March 21, 2012
Every year as a faculty member in an urban-focused, university-based teacher education program, I pose the following questions to the teacher certification candidates and certified teachers in my classes: What is your vision of social transformation, and how far are you willing to go in your capacity as classroom teachers to achieve it? Sadly, the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is the latest of a never-ending series of tragedies that underscores the urgency of these questions. As teacher educators, it is crucial that we seize this moment to encourage and support classroom teachers’ efforts to end white supremacist violence in the lives of youth of color.
Those who deny the permanence of white supremacy in America will surely concoct a litany of excuses and justifications for George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to killing Trayvon Martin. As demonstrated time and time again, white supremacy is amazingly adept at defending itself by denying its very existence. Regardless of whatever preposterous defense may prevail on Zimmerman’s behalf, the details of Trayvon Martin’s final moments paint a clear picture of a young man who became yet another casualty of American society’s enduring, well-rehearsed, and unforgiving assault on black bodies. That advocates for redress on Trayvon’s behalf are forced to make the case for the obvious—America’s suspicion of and contempt for young black males—detracts time and energy better spent on strategizing our collective responses for justice. Consequently, I will not devote more time to asserting the obvious. Readers who want to debate the “merits” of the case against Zimmerman are encouraged to do so in other spaces.
What I hope to do in this blog entry is to engage fellow teacher educators in discussions of the roles that we can play in the aftermath of Trayvon’s death. The public outcry over Zimmerman’s audacity and the Sanford Police Department’s complicity has turned the murder of Trayvon Martin into a potentially powerful teachable moment. The following are strategies that teacher educators can use to help teacher certification candidates and certified teachers transform this tragedy into a springboard for critical thought and collective action.
1) Engage teachers in rigorous examinations of white supremacy. The gravity of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent silence that surrounded it cannot be fully grasped without a critical understanding of white supremacy as a systemic arrangement of power that has privileged the lives and interests of white Americans from this nation’s inception, and that continues to do so despite social and political struggles for racial equality. Framing the historical and systemic nature of white supremacist power in America is crucial for helping white educators—specifically those who bristle at critical analyses of white supremacy—to understand those analyses as critiques of oppressive systems of power, not as indictments of individual white people. A critical examination of white supremacy can also help teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand that while white supremacy privileges white people over racialized others, it can be reproduced by a multicultural cast of characters that aligns itself with white supremacist power structures (e.g., someone like George Zimmerman). In my experiences as a teacher educator, work in critical race theory by scholars like Gloria-Ladson Billings, William Tate, and Adrienne Dixson, analyses of privilege and power by Allan Johnson, and racialized examinations of white teachers by scholars like Christine Sleeter and Gary Howard, have been great resources for teachers who are learning to grapple with the realities and repercussions of white supremacy. A rigorous understanding of white supremacy is a prerequisite for teachers who want to stand against the white supremacist domination of youth of color.
2) Help teachers to connect youth of color to resources and strategies for negotiating white supremacist oppression, both individually and collectively. Learning to resist is not just a political undertaking—it is also a pedagogical act. As Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking work has taught all of us, just as the oppressed have to learn the terms of their oppression, they can also learn to create the conditions for their liberation. Teacher educators who are committed to social justice must find ways to support classroom teachers’ efforts to facilitate analyses of and resistance against white supremacy with youth of color. Including texts in our courses by scholars like Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, Ernest Morrell, Marc Lamont Hill, David Stovall, and Korina Jocson can provide teachers with models for how to transform their classrooms into spaces where youth of color can examine how oppressive forms of power have shaped their lives, and how they as young people can transform their lives by turning critical reflection into strategic action. Creating assignments in our teacher education courses that require meaningful applications of web-based resources from organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP can encourage teachers to educate youth of color on their rights and connect youth of color to potential advocates at times when their rights, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, are violated. Going a step further, by connecting teachers in our courses with community-based organizations with successful track records of facilitating youth-centered political mobilizations, teacher educators can help teachers to identify safe spaces outside of their classrooms to which they can direct youth of color who want—or need—to seek out and participate in local political advocacy networks. While some of these suggestions may seem beyond the conventional domain of teacher educators’ responsibility to help teachers master sound classroom management techniques and instructional methods, they all speak to the urgency for teacher education programs to prepare classroom educators who can address the exigencies of white supremacist violence and oppression in the lives of youth of color. Trayvon Martin and millions of youth of color like him need tools and resources for managing their daily encounters, both individually and collectively, with those who despise them. Teachers are well-positioned to make those tools and resources available.
