Twenty years ago on New York City’s frenetic streets, urban youth of color created their own environment when they found themselves unwelcome at school. Victimized and obscured by the biases of their white teachers and peers, these students were dispirited. In place of their intelligence, teachers saw blanket stereotypes–violence and danger– and treated urban youth as though these characteristics were the most prominent aspects of their identity (Embdin, 123-124).
This was urban education.
Even in 1990s New York, teachers were often unaware of their discrimination against minority students. Many acted under the influence of flawed, conditioned racial prejudices internalized from their own surroundings and schooling (Burnett). However, schools advertised an entirely different educational culture from the environment that students actually encountered, a practice that remains true today.
Take the publicized vision statement of James Shield Elementary School, which promises that students “in every neighborhood will be engaged in a rigorous, well-rounded instructional program” that “meets the interests and abilities of all learners,” (CPS Vision). This Chicago public school frames itself as an appealing educational environment, with the implication being that this is true despite socioeconomic and racial differences among its students. The Farmingdale School District of New York uses more explicit wording to achieve the same point: their schools “provide a safe, nurturing environment” in which “diversity is respected,” (Mission).
But is this really how public schooling in the United States operates? The answer lies with educators.
Most teachers have bought into some version of the world betterment philosophy, for which “hold[ing] students to high expectations” in the academic environment is key (Kimball). This, of course, is not the central cause of urban youth’s classroom discrimination; “tough love” from a disciplinarian is hardly new. However, when teachers pair it with “car[ing] deeply about how well students learn the material they put forth,” they end up valuing how much is learned over the learning process itself. (Kimball). That’s when they ground they stand on becomes shaky.
The danger of this type of prioritization is that it leaves teachers unguided; unwittingly, they are able to warp the learning process according to their own views of how students should behave to attain success.
This results-driven style of education in the United States dates back to 1879, when the first institution to educate Native Americans was founded in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Students experienced “a militaristic approach” and “authoritarian ‘care’” in an educational environment designed to “make them ‘as close to the White man as possible,’” (Embdin, 4). Teachers, however, “saw themselves as kindhearted people who were doing right by the less fortunate,” (Embdin, 4). The same is true of many teachers today who exhibit an identical “desire to help [urban youth] have more opportunities” as the Carlisle teachers did for their Native American students (Embdin, 6). But their good intentions are lost on their students, who only experience the classroom environment as having “a primary goal of imposing rules” that ultimately “disrespect students and their culture,” (Embdin, 6).
In effect, while educators enter their profession driven by a desire to make the world more just, some in at-risk, urban schools misguidedly perpetuate inequality through their latent prejudices that guide the classroom environment.
The role of educators, then, becomes all the more indispensable. Education’s status as a pillar of American society has given teachers import, but their ability to shape the classroom– either negatively or positively– earns them their own prestige. On the value of their role, Coach author Michael Lewis posits that “there are teachers with a rare ability to enter a child’s mind [where] it’s as if their ability to get there at all gives them the right to stay forever,” (Lewis, 12).
Lewis cites the remarkability of the teacher’s power as an authoritative figure whom every American child will encounter. Teachers, coaches, and tutors can, through instruction, release a gift upon their pupils: belief. They are able to summon students’ dreams of space travel or theater, and make them believe that they “might be some other kind of person” than their surface self; inside they become “a hero,” (Lewis, 32). Lewis reasons that in doing so, teachers create an encouraging environment which their students, in turn, will value and work to better.
The plight of education for urban youth represents what happens when the power teachers wield results in unintended outcomes.
While education systems in affluent neighborhoods represent a pie-sized slice of the American Dream, the state of urban youth’s public schooling in low-income districts has become a microcosm encapsulating their comparably lower socioeconomic status. In these communities, as For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood author Christopher Embdin describes, classrooms cannot and should not work the same way that they do for upper-middle class students. The issue is that teachers do not format the principles that they use to suit the needs of their urban students.
