This is what I know: fences are constructed. And because they’re constructed, they can be deconstructed. The fences (systemic oppression) of racism, sexism and patriarchy, low-income and economic marginalization (LIEM; poverty), ableism, and homophobia and transphobia exist because they are rules (policies) made by men (quite literally). These and other fences, however, don’t have to exist; but only if we don’t want them to exist. Because it’s always about the children: focus on the fence.
At the core of social justice, and more specifically socially just practices, is a systems centered critique of the policies and structures that not only create, but perpetuate inequitable outcomes for students, families, schools, and communities. In February 2021, while speaking to a group of superintendents and senior staff members in the midwest, a comment from one of the participants ignited something within me that has been life-changing. The blog posts below are some of my recent thoughts on this topic. I encourage you to read them, beginning with this entry. I am looking forward to sharing additional reflections about our responsibility as educators to challenge systems. And because it's always about the children, remember: focus on the fence.
Ma’khia Bryant was 16. A child. Yes, investigations are important; but let’s never forget that she was at least the fourth—it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep track—Black young person (three of them teenagers) to be killed by police between April 11 and April 20. These tragedies are painfully juxtaposed against the numerous White individuals who have committed heinous crimes (e.g., murder) and sometimes being heavily armed, yet are apprehended, if at all, without police officers even reaching for a gun, taser, or mace. Distractions are diversions. And quite honestly, we can’t afford them. Focus. On. The. Fence.
As I stated on March 30, the children are the real MVPs. It was the video captured by Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old Black child, that exposed what happened to George Floyd last year. Children testified in court in order to hold Derek Chauvin accountable for his actions. Let’s never forget that. I’m grateful that their pain and time weren’t wasted.
That yesterday’s verdict is remarkable is evidence enough that there is much work to be done. And to be clear, what happened wasn’t justice; it was accountability. It was a step, a single step, up a steep staircase towards justice. We must never, ever, lose sight of the system that made the death of George Floyd and too many others commonplace throughout American history.
Is this a moment to celebrate? Maybe. But not because an individual may spend the rest of his life in prison; it’s because this moment has been a long time coming for people who have been routinely abused by an unjust system. Beyond the verdict, this moment must signal a renewed commitment to continue climbing the staircase towards justice.
Here’s the difference between accountability and justice: it’s not justice until systems are set up and consistently operate in ways that don’t place Black lives at risk of death and other harmful outcomes for simply existing. It’s not justice until policies consistently hold people accountable for their actions. It’s not justice if Derek Chauvin is afforded the privilege of White exceptionality—that he was a lone actor whose behavior doesn’t represent the larger unjust system. In the absence of significant systemic change, yesterday’s verdict is merely a slap on the wrist of the rotten tree that ultimately produces the bad apples that disregard Black lives.
A lot (too much) is happening in America. And as a Black man, it’s both exhausting and absolutely terrifying. Anything I do, or don’t do, can lead to my harassment or even death. And for those who still feel that I’m *different* because of how you know me, rest assured: I’m no different than any other Black person in this country.
But lest we lose sight of the central issue, remember: the problem is not police officers; it’s policing. The problem is not bad teachers, administrators, or other educators; it’s the education system. In other words, the pervasive and persistent disregard of Black lives is far beyond the individual actions of a few *bad apples.* Fundamentally, the system is the issue. And to continue with the apple analogy, we have more than a few bad apples because the tree is rotten. As I've shared via social media before (see January 18), the *bad apple* defense absolves the system of its primary role in perpetuating negative (deadly) outcomes.
Should individuals be held accountable? Yes. Does the system need to be overhauled? Yes. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Why must we focus on the fence? Isn’t it true that some students require more support? Isn’t it true that some schools need differentiated staffing? Isn’t it true that we need to assist some families more than others? Yes, these are realities. But before we highlight what we’re doing, we need to ask ourselves what makes such actions necessary. In other words, why do some students need more support? It’s the fence of racism that disproportionately places less qualified teachers and instructional methods in front of racially and ethnically minoritized students. Why do some schools require more staffing? It’s the fence of redlining and other discriminatory practices that unfairly places a significant number of students from marginalized backgrounds into a single school. Why do some families need more assistance than others? It’s the fence of systemic oppression that prevents them from earning a livable wage, which leads to working multiple jobs and less time to be meaningfully engaged in their children’s schooling—not because they don’t want to, but they are balancing attending our meetings at 10:00 AM with providing for their families’ basic needs.
When we overlook these and other systemic barriers, not only do we unintentionally reinforce deficit ideologies about students, families, schools, and communities, but we also perpetuate savior complexes about ourselves. We run the risk of thinking that the problem lies within the individual [child, family, school, or community] and shift the attention to what we’re doing to help them.
In explaining the image, I used to say that as a short person there’s nothing inherently wrong with me, but I would need more support than those who were taller. While on the surface this seemed like a reasonable explanation to not problematize the individual, it didn’t critique the fence that was obstructing my view and prematurely centered my personal circumstance. Said another way, despite being short, I wouldn’t need individual intervention if the fence wasn’t there. And more than being short, the fence was the problem.
Have you ever heard that we should work smarter and not harder? Fundamentally, this means fixing the structural inequities that plague our systems, including education, rather than applying bandaid approaches that are focused on individuals. Focus on the fence.
Whether teachers and their instructional practices, principals and their discipline policies, or school psychologists and their assessment approaches, educators boast about being student-centered. But this is what I know: sometimes keeping the child at the center of what we’re doing has a lot less to do with the individual child than it does other factors. I was speaking to a group of administrators a few weeks ago and showed the popular images that contrast equity and equality. During our discussion, someone said that we need to fix the fence. In other words, more than the differentiated (tailored to the individual) support (e.g., the boxes) that we should provide students and families, fundamentally the fence is the problem. If we truly want what’s best for children, we must shift our attention to the systemic policies and practices that deny meaningful access and opportunity to everyone. Yes, it’s appropriate to give individuals what they need; but let’s focus on the fence.