By Emily Dexter
Like others in Cambridge, I was heartened that 200-300 CRLS high school students joined the national Hands Up Walk Out event this past week and walked out of their classes. It shows they are publicly engaged, and I know that some of those students have been involved in other forms of anti-racism work in Cambridge. The unwritten headline, though, was: “1,400 CRLS Student Go to Class As Usual During National Student Protest about Racism.” Some students did walk out, but why so few? These are 15-18 year olds. They are supposed to want to walk out…for any reason. But particularly something so closely related to their own age group.
From the press coverage it seems that the student leaders acted responsibly. They sent an email ahead of time to the school administration letting them know that students planned to participate in the Walk Out and why. (Links to Cambridge Chronicle articles below.)
On Monday, December 1st, 2014 at 1:01 pm, students will be walking out of class to stand in solidarity with Ferguson and the rest of America….We are walking out in anger because of the lack of opportunity we have had to discuss racism in our school. We are walking out in anger because of the lack of justice served to Michael Brown. We are walking out in anger because of the unfair treatment of black people in America, in Ferguson, in Cambridge….So please, do not stand against us. Stand with us.
In their speeches, student council president Sydney Fisher and others spoke about the racial achievement gap and race issues related to the tracking system at CRLS, which are hardly underground issues. (See recent student article, “CP, HN, and AP: CRLS Speaks Up About Education Gap,” on pg. 9 of the most recent edition of the CRLS Register Forum newspaper: http://crls.cpsd.us/UserFiles/Servers/Server_3045299/File/news/register_forum/2014-15/Registrar_Forum_November_2014.pdf.)
The students, however, got mixed messages from school and city leaders. Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan told all those at the protest, “Keep fighting and keep organizing yourselves because you are the ones with the responsibility to make America better for all.” The school committee unanimously passed a resolution congratulating the student protesters and urging that there be no disciplinary repercussions. (Did they think the school department would actually punish the students?) But if the Cambridge Chronicle accurately portrayed the responses of the CRLS principal and CPS superintendent, their responses seemed strangely tepid. When questioned by a Chronicle reporter, the principal said that the Ferguson situation “had connections” to issues at CRLS but declined to go beyond that. The superintendent commented that other high schools also have an over-representation of Black and Latino students in lower level classes, as if the CRLS students’ concerns were unjustified. I wouldn’t blame the students if they concluded that race and racism are not welcome topics in the Cambridge schools.
Cornell West was on the radio last week talking about Ferguson and said something I’ll paraphrase as: Racism is not an issue about Black people. It’s an issue of justice. I found another of his quotes online: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I love this quote because of the equation of love and justice and the emphasis on in public. A lot of people don’t seem to understand the concept of the public and how we become empowered citizens, what Bob Moses calls “constitutional persons,” through public, civic participation. That’s nothing less than the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. But when poor or low-income parents in Cambridge don’t show up to speak at public meetings, some people imply: “That’s okay, it isn’t because they don’t feel welcome at these meetings. It isn’t because there is no food, childcare, or translators. It is because it’s not their culture to attend public meetings and to speak out. That’s not what family engagement means in their culture. We need to respect that.”
To me that’s like saying, “It’s okay that so many Black and Latino male students drop out of high school in the U.S. It’s not their culture to finish high school. They prefer to get GED’s instead of diplomas.”
If people in Cambridge want to learn more about race and racism issues in the Cambridge Public Schools, they should start by reading UMass Professor Larry Blum’s 2012 book, High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us about Morality, Diversity, and Community. A deep and complex book that needs to be read more than once, it should be required reading for every CPS teacher, staff, administrator, parent, and CRLS student. I keep recommending this book because I find it extraordinary that a scholar such as Larry Blum took the time to write a book about our high school, yet few seem interested. The CRLS principal, though, is an exception. I know he has read the book and spoken extensively with Professor Blum. The CRLS parent-staff council also invited Professor Blum to talk with them about the book, which he graciously did. I’m guessing that many CRLS teachers have read it as well. But it’s appropriate for middle and elementary school educators and parents as well.
Professor Blum has also written a shorter piece, “Five Things High School Students Should Know About Race,” in the Harvard Education Letter: http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/28_6/helarticle/five-things-high-school-students-should-know-about.
For a historical perspective, there is the 1988 article published 26 years ago in the Harvard Educational Review by then-15-year-old CRLS student Imani Perry, now a Professor of African American Studies at Princeton. (Thank you to the CPS teacher who told me about this article.) Entitled “A Black Student’s Reflection on Public and Private Schools,” Imani Perry described how she moved from private school to CRLS in order to find a Black peer group. She found, though, that “I am in upper-level classes in which there are barely any kids of color, except Asians. Black and Hispanic students have been filtered down into lower-level classes.” Have we made any progress in 26 years? She also noted, “In lower-level classes, where minority students are most often found…the reading has less content, and the point of reading is to perfect reading skills, not to broaden thinking skills or gain knowledge of how the subject is currently affecting us.” I hope that is not still true at CRLS. I know that the CRLS administration, teachers, and staff are making efforts to break down the racial divisions and the tracking system that supports those divisions. But it is frustrating to see that things are so similar to 26 years ago.
The last notable CRLS student protest was, I believe, in 2009, when students counter-protested the Westboro Baptist Church hate group, which came to picket the school’s Project10East gay-straight alliance. The Harvard Crimson covered the event:
Cambridge Chronicle articles on the CRLS students’ participation in Hands Up Walk Out:
Comments welcome. Feel free to forward.