“Considered primitive and inferior” by many educators, the culture of the neoindigenous– Embdin’s term for urban youth– plays a part in students’ treatment by their teachers (Embdin, 4). Because baggy, “unusual” clothing can be mistaken for lack of care, or excitement for noisy distraction, urban youth become targets for behaviors that the predominantly white teaching force perceives to be “inconsistent with traditional school norms,” (Embdin, 9). Even students’ language “represents lowbrow antiacademic culture” to the teachers who unintentionally discard it as different from their own, and therefore without value (Embdin, 11).
Through their teachers, urban youth also feel like “some other kind of person,” but not a “hero:” a degraded, lesser version of themselves (Lewis, 32).
The polarity between urban youth and their teachers stems from the inevitable racial cesspit. Neoindigenous at school face the unsaid expectation of “assimilat[ing] to white norms,” (Embdin, 4). Here the dominant white culture present throughout all strands of the United States has left an ugly mark on what should be one of the nation’s purest, most indispensable establishments. With eighty-two percent of educators identifying as white and promoting an academic experience that diverges from the cultural life and learning styles of urban youth, teachers have created a stifling environment of student devaluation (Department, 6).
The result? Kids grow up “doubting their intelligence” because cultural erasure pervades their classrooms (Embdin, 12). Non-English languages should be saved for home (Dolan). Policies prevent girls from wearing braids (Frazer). This environment, in theory dedicated to the academic progress of all students from all cultures, now fails urban youth “because they do not have the space/opportunity to showcase their worth on their own terms” rather than by the traditional White measuring stick (Embdin, 13).
As Embdin asserts, the educational environment must change to include “a consideration of the culture of the students in determining the ways in which they are taught,” (Embdin, 10). It’s well-intentioned teachers who have inadvertently propagated the obliteration of neoindigenous values in the classroom. What might urban education look like if teachers were to acknowledge their biases and the negative impact those biases have on the learning environment?
Still, the environment created by classroom prejudice is just one example of how powerful interrelationships between people and their surroundings can be. The United States as a nation is another environment meant to be shaped by its people, but which seeps with inequity:
On U.S. soil, a black male points his finger out of his car and gets shot. It looked like a gun. In this free country, Hispanic-Americans on the late-night subway shy away from offering help to a young white lady. What if she were to misinterpret their actions? What if she were to scream?
That America, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates reasons, does not merit the title, “exceptional, greatest and noblest nation ever to exist” that it boasts (Coates, 8). That America has prospered off of perpetual oppression and the blotting out of entire peoples. It had the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It has racialized police brutality and Islamophobia. Americans built themselves a brutal environment to live in.
It’s this environment that Coates’ Between the World and Me has chosen not to beautify, but to expose. Written as a letter to his black son, the biography describes how we are a “country lost in the dream” of a society in which race is a nonissue (Coates, 83). This is a country with “equality” written into the legislature, and which bands together under one flag. The flip side is that it is also a country in which seventy-five percent of white people don’t have a black friend, and sixty-six percent of black people don’t have a white friend (Stockman, 2).
These two worlds that we have built – a white one, and an “other” one – are so divided that “no machinery could close the gap between” them (Coates, 1). Much of the American populace – by virtue of being “other” – clings to fewer resources and less privilege than are afforded America’s poster child: the “white city of democracy” (Coates, 8). Compared with the median household income for whites, the black equivalent runs around twenty-two thousand dollars fewer (Stockman, 1).
The American Dream is painted white, and to ignore that as we ignore the cultural differences of the neoindigenous student is to lose ourselves in it. We must recognize that we live in a “society that protects some people through a safety net of schools […] but can only protect [black people] with the clubs of criminal justice,” (Coates, 17-18). Coates’ conclusion that “what matters is the system” affirms that surroundings are key; we made the institutions and policies that determine the state in which we live. We must also be able to modify those factors in order to change our environment.
Change isn’t out of grasp, either. Maybe it just seems to be, because for all the effort spent promoting it, change isn’t happening as quickly as we would hope. Why? We have established that we do have power to affect the environment, but this conceptual “we” could be further dissected. Some of us have more power than do others, which means some of us control more of the environment. Our lawmakers, instructors, and leaders have a direct effect on the United States, but who are they? Our teachers are primarily white. Out of our hundred senators, ninety are white. Ninety-eight percent of our presidents have been white (Estrada).
