelligence was not mentioned, they received marks of A's and B's on a math test of equal difficulty. His research suggested that black Stanford students' fears were triggered by the extant stereotype about intelligence -- that they were not as smart as their white classmates.
It is time for Americans to recognize that racism is very much alive in our country -- and to do something about it. The path to change begins with education, social interventions and honest reflection.
Teachers can build on students' cultural strengths and experience by talking about the identities and values of students in the classroom. Families have work to do, too. Sixty percent of American white families never discuss race in their homes, according to Wise. The author, quite rightly, suggests
"...simply discussing racial disparities without the structural analysis and explanation for those disparities, or without a critique of the deeply internalized faith in America as a meritocracy, often backfires and causes greater opposition to such efforts.
"Without the discussion of institutional racism and ongoing mistreatment, and without being challenged as to [the] belief in meritocracy, many whites actually tend to blame people of color for the disparities they experience."
The organization I'm privileged to lead, the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, begins all of its school and professional development interventions with honest facilitated conversations about teacher perceptions of their students and how the races and cultural backgrounds of both can filter those perceptions. These rarely are easy conversations to start, but inevitably welcome and essential to opening the door to improving educational outcomes as well as teacher effectiveness with all students.
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 email@example.com. He tweets @ECooper4556.