Educators in America know all too well that the school-to-prison pipeline is not just a political catchphrase. Those who work with students of color know this pipeline is as real as any other.
“It extends across this country,” says Seattle educator, attorney, and organizer Nikkita Oliver.
This is why from February 5 to 9 Oliver and thousands of educators around the U.S. will wear Black Lives Matter shirts to school and teach lessons about structural racism, intersectional black identities, black history, and anti-racist movements for a nationally organized week of action: Black Lives Matter at School.
“The Black Lives Matter at School movement is about dismantling the school-to-prison-pipeline,” says Oliver, “and creating a school-to-justice-pipeline for our youth.”
Educators in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in between will join this national uprising to affirm the lives of black students, teachers and families. The lessons that week will correspond to the thirteen guiding principles of Black Lives Matter:
Monday: Restorative Justice, Empathy and Loving Engagement
Tuesday: Diversity and Globalism
Wednesday: Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming and Collective Value
Thursday: Intergenerational, Black Families and Black Villages
Friday: Black Women and Unapologetically Black
“The Black Lives Matter at School movement is about dismantling the school-to-prison-pipeline and creating a school-to-justice-pipeline.”
The Black Lives Matter at School movement started in Seattle last year on October 19, when thousands of educators wore shirts to school that said, “Black Lives Matter: We Stand Together.” Hundreds of families and students did too. Many of the shirts also included the message “#SayHerName,” a campaign to raise awareness about the often unrecognized state violence and assault of women in our country.
This action attracted national news attention, helping it spread to Philadelphia. That city’s Caucus of Working Educators’ Racial Justice Committee expanded the action to last an entire week last year with teaching points around the principles of Black Lives Matter. Educators in Rochester, New York also held a Black Lives Matter at School day in 2017.
This year, a national Black Lives Matter at School coalition came together to coordinate a unified week of action with three demands:
1) End “zero tolerance” discipline, and implement restorative justice
2) Hire more black teachers
3) Mandate black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum
The three national demands arose in response to political attacks on and systemic disadvantages experienced by black students and educators around the nation.
A recent study shows that low-income black boys who had at least one black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grade had a 39 percent lower probability of dropping out of high school than their peers who had no black teachers during those years. And yet since 2002, the total number of African American teachers has decreased by 26,000, even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000. In 2015, the Albert Shanker Institute reported a similarly stunning decline in the number of black teachers around the country. For example, in Philadelphia, the number of Black teachers declined by 18.5 percent between 2001 and 2012. In Chicago, that same figure dropped by nearly 40 percent. And in New Orleans, there was a 62 percent drop. As Mother Jones reported:
“In each of the nine cities the Albert Shanker Institute studied, a higher percentage of black teachers were laid off or quit than Latino or white educators. . . . Countless black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses, and counselors have also been displaced—all in the name of raising achievement among black students. While white Americans are slowly waking up to the issue of police harassment and violence in black communities, many are unaware of the quiet but broad damage the loss of African American educators inflicts on the same communities.”
Since 2002, the total number of African American teachers has decreased by 26,000, even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000.
As scholar Terrenda White has detailed, one of the factors in the whitening of the teaching force is corporate education reform programs like Teach for America. “What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by [Teach for America’s] expansion in that region,” White told another of The Progressive’s Public School Shakedown fellows, Jennifer Berkshire, in 2016.
In addition to systemic pushout of black teachers, there is a similar large-scale pushing out of black students from schools. Black students are over three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school. Black girls, in particular, suffer the most disproportionate disciplinary measures: they are seven times more likely to be suspended than white girls, and not because they are even charged with misbehaving more often.
These statistics are why the Black Lives Matter at School movement is demanding an end to so-called zero tolerance discipline practices that are fueling school pushout, and a rapid implantation of restorative practices that help to build community so students can solve conflicts. As education outlet Rethinking Schools editorialized back in 2014:
“There are a number of models of restorative practices, but they always start with building community. Then, when a problem arises, everyone involved is part of the process…. shared values are agreed on. Then questions like these are asked: What is the harm caused and to whom? What are the needs and obligations that have arisen? How can everyone present contribute to addressing the needs, repairing the harm, and restoring relationships? Additional questions can probe the roots of the conflict and make broader connections: What social circumstances promoted the harm? What similarities can we see with other incidents? What structures need to change?”
Beyond being pushed out of school, when black students are in class they are too often subjected to a corporate curriculum that obscures the struggles and contributions by people of color.
The McGraw-Hill textbook company was caught replacing the word “slave” with “worker” and placing the section on the transatlantic slave trade within the chapter on immigration—as if Africans came here looking for a better life. A textbook titled The Connecticut Adventure was removed from a Connecticut school district after a decade of use when it was revealed that it was teaching fourth graders that slave owners, “cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.” These kinds of distortions and whitewashing of curriculum are precisely why the Black Lives Matter at School movement is demanding mandatory black studies and ethnic studies classes for kindergartners on up to high school seniors.
When black students are in class they are too often subjected to a corporate curriculum that obscures the struggles and contributions by people of color.
Black Lives Matter at School has been endorsed by many luminaries in the struggle for social justice, including Opal Tometi (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), Jonathan Kozol, (author of The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America), and Michael Bennett (Pro Bowl defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks).