The forefront of the United States is white, which means that white culture and values are disproportionately reflected in society, as they are in school classrooms.
So if we circle back to environment, what does changing ours mean? And by “environment,” which ones are we talking about? I can’t put down my sandwich during lunch and go shake the preconceived, unconscious biases out of the heads of every teacher in America. (To be fair, not all teachers have internalized prejudices that hinder their students’ learning.) The issue of urban youths’ classroom erasure is too big for one person to handle.
Conversely, it is so pointed an issue that you could argue others would have been a better use of this paper. Let’s talk about racism. Let’s point out our country’s flaws. We are. But combating racism, just like derailing sexism or confronting homophobia in our environment, isn’t a one-and-done kind of deal.
So we write papers. We sit down, take out our technology and use it as a megaphone to spread our messages and spark discourse. We do it, full-well knowing that the chances of one passionate blurb in cyberspace changing everything are slim. We do it anyway. You and I know that whatever form of dialogue we choose is a tool to harness our environment. Every word that leaves our heads enters our surroundings – and it’s there that they can be heard.
Say, for a moment, that you can read everyone’s minds. Before we get too excited, let’s disentangle ourselves from the myriad ways this skill might come in handy and instead, zero in on one. We may be the most educated, interconnected band of humans to walk the planet yet, but we are not doing right by each other. To prove it, take your newfound telepathic talent, set off on a stroll down the street, and ask your neighbors what’s most important to them.
Chances are, the word “family” is going to roll off several tongues.
Mind-blowing, isn’t it? Not really. We organize our lives around the grand societal pillar that family has become in so many cultures, so it isn’t news that Mom and Grandpa are important. Rather, it’s how we then go on to treat these relatives after professing them as such.
We are the generation of busy. We are on the go nonstop, tossing sleep and peace of mind out the window without taking stock of what their loss means. “Busy” has become, as Tim Kreider puts it in The “Busy” Trap, the “default response” for your average greeting. But, while busyness may masquerade as a surface issue, or simply a convention of the time, destined to slowly fade from use, like drive-in movie theatres or bell-bottomed jeans, its roots are deep.
After all, what does “busy” mean? Merriam-Webster dictionary calls it “involved in often constant activity,” which we can boil down to “out of time.” Decrypting that code phrase, you understand it to mean that there was time, it just wasn’t spent on you.
There’s where our interpretation of busyness is distorted. It’s this “you,” or really we, that lies at the heart of the busyness crisis, because just as often as someone is too wrapped up in work to deal with us, we too fail to find time for them. No one bullies us into taking the lead in that group project. Earth will not fizzle into nothingness if we don’t sign up for that 5k, or don’t make dinner from scratch. Like Kreider points out, “it’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed,” which begs us to wonder why, if we can take on more work, can’t we also rid ourselves of it?
We have spent too much time toying with this “why” and postulating “hows”. It’s what I’m doing right now, and maybe you are too, and certainly what Kreider’s article has taken a stab at. What we aren’t talking about is what our “busy” means for our loved ones. Look outside yourself, busy person.
The truth is that as much as being swamped is a “copout” for friends, Mekita Rivas notes that it has become equally commonplace “when doling out reasons for […] neglecting loved ones.” The National Council on Aging has placed family members at fault in 60% of elderly neglect incidents, which is not to say that each of us is the agent of our elders’ distress, but it should be a jab into our subconsciouses. As much as we find the busy excuse to be “a direct slap in the face,” it is equally so to those we release it upon – a category which we have lumped our relatives into. Most of us would affirm the statement “family is important.” Most of us, however, would not be able to avow that we had never postponed a dinner with Dad, rushed through a phone call to finish AP Chemistry homework, or canceled a casual family get-together because work came up.
“Life is too short to be busy” may be Tim Kreider’s way of topping an apparently unsolvable social dilemma with rainbow sprinkles and leaving it be. Or, it might have merit – just not the kind you’re expecting. It’s one thing when the life you’re talking about is your own; it’s something else when that ticking clock belongs to another person. I’ll never be too busy to regret what I missed when I’m no longer here to miss it. So this weekend, I’m going to brunch with my grandmother. Everything else will wait.