3) Encourage teachers to support and/or engage in political mobilization. Just as learning to resist is a pedagogical act for youth of color, it is also a pedagogical experience for teachers. America’s classroom teachers possess insights into both the plight and promise of youth of color that could position them as powerful political advocates on their students’ behalf. Teacher education programs that are driven by a commitment to social justice must consider how to help teacher certification candidates and certified teachers to explore the possibilities of their political voice. Imagine, for instance, if Trayvon Martin’s teachers, in the days following his murder, had taken a collective public stand to call for George Zimmerman and the Sanford Police Department to be held accountable. Unlike Al Sharpton, Rachel Maddow, the NAACP, or faceless bloggers, his teachers could have immediately humanized Trayvon through their own firsthand accounts of his academic promise, and they could have grounded their calls for legal accountability in their positionalities as caring adults who have committed their careers to serving all youth. In a nation where the dehumanization and criminalization of youth of color, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, become justifications for attempts to imprison or annihilate them, teachers have access to discourses of adolescent promise and pedagogical caring that could bolster campaigns to protect youth of color against racial profiling, imprisonment, and other social injustices. This form of teacher advocacy for the safety and dignity of youth of color could be particularly powerful if articulated by multiracial coalitions of teachers modeling a multiracial commitment to valuing the lives of youth of color. As teacher educators, it is our duty to include case studies in our classes of how teachers have mobilized their collective political agency not simply for contract negotiations, but also in support of the interests of youth, parents and other community stakeholders. It is also our duty to be honest about the risks of teachers’ political mobilizations, as school bureaucracies in this country have dubious histories of surreptitiously silencing and expelling educators who dared to speak out against various forms of injustice. In my current classes, I have found it extremely beneficial to invite teachers who belong to a local grassroots educational reform coalition to speak in my classes. For the prospective and full-time teachers in my courses, hearing directly from other teachers about how to negotiate the risks of being an openly politically active teacher helps them to determine their own levels of comfort with those risks. For teachers who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable being on the frontlines, I try to identify less public ways for them to participate in political advocacy work while still pushing them to recognize their power to serve as agents of change outside of their classrooms. As the criminalization of youth of color continues to place these young people in vulnerable situations, it is crucial that teacher educators help classroom teachers to consider multiple strategies for taking a stand against the social and political injustices that place their students at risk.
While the three strategies described above focused on helping teachers to address the effects of white supremacist domination in the lives of youth of color, it should be noted of course that white supremacy is not the only form of domination that affects students of color, and that it is also important for teachers to help white students negotiate white supremacy’s impact on their lives. This blog entry’s focus specifically on white supremacy in the lives of youth of color reflects an attempt to turn the growing public demoralization over the grim circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death into targeted, intentional, and inspired efforts at advocacy and mobilization.
I did not know Trayvon, and I must admit my own discomfort with the way in which his tragic death has already made him into an overdetermined construct of the plight on young black males. Sadly, white supremacy repeatedly confines public perceptions of youth like Trayvon Martin within dangerously limited and inaccurate stereotypes that justify their vilification.
If teacher educators can help prospective and current teachers to take a pedagogical and political stand against the white supremacist domination of youth of color, we may come closer to the day when youth like Trayvon Martin are known for who they truly are.