Education’s Greatest Failure:

Ignoring Racism from Pre-K Beyond

By Jorge Dante Hernandez Prósperi 2020

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

James Baldwin

Let’s begin by leaning into raw uncomfortable truths. The kind of truths that gnaws at the gut and spirit level. America has been dealing with a viral truth since its origin and can’t seem to find a remedy. Racism is part of America’s Original Mortal Sin that continues to run through our socio-cultural-political veins as citizens and human beings. To live believing that the droplets of the racism virus are not in the air we breathe is to deny our very existence as citizens and human beings living in 2020 America.

Racism and all of its strands, like COVID-19 infects, debilitates, oppresses and all too often kills. It has never been a hoax.

To not know the depths of racism historically is a major reason why racism continues to plague us relentlessly, raising its ugly head again and again as if each time it was a vertical spike in time and space. An inherent flaw is that each racist incident is treated as if it were an isolated event rather than associated with lingering socio-cultural-historical reasons. The causes and the effects always short-sighted and short-circuited.

Why do white Americans seem to learn about racism during their mature adult lives? Why the socio-cultural pause? Why the delay? Why this needless time warp in respect to learning about victimization?

Why do white educated adult citizens, struggle and grapple with terms, concepts and context related to race after graduating from high school, college. Why do professionals, upon joining a profession find themselves discovering their lack of language and competence upon approaching the topic of race with their professional colleagues?

Why does “the conversation” about race become suddenly uneasy, even annoying as it takes place by happenstance while at water coolers, worker’s lounge, having a few drinks with colleagues or at family gatherings and hearing for the first time . . . 

“White privilege? What?!!”  
“White entitlement? What?!!” 
“White aversive racism? What?!!”
“White racism by the well-intended? What?!!”
“White racism by Egalitarian Christians? What?!!” 
“White Domestic Terrorism? What?!!”
“White Nationalism? What?!!”
“White Nativism? What?!!” 
“Systemic Racism? What?!!”
“Institutional Racism? What?!!”
“Institutional Incest? What?!!”
“Angry White Men? What?!!” 
“White Loss? What?!!”  
“White Capital? What?!!”  
“The Science of Race? What?!!”
“Race as a Social Construct? What?!!” 
“Critical Race Theory? What?!”

Worse than hearing for the first time and/or not knowing such concepts, are the conversations that follow vehemently denying that such concepts exists – have existed for decades.

This is when the conversation with family members, colleagues, friends and acquaintances can get a little irritating as confusion, ignorance and personal affronts begin to surface by way of a lack of education that should have been in place all along.

It is at this juncture that conversations can get heated, as knowledge-based awareness and learning is not present to deal with the complexities. Exposed is a lack of language reflecting a lack of knowledge never learned, never heard, never researched and therefore never felt deep down inside.

This lack of language and knowledge creates a cognitive dissodance leading to defensive postures that begin to surface unearthing beliefs and contradictions about identity, privilege, entitlement connected to the authenticity of meritocracy.

Such personal confrontation leads to a question that may never have been asked by a white person . . . “To what extent has my whiteness played a role in my status, class and opportunities of worth?” Please don’t leave out the element of “worth” when discussing opportunities – because a crucial element of any opportunity is its worth.

This is one question that Bob Woodward asked the president during the taped interviews that are mentioned in the book Rage, 2020. Mr. Woodward provided the president with a soft ball pitch of a question, even provided a personal example regarding white privilege and entitlement. The president did not know nor could relate to the question because he lacked, aside from knowledge, historical context and personal experiences regarding privilege and entitlement. Instead of providing substance and essence, the president proved to be empty of such human awareness and cognitive literacy. A president with intellectual-socio-cultural-historical knowledge and awareness would have embraced the question intellectually, emotionally, morally and spoken for hours on the core concept and its many peripheries.

The president echoed what I would boldly posit many of his follower demonstrate consistently – simplistic citizenship ignorance. There is a history for such ignorance and it begins at the earliest of years. It is the innocence found in children because they don’t know what they don’t know. But there is no excuse upon becoming an adult to hold on to such social unconsciousness by choice and design.

A segment of white America continues to deny the depth and breath of racism, only facing its reality when there is a blatant – in your face video – demonstrating the lack of awareness and historical context that was not learned when such teaching<>learning was supposed to take place . . . pre-school through college.

