It's Time to Stop Treating Black and Brown Kids Like 'Other People's Children'
Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my natural proclivities. While I often wallow in the delusion that I am a skeptic, the truth is that I long ago slipped into the abyss of cynicism.
There are moments, however, when I hope.
One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy, when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—not only the uniquely American slaying of schoolchildren, but also the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.
But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, his body left in the street, adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. Those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our refusal to see that how other people’s children live, learn and die is just as meaningful as if they were all our children.
My cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of other people’s children, the possibility that we will come together to address the less dramatic, but just as tragic conditions we allow for the education of these children looks bleak, at best.
The phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because she has criticized systemic failures of policy and practices tolerated for decades by progressives, Delpit counters:
I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.
And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.
Delpit’s call must be distinguished not only from traditionalists, but also from popular but flawed programs such as those promoted by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle-class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but nonetheless driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. As teacher and scholar Monique Redeaux notes:
At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power...
The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.
We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”
Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing. They do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while walking down the street unarmed.
Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma, which pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation. No child should need to depend solely on the choices her parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things all humans deserve—like access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have.
The U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove they’re all our children.