“I wholeheartedly support and endorse the National Black Lives Matter at School Week,” Kozol tells me. “At a time when all too many weary semi-liberals are willing to knock down the statues of racist figures from the past but not to change the racist systems that crush the souls and amputate the destinies of millions of black children in the savagely unequal public schools of the United States, it’s time to raise the stakes and bring the struggle back into the classrooms.”
Join us in this national uprising for racial justice in education. Because when young people are valued, proud of themselves, and aware of their history, well, then they will be equipped to remove the structures of racism and oppression—from Confederate monuments to rhetorical but very real pipelines—and build a better world.
Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies in Seattle, blogs at www.IAmAnEducator.com, and is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Teaching for Black Lives. You can follow Jesse on Twitter at @JessedHagopian.
By Gerald Lenoir and Jesse Hagopian
Thanks to a long history of redlining, formerly black neighborhoods in cities around the country are continuously disappearing under the rapacious churn of financial real estate interests. But city blocks in prime locations aren’t the only things being lost. Gentrification is also happening in our classrooms and books, pushing out the past, erasing the lives and struggles of African Americans from our collective memory.
Take A Birthday Cake for George Washington, for example, a children’s book by Ramin Ganeshram published by Scholastic. In it, smiling, happy slaves wrap their arms around their master, the first U.S. president. In a Texas high school geography textbook published by McGraw-Hill, enslaved Africans are described as “workers,” rather than slaves, and placed in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration”—as if they came here looking for a better life. In Jefferson County, Colorado, the School Board adopted a proposal to avoid the use of materials in its advanced placement high school history curriculum that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law”—banning, of course, any discussion of the lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and other actions causing “social strife” and which are foundational for the Civil Rights Movement.
The Bill of Rights Institute (BRI), which offers whitewashed classroom lesson plans for teachers across the country, is funded by the infamous Koch brothers, Charles and David, who together have more wealth than Bill Gates. Educator Bill Bigelow describes how the Bill of Rights Institute “cherry-picks” events to hammer home a libertarian message about the sacredness of private property, and also how it offers “quiet cover” for Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman:
One section on the website is “Teaching with Current Events,” and includes a lesson, “Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine Laws…” Here’s the lesson’s first discussion question: “Florida’s ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ law states ‘A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.
While black history has long been redlined and ghettoized, the corporate wrecking ball is swinging with a renewed velocity, aiming at cornerstones of black history as part of a broader resurgence of racism in the United States. This gentrification of the contributions of black people to our society is sanitizing white supremacy.
These latest developments are preceded by the icon-ification of many historical black leaders. History books portray the “I Have a Dream” version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never mentioning his radical critique of U.S. society. You will never see this quote from Dr. King appear in any mainstream history book:
Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.
In 1999, the establishment’s absorption of the image of Malcolm X was marked by the U.S. Postal Service issuing a Malcolm X stamp honoring his contributions to human rights. Never mind that the FBI surveilled and harassed him and were complicit in his assassination. Meanwhile, civil rights leaders like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer are left out of history completely—no stamps for them.
This paving over of black history, and failure to tell the true stories of black heroines and heroes paves the way for developers who destroy black neighborhoods and push out black people out of their homes.
The historic process of neighborhood gentrification began in the 1960s and has accelerated in the new millennium, as the gap between white and black wealth has become the greatest since 1989. Today, millions of African Americans are being displaced by so-called “free market forces” and are forced to relocate to suburbs without adequate services or job opportunities.
This transition in Washington, D.C., once known as the “Chocolate City,” is marked by the condominiums built on its historic U Street (one featuring a tanning salon on the ground level). In Seattle, there is a construction crane on every corner, while the rate of black homeownership has dropped by nearly half since 2000. The occupation of black neighborhoods around the country by police ready to use deadly force helps fuel the displacement and reassures the returning white gentry that they will be kept safe.
However, the engineers of the movement for Black lives are constructing one of the most powerful resistance movements in more than a generation, which is giving confidence to communities across the country to stand up and fight back.
In response to black community pressure, Scholastic pulled the children’s book from retail shelves and issued an apology. In the case of the Texas textbook, Roni Dean-Burren and her freshman son launched a successful Facebook and Twitter campaign forcing McGraw-Hill to acknowledge that Africans’ enslavement was not the same as white wage-labor, and to alter their online textbook. In response to the Jefferson County School Board proposal to effectively erase the Civil Rights Movement from history, hundreds of high school students from 17 schools staged a mass walkout. And in 2015, three conservative school board members were ousted in a recall.
And while the Koch brothers fund the creation of materials glossing over injustice and trauma inflicted on the black community by the killing of people like Trayvon Martin, social justice educators are occupying the curriculum with powerful lessons that connect his death to long legacy of state sanctioned murder.
Black Lives Matter activists have been demonstrating across the country, demanding an end to police brutality and murder. As we hit the streets, though, we also must hit the books. The struggle to de-gentrify textbooks is inextricably linked to black people reclaiming their past, present and future. Online, in neighborhoods, in classrooms, and in the streets, organized resistors are building a new black history on a foundation of equity and justice.
Gerald Lenoir is the former executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS (now Rafiki Services). He a member of the Black Lives Matter group in Berkeley, California and is a veteran of the 1969 black student strikes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which led to the establishment of the Afro-American Studies Department.
Jesse Hagopian teaches history and is the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. He is an associate editor for the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine and the editor of, and contributing author to the 2014 book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. He is also the son of Gerald Lenoir. Follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, on Facebook or Twitter.