Yes, we can point to “family” where the seeds of racism are often planted. We can point to “regionalism” where the legacy of racism can thrive as a culture.  We can point to our racist “socio-cultural-political curriculum” that impacts each of us daily. But all of such influences are peripheries to formal schooling – be it public, home-schooled, faith-based, gender based, private, independent or charter.

We can blame many elements of society as agents of racism, but I posit that a major reason is the basic lack of education – a lack of pursuing ongoing knowledge and a lack of moral courage by Baord of Trustees, School Boards, Superintendents, Headmasters, Heads of Schools, Schools of Education and teachers that fail to address racism from pre-k through college.

Academicians in Colleges of Education have criticized my stand challenging that, “Teaching anti-racism pedagogy to Pre-Schoolers and children in elementary school is ridiculous and WRONG! As an educator for 45 years I vehemently and passionately disagree!

Educators must take a stand on America’s single most deadly virus at the earliest of ages, when children are developing language, attitudes, beliefs and dispositions about self and others.

No, we don’t want to traumatize the youngest among us with tales of inhumanity. We don’t want to burden their innocent brains, emotions and feelings with stories of human beings being enslaved, sold like cattle, lynched, burned, gutted, raped at will, shot, dismembered – discarding black bodies in unmarked graves as if they never existed. We don’t want to explain the trauma inflicted on native people throughout the Americas. Destroying their language, dignity, religion, and identities – creating cultural ruptures. We don’t want them to see children their ages behind cages and for us to try to explain how such inhumanity is engineered in 2020. No, we don’t want to explain why some children of color may never be welcomed or invited to one of their play-dates.

Such human anguish has been painful for even adults to understand, much less admit. But this is the legacy that America owns, that lingers and must be addressed with a relentless advocacy.  So I ask my dear comrades living in the Towers of Academia . . .

So when, where and how do we learn about racism?
When are the points of references introduced?
When is the language – the synonyms and antonyms, the metaphors of -isms and phobias introduced?
Who do we rely on to inform us? 
Who speaks on behalf of the historical multigenerational trauma, injustices, inequalities?
Who will begin to speak truth to power against historical revisionism?
Who will share the counterstories of ancestors who may not look like those listening to the stories?

When do we as adults begin to engage the language and concepts dealing with racism without fear, but with courage, confidence leaning into the discomfort of discourse knowing that the conversations will be difficult, painful and may even challenge our long standing beliefs, attitudes, ideologies, even our blind faith.

For many white people, breaking news regarding hate crimes and racism is seldom personal – maybe a time to be shocked or not – to be surprised or not – to feel a semblance of empathy or not – to be horrified or not – to imagine a knee on a neck suffocating life – or not.

White America can look at a child and wonder “if he/she were my son . . . my daughter” . . . or not. For white people, there is always a side door – a window – an off ramp to escape the horror and trauma being witnessed in HD and sound round sound.

People of color do not have such options – never have in America. Each blatant victim of racism is an affirming reminder that racism lives 24/7 – 365 as a virus – a disease that kills like the COVID-19- ever infecting and devastating lives. History comes calling to people of color with each nightmarish murder. There is no rest from it.

Each tragic event upon a person of color being unjustly and needlessly killed, is another time for a black mother, father, grandparent, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, neighbor to focus on survival and have “the talk”“how to survive being black in America” – leaving each black man and woman empty – exhausted.

Who teaches white children about the reasons why “the talk” even has to take place by some but not others?

So where do we begin to work on racist antibodies and vaccine? 

How about boldly beginning at the youngest of ages PRE-SCHOOL teaching the tenets of justice, civility, fairness, equity, empathy, compassion as opposed to taking for granted that prejudices, biases, bigotry, intolerance, predispositions remain neutral outside of the classroom until adulthood and do not infect the youngest minds, hearts and souls. Stellar elementary teachers will affirm that children are ever listening, watching, absorbing like sponges.

The anti-racist vaccine needs to be administered during the early years when the immune system is pliable, ready to incorporate, make connections, as it is with the learning of a first language, regardless of the country of birth.  Imagine the power of the brain to learn any language it begins to hear and then adopts it. I posit that the same holds true with the development of attitudes, beliefs and dispositions about others and difference.

