What does it mean to be free? Several years ago, the seventh-grade English teacher of one of our authors posed this question to her class. It was a theme the author and her classmates would explore for the year. She remembers how the class struggled throughout the school year as they realized that their yearning for freedom rarely led to action because they had been taught to believe that their oppression was normal. It is through this normative acceptance of oppression that internalized racism is further strengthened in our society. The students of this seventh-grade class had been taught to believe in the myth of meritocracy that hides the elaborate sorting system that maintains the power and privilege of elites.
Seventh grade is long gone for the author, but the question “What does it mean to be free?” remains unanswered as we consider the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and more recently, Antonio Zambrano-Montes – where the ultimate freedom, the freedom to exist, was denied for throwing rocks or allegedly selling cigarettes on the street. As scholars of color, we search for a deeper understanding of oppression and the ways it manifests itself in various sectors of society. We interrogate different systems of oppression, but we also critically reflect upon and talk about our own lived experiences and how they inform our understanding of the intersections among race, gender, ethnicity, and class.
Some may highlight our nation’s progress by pointing out that the opportunity to share our views in this forum is a privilege that many do not possess. While we acknowledge our status, we also recognize that this privilege is least afforded to people of color. Still, others will say our privilege is evidence that racism is over and dismiss our concerns using “race fatigue” as justification for overlooking individual and institutional acts of discrimination in the justice system and other sectors. Moreover, others may say police brutality transcends race to affect other groups. However, though police brutality is a broad problem, ignoring how it is shaped, in part, by institutional racism, only leads to limited solutions that fail to address how race taints policies and practices, as well as attitudes and beliefs.
Though the United States has made progress dealing with the aftermath of 250 years of slavery followed by almost 100 years of de jure segregation, further progress is stymied by race fatigue and denial manifested by the myth of a color-blind society, which has been reinforced by the election of the nation’s first Black president (Bonilla-Silva 2014). While we agree that electing Barack Obama represents a major milestone, the nation he leads and the response to his leadership is still plagued by stark racial disparities in perceptions and outcomes such as: prisons where more than 60 percent of prisoners belong to a racial or ethnic minority (The Sentencing Project n.d); dramatically higher rates of school suspension, expulsion, and push-out for students of color compared to their White peers, particularly Black and Brown males (The Civil Rights Project 2013); dismal conditions in public schools in neighborhoods of color; and the low number of people of color with access to higher education. All of these conditions are interconnected and exacerbated by policies and structures that promote and institutionalize racism.
Therefore, we see the recent decision by grand juries to not indict police officers for the killing of two unarmed Black men as a tipping point for many communities of color that are fed up with the systemic violence and racism they have experienced across multiple generations. The large number of #BlackLivesMatter protests and demonstrations are a response to these grand jury decisions, but they are also a response to the commodification and devaluation of the lives of people of color since the birth of this nation. What does it mean to be free when we were once considered property and somehow less human, objects to be sold and traded, or in today’s context, killed for throwing rocks or allegedly selling cigarettes?
As educators committed to creating a more equitable and just educational system for all our students, we cannot stand on the sidelines as semiotic messages of hatred and fear are transmitted to our young Black and Brown students. If safety is a prerequisite for creating successful schools, then actions by the police and inactions by our court system that jeopardize safety for any members of our community must be challenged.
So now what must we do? We must work toward having sustained and honest discussions on systemic and institutional racism and remind ourselves that these issues cannot be resolved in one media cycle, one commentary, one event, one march, one protest, or one hashtag. We must avoid developing racial amnesia after the news outlets turn off their cameras and social media begins to trend toward another topic. As educational researchers, practitioners, activists, and reformers, we must continuously and critically analyze the different ways that race and racism exerts itself in the education of our students, the analysis of our studies, and the construction of knowledge we transmit within and outside the Academy. We must remain vigilant about the effects of racism, and any other forms of oppression, that permeate our society, and we must honestly, openly, and proudly fight for its elimination.
What does it mean to be free? We may still not be able to answer that question as a country, but we know there is a methodology to freedom that includes acknowledging the historical and current oppression of people of color and working actively and intentionally to dismantle institutionalized racism. It is up to all of us to decide if we have the courage to liberate our country from the shackles that prevent us from being a more just and equitable society, if we have the courage to build a country where power and authority are used to uplift everyone rather than oppress those with less power and privilege. We believe our country is strong enough to heal and rich enough to enable everyone to flourish. But we must decide if we have the audacity to remove the chains that support racism and make a mockery of our credo, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Bonilla-Silva, E. 2014. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Fourth edition. ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
The Civil Rights Project, P. D. C. 2013. Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools. University of California, Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project, Proyecto Derechos Civiles.
The Sentencing Project. n.d. “Racial Disparity,” The Sentencing Project.
Jaime Del Razo