As we were dismissing school one day, a young white teacher walked up to me in the hallway, clearly frustrated, and asked, “Why are they so angry?” She was referring to the black students at our rural Mississippi high school. There was a specific context to her question, but I realized as we talked more that there was also a larger context of which she was either unaware or unaccepting.
I can hear echoes of her question in the responses from many people, especially whites, to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin George Zimmerman trial. I’ve been married almost 30 years, and I’ve only seen my husband cry three times: 1) The first time we took our children through the National Civil Rights Museum, as he looked at the spot where Dr. King was shot; 2) after he had a heart attack; 3) when Zimmerman was pronounced not guilty. That announcement took me back to another school moment.
On October 3, 1995, I was teaching English at another all-black Mississippi high school, when the verdict to the (first) O.J. Simpson trial was announced. The principal had it broadcast over the Channel One monitors in our classrooms, so everything stopped and the school went completely silent as the live report began. When Simpson was pronounced not guilty, students all over the building erupted in cheers. I was standing in the doorway, watching both the classroom and the hallway. As the students cheered and high-fived each other, one of my white co-workers, a history teacher, slammed open the door to his classroom, kicked a chair into the hall, and stormed over to where I stood. Flushed red from the neck up and breathing hard, he stopped five inches from my face and yelled: “Can you BELIEVE that?! Can you believe they let him go free?!” Without changing my position or my demeanor, I replied, “Well, a few days ago, one of the men who killed Emmett Till died of old age. What can I say, American justice.” As my co-worker turned and sulked away, I wondered, “Why was he so angry?”
Our nation is having a much-needed, and long overdue discussion about racism. Some folk, bless their hearts, want us to believe that racism is no longer an issue in America, and that discussing it creates, rather than solves, problems. However, one reason there is so much pent-up anger around this topic is that we keep trying to avoid it. Reminds me of a writing class I took at a small, Mississippi college. The white professor and white classmates rejected one of my personal narratives because I described racist incidents I had experienced on that very campus. They insisted those incidents could not have been racist because “there is no more racism at this institution…well, maybe some latent racism.”
For the record: Racism is not just part of our history or a figment of Black people’s imagination; it is very much alive and deeply woven into our society, including into our educational policies and practices. Racism today affects our students in profound ways, and it affects the thinking and performance of teachers and administrators.
Educators, in particular, should take note of some recent studies about the effects of racism. NPR reported on one (“How to Fight Racial Bias When It’s Silent and Subtle”) in which researchers found: “Teaching people about the injustice of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others was ineffective. What worked, at least temporarily, Banaji [one of the researchers] said, was providing volunteers with ‘counter-stereotypical’ messages.” These counter messages were often visual cues. Another study, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) asserts that “Perceived racism may cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma and could lead to some physical health disparities between blacks and other populations in the United States.”
Such information should be taken seriously by teachers since we know that the population of American schools increasingly will be made up of students of color; the Census Bureau projects that by 2023, 50% of U.S. children will be from groups now considered racial minorities, yet 83% of our teaching force is white. Teachers will have to become increasingly equipped not only to understand students from diverse backgrounds, but also to recognize and control our own biases.
 Although identified by Black eyewitnesses in open court, the men were found not guilty after one hour of deliberation by an all-white jury.