There is no debate that the language, methods, materials, instruction, experiential activities, use of technology must be AGE and GRADE APPROPRIATE. This has always been true for all children from pre-school through college. It is basic College of ED 101 – readiness to teach and learn.

What is also true deals with what is decided to be taught by each school district – each school – each department – each teacher. We do not have a national anti-racism curriculum in place – never have and it is time for it to be developed.

We attend school thinking that the process is about a bunch of subjects that eventually lead to a job. Twelve years in one direction – accumulating, memorizing, regurgutating, being tested, retested, sitting in desks day after day listening about, reading about, writing about English, History, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Sciences, Second Languages, Economics with a sprinkle of the fine and performing Arts, experiential activities, some clubs, along with gym classes and sports. 

That’s it my fellow citizens – our public, private, faith-based, single-gendered, independent, home-schooled, charter failing educational system . . . that differs from state to state, county by county, school by school (even within the same district) – classroom by classroom with no guarantees that the process will influence our citizenship as it pertains to our perspectives of others and differences among us. 

The American School system is guilty of creating ignorance about racism and therefore complicit as an accessory. 

For far too long we have placed the responsibility to teach about racism on the shoulders of History and Social Studies teachers. Many who are not equipped and/or prepared to deal with the subject. The emphasis has been on history books used to tell America’s stories while teachers remain neutral by choice, dictum and/or design. Few can carry a profound conversation about Critical Race Theory and Diversity Literacy.

There has never been a national anti-racist curriculum where EVERY subject is mapped and tracked to critically examine racism historically, psychologically, socially, culturally, politically – poignantly exposing the insidious impact on citizens and society.

Such courses used to be called Civics that fell dramatically short of critical anti-racism knowledge. Civics white washed xenophobic jingoistic delusions of the the American Dream and “that all men are created equal.”

At a minimum, Civics provided an overview of behaviors affecting other citizens, particularly in the context of urban, suburban and rural development. Civic education provided the theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as rights and duties. Unfortunately, the course, like the teachers, remained neutral.

What do we remember about those elementary school years?
Any language, activities, books, stories about racism, injustices, prejudices – historical discomfort about native people, slaves, women, immigrants?

How about those critical middle school years when identity was exponentially being formed? 

How about those high school years when we were being asked to begin “critically thinking” but seldom provided with tough critical questions to research and reflect upon?

How often were we asked to lean into the discomfort of critically examining the roots and tenets of inhumanity as a four year project and process across all subjects? 

How about those college years when required courses focused on the college of business, medicine, law, education, engineering and so on?  Were social -isms and phobias related to professions ever seriously researched in depth?

Can college graduates remember any required courses dealing with Multiculturalism, Critical Race Theory and Diversity Literacy? 

Why do I place the onus on harnessing racism as a society on our educational system?

Because racism is insidious and is ever debilitating the vision, mission and founding guiding principals of America and citizenship itself.
Because critical – crucial systemic issues require consistent systemic advocacy by way of policies that impact all of society – not only segments.
Because a society that is not cognitively aware, emotionally intelligent and morally courageous to deal with systemic inhumanity will not be able and ready to address the racist virus that has been infecting and killing Americans for centuries. Not only during times of crisis but on a daily basis as life is lived. Because White Supremacy, White Nationalism, Domestic Terrorism, Hate Crimes, Neo-Nazism, Anti-Semitism, Nativism, Tribalism and racism are ever present recruiting the youngest among us.

Hate, fear and ignorance are taught and learned consciously and unconsciously. The influences are as many as there are social constructs and the agencies that promote them. The learning process is highly complex.

Educators agree that the teaching and learning processes impact youngsters at the earliest of ages. That said, an antibody to fight off social diseases must be instilled during early childhood development – if not at home – than at school. 

Educators who become change agents against racism will become, in each classroom, the “essential workers” who keep our democracy, not only alive, but vibrant and authentically connected to our founding principles.

The lessons learned and not learned in school influenced who we became as individuals – as a people. We must not be afraid to teach and learn about our truth, expose it and deal with it with vigor, relentless courage, veracity, resiliency, dignity, integrity and hope.

Such are the human elements that an education can – should provide every citizen between the first and last breath on earth.