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Beyond Words: How America’s Schools Must Respond to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Scandal

“I think that the only way we can obliterate racism is through our schools. Schools have always been the site, the laboratory where we shape citizens.”
– Dr. Henry Louis Gates

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon members at the University of Oklahoma have done the nation a huge favor with their jovial candor. The pallid-skinned citizens among us can wag their fingers at the young people with an indignation that insinuates that they themselves hold no adherence to similar notions and are not complicit in the system that perpetuates them. Meanwhile, the darker collective victims of the chant can feel encouraged by the abundant flow of support from others outside of the African-American community. We can also feel temporarily powerful in a country where their humanity is too often considered debatable. How many of us wish that police chiefs around the nation spoke with the conviction and indignation that David Boren displayed in his address after the incident?

Unfortunately, the relief that “Whites” feel that they aren’t like those students and that “Blacks” feel that we can influence severe consequences in certain spaces belies a harsh reality: the students in that disturbing video are going to be gainfully employed sooner than later. It’s also likely that some of them are eventually going to be in positions of power and influence despite whatever infamy follows them. If George Zimmerman has avid supporters, the S.A.E. chanters will be just fine.

This reality is the element of the scandal that should dominate the news cycle. This reality is the one that President Boren inevitably cannot thwart. This reality is how racist, brutal kleptocracies like New York City under “Stop-and-Frisk” and Ferguson, Missouri develop and thrive. After all, what danger are ideas about a particular racial group’s inferiority without well-positioned and/or influential people to systematize and ultimately institutionalize them?

It is high time that instead of compelling men and women of honor and like Eric Holder and David Boren to respond to racial firestorms, our society take up the responsibility of preventing them with more than banal sensitivity and diversity trainings. The American secondary school as the transmitter of our collective social values and chest of our national myths is precisely designed for such a task.

Learning the history of the construct of Race should be mandatory for students nationwide. Camper, Blumenbach and other progenitors of the racist mythology that we have been inextricably mired in for centuries should be household names. Refutations of their pseudo-science should be elementary fare for high-school graduates.

It is unacceptable and arguably inhumane that this knowledge is esoteric and limited to a relative handful of people who either elect to take certain courses in college or make a concerted effort to do research. It is disgusting that debunking racism’s underlying assumptions on a radical level is still optional for schools in a country where some estimates suggest that one African-American is killed nearly every 28 hours by police.

Equally nauseating is the milieu of low expectations that African-American students face. “Black” students are either antagonized by school staff who lack genuine appreciation for their backgrounds; or they are coddled and enabled in pathological behaviors by well-intentioned but misinformed and misguided liberals saddled by guilt or a savior complex. Both phenomena academically enervate African-American students too often leaving them at the mercy of individuals like the S.A.E. revellers.

Unfortunately though, unlike those now infamous fraternity members, the assailants in everyday interactions are virtually never caught. Indeed, but for a brave individual submitting that Vine clip, we wouldn’t know that “there will never be a n*gger at S.A.E.” But for Michael Brown’s killing, we wouldn’t know that Ferguson, Missouri pilfers African-Americans’ wealth through farcical citations like “manner of walking along a roadway”. There are virtually never any mighty executives to save the day during the “routine traffic stop” or before biased policies are scribed.

African-American students in particular must be taught urgently and with the highest expectations because they must compete for their livelihoods and their humanity against people who think similarly to those University of Oklahoma students. In addition, the country must move beyond the idea that mere integration will dismantle a five-centuries old system of thought and make schools tackle the job of annihilating ideological White Supremacy. Otherwise, when the next honest racists are exposed, we are doomed to repeat the outrage-relief cycle again with no substantive changes to our union.

Hayden Frederick-Clarke is a high school Math teacher in Boston. He is the 2015 winner of Facing History and Ourselves’ Annual International Teacher Recognition Award and a member of Boston Public Schools’ Men of Color Executive Coaching Seminar.

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