I have a whole collection. Unpublished letters to the editor, unsent texts, correspondence to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, notes of what I needed to say to superintendents of other nearby districts, business owners and citizens that lived near many of our schools from my time as superintendent of the Owensboro Public Schools all about issues of racism.
I would on a weekly, if not daily basis, witness structural racism directed at Black students in our school district. I felt a constant anguish in my heart that I was never doing enough in the face of these disgusting displays of inhumanity directed at my students and friends.
My initial reaction was always to fight back and use my position to label such behavior for what it was — racist. However, on many occasions, I was talked down by those who would rather me take a less outward role toward this issue.
“This is nothing new, it has been happening for many years,” they said. “We know about it and how to navigate around it.” “It is better if we don’t fight back this way, let’s show them on the court or the playing field.” “We don’t want to start trouble, it will blow up in our face and we will be the ones who end up hurt,” were all the familiar refrains.
With the events of the past few weeks, there has been an awakening in our nation. Not just in the Black community, but everywhere. It is past time to confront issues that have existed since the founding of the United States, time to stand up, time to call out and end injustice.
The impact of this awakening hit home for me recently as I read a social media post from a former student who delivered an emotional account of how patrons and management at a local restaurant mistreated her just because she was wearing a Black Lives Matter mask on Juneteenth. According to her account, she was torn apart and brought to tears by the behavior of patrons who disagreed with the statement she was making by wearing the mask. After reading that account, I felt the same gut punch and hole in my heart that I felt as superintendent.
I struggle to understand how some, especially in such a religiously oriented community, can consciously disagree with the statement Black Lives Matter. Think about the circumstances in this situation: a Black student, recently named one of 44 top scholars from Historically Black Colleges and Universities nationally, working two jobs so that she can earn her education, could not get the white patrons of a restaurant where she was serving them to agree that she mattered. She did not say the white patrons did not matter, in fact, she explicitly told them they did matter. Nor did she say that she matters more. But they could not even accept that. They would not even accept her right to have that as an opinion. According to her account, she was truly hurt. She felt defeated.
How safe, welcome
and understood do you think this student will
feel about her future
as a college graduate in this community?
The current awakening is not a result of an increase in racism. Black Americans have been dealing with these kinds of issues for a longer time than any of us who are white can imagine. It is a result of 400 years of oppression in the form of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, just to name a few.
The difference with what is happening now and what I experienced as a bystander to similar events during my time as superintendent is that we no longer — and should no longer — accept both systemic and structural racism and as the way things are.
Black Lives Matter is simply insisting that people understand more deeply what it means for our fellow Black citizens to matter. It is calling out those who oppress or sit idly by and witness the oppression. As a white person, I will never truly understand this because I never have lived it. I have never had to question whether my life mattered or did not matter to others.
Therein lies the issue. If you never had to truly question that about yourself, then failing to affirm that about a Black life must be a form of resentment tied to race. Claiming that “All Lives Matter” is a blind failure to claim solidarity with a movement that calls out issues of racism as they exist. These ideas should not be tolerated in this or in any community.
In his book ‘Dying of Whiteness,’ Vanderbilt social psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl identifies the fatal consequences associated with the politics of racial resentment that is killing many of America’s heartland cities like Owensboro. We can either be a place where a bunch of out-of-touch, old white guys cling to a confederate monument on the courthouse lawn, or a place that emphasizes cooperation rather than the false promise of supremacy. The latter communities will be the ones to survive in the coming years — especially as the younger, more tolerant generations begin to vote with their feet about where they want to live.
I have been overwhelmed by the level of support in our community and worldwide for this movement. I really think the people in the restaurant constitute the minority of who we are as a community and as a people.
It is important, however, that we all commit to standing up to these people and saying something when they try to associate Black Lives Matter with a radical political statement. It is a simple, human, Christian statement that the lives of Black Americans — our students, neighbors, educators, friends and more — matter. To deny this statement is a failure to recognize the humanity and the 400-year oppression of Black Americans; and a direct repudiation of another statement that seemed radical over 2,000 years ago, “love one another as I have loved you.”
Nicholas Brake, Ph.D., is former superintendent of the Owensboro Public Schools and currently the director of the doctoral program in leadership studies at Western Kentucky University.