Culturally enriching, relevant, and sustaining pedagogy helps students understand their overarching contribution to the American experience. In predominantly black and Latinx spaces devoid of a culturally aware and relevant curriculum, students become disengaged because the curriculum doesn’t speak to their unique, culturally-nuanced experiences. A 2006 report found that 47 percent of students who dropped out of school in the United States did so because “school was not interesting.”
This is why an African American studies course is vital, because students, especially African American students, will begin to understand their cultural capital in the context of history, citizenship, culture, economics, science, technology, geography, and politics. It will help expand students’ sense of agency, and help them see their contribution to America and the world. These courses are not relegated to their matching ethnic groups, but will inform all students as discussions will invariably lead to viable solutions to mitigate the disparities.
When addressing the disparities of our African American and Latinx communities, there is a superfluity of statistics and reports that offer a grim picture. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is at 20.8 percent and 17.6 percent respectively, as opposed to the 10.1 percent of non-Hispanic Whites and 10.1 percent of Asians. When we discuss annual income, African Americans and Hispanics median incomes were only $41,361, and $51,450 respectively. Their counterparts, Whites and Asians were $70,642 and $87,194, respectively.
African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but disproportionately make up 40 percent of the criminal justice system. Hispanics make up 16 percent of the population and 19 percent percent of the justice system. Their white counterparts make up 63 percent of the U.S. population, but only 39 percent of the criminal justice system. Also noted, within their lifetimes, African American men of all ages are 5 times more likely to have been incarcerated than their white counterparts.
Even though black males have been victimized by high incarceration and recidivism rates stemmed from systemic and institutionalized racism. As graduation and matriculation into college increased, the incarceration and recidivism decreased. In 2000, African American males who graduated from high school and matriculated into college only made up 5 percent of the incarcerated population. It is evident that educational opportunities can be the catalyst.
The problem occurs when the ubiquity of the aforementioned statistics and the deficit perspective are unmatched by the counterbalanced narrative.
Of 15 State Board of Education members in Texas, only five are people of color. Creating space for representation of diversity and equity in the education policy conversations has proven, much of the time, to be challenging. It is much easier to fall to the status quo approaches to education decision-making because the system is already built to support what has always been done. The majority of the board has passively created and implemented policy without any consideration for the environmental context (historical, cultural, experiential, etc.) in which we serve.
Dismissal of passionate, contrarian viewpoints to the dominant political narrative, results in the neglect of important data and diverse perspectives. Far too often, our marginalized communities are those who remain silenced by traditional policy approaches.
This is why it’s important for the board to reflect our student population. We have the responsibility of providing our students of color with the tools they will require to maneuver through an unfriendly world; one that has already minimized their experiences by denying culturally reflective histories in their curriculum and, in countless cases, has publicly “othered” them for their appearance, use of their home language, limited access to resources, and familial structures and socioeconomic positioning.
Now that Mexican American Studies and African American Studies courses have passed in Texas, which is the biggest state in the contiguous United States of America, it is incumbent on all stakeholders to promote the passage of these courses nationwide. The fact that these ethnic studies courses unanimously passed a predominantly white, Republican Texas State Board illustrates that there is a desire to implement an accurate account of the contributions of Mexican Americans and African Americans to our nation.
No longer will students be relegated to simple, low-level exposure during Black History Month, devoid of many of our nation’s top black contributors. Whether the instruction involves James Baldwin, the Harlem Renaissance, or Black Wall Street and the Tulsa riots, teachers will be able to delve deeper into the historical occurrences that have created this economic and social chasm and inequities in America. With the advent of this course and courses like these, students will be able to have constructive discussions about equity and disparities and find viable solutions to the malaise of the traditionally disempowered and minoritized in America.
These courses illustrate that black and brown lives really do matter in the tapestry of the American experience; and now students of color can learn with pride that their contribution to the progression of America is recognized and highly regarded. This is our charge, our belief, and our fight, that we will exhaust all efforts and resources to make sure every student has a fighting chance at an equitable and optimal educational experience.
This commentary has been adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book, Challenges to Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs in Organizations.