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America's Great War: Inaction vs. Tacit Acceptance of Racism

Protesters with signs

As a Black man, and elected official, the last few months have been a more intense and visible example of what it’s always been like to be Black in America. Can the combination of a worldwide pandemic and national race war finally speed up the long arc towards justice?

Our public education system was birthed under the conditions of both racism and classism. When the highest Court of the land has to rule on providing “separate but equal” education, it means prior to the ruling that the education provided by the public school system wasn’t equal. We know that the Supreme Court did not end there; the Court went on to order the desegregation of once lawfully segregated schools. The result of this historic ruling was anger, hate, and ultimately white flight. We have never healed from this ruling as a nation.

Our public school system today is one of the most segregated systems in the country, right next to the church. It is impossible to legislate white citizens to feel, value and therefore act equal to our Black citizens. We can’t force White children to go to school with Black children, and as long as there is an alternative choice to be educated, history tells us that white families will choose not to integrate schools with Black families. I have been told by close white friends that it is a sacrifice to put their children in predominantly Black schools, even if they are high performing. In New Orleans, one of our highest performing elementary schools is predominately Black- Lake Forest Charter School, which is located in the East of New Orleans. The number of applications from white families can be counted on one hand. On the contrary, Black families who send their children to high performing predominately white schools are seen as somehow privileged by the experience. To be clear, Black families sending their children to predominantly white schools is definitely a sacrifice. In one of the most powerful nations in the world, these types of sacrifices shouldn’t have to be made. And yet, these sacrifices will continue, unless we, the public, commit to taking action to change it. Those who do not act are tacitly accepting of our current racist system.

Like many, I have felt overwhelmed during this moment of national unrest. I personally contracted the COVID-19 virus, and successfully fought and recovered from it, all while being tasked with leading my school board as Board President during a global pandemic and national race war sparked by another unarmed killing of a Black person. No leader, sick or not, is ready to deal with all of these monumental tasks, but I endeavor to do just that because I am committed to acting to combat systemic racism within my sphere of influence.

In responding to this moment, I centered myself on the courage that I knew it would take to lead and created a plan of attack. First, I had to respond to the pandemic for our students and families, and led our District as the first in Louisiana to call for a state of emergency and make available $5,000,000 of funding for distance learning, child nutrition, and school sanitation. Second, I had to recover from COVID-19 – a disease that I am disproportionately more likely to die from, with Black Louisianans currently making up 54% of the COVID-19 related deaths while only making up 33% of the state’s population. Then, after being faced with the killing of another unarmed Black person, I drafted a document that included everything that I want to see done to right 400 years of wrongs.

I was told once that we can’t rewrite history, but we can right the wrongs of history. The drafted document I created was a resolution calling for policy change that would be crafted by a racial equity expert to combat systemic racism within our school system. Our school system in New Orleans is Predominately Black; and as such, we must provide our students with the protections, assurances and actions necessary to ensure that they will not become the next victims of systemic racism, by any means necessary. The phrase- by any means necessary- was made famous in 1965, when Malcolm X said these words: “[w]e declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” And, while these words are still relevant today, they also are a call to action. It is my duty to take steps to move our system and country forward by committing to root out racial inequalities within our system. For in the end, change starts one system at a time.

I am committed, like many of my school board colleagues, to answering the call of this time to address systemic racism within schools. We can’t wait another generation, or even another year, to actively work to change our system. The sacrifices that will need to be made will not be radical; however, they will focus on simple action(s) that will create a better anti-racist future for all of our students in our schools. In the end, we all have a part to play in changing our world. If you are leading a system, the burden is on you to root out systemic racism in both policy and practice with the support of experts. For we must be the change that we seek to create.