San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talks with Spurs player Lonnie Walker IV during the first quarter against the Utah Jazz at The Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 13 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Credit: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

With awareness of racial discrimination and disparities at a high-water mark, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has a hard time understanding why more local school districts aren’t offering a new state-approved course on African American studies.

At a time when George Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests and calls to address entrenched racism, the Spurs organization began internal discussions about how its employees could leverage their influence to effect change. When Popovich learned the state of Texas had approved an African American Studies course this past spring, he thought it was an obvious solution to the problems protesters were highlighting. But when he became aware that not all school districts would offer the elective to their students, he was stunned.

“I was amazed, and the question was why – how can that be possible in today’s world?” Popovich told the San Antonio Report by phone from Orlando, where the Spurs were finishing their season.

“It’s 2020. Have these school districts seen what’s going on in the country? Do you know where they are at with race? Do they know how divisive our politics are? Do they know that the leader of our country is a racist?”

Recognizing the power of education to eliminate or exacerbate racial inequities, Popovich said school districts must both declare and act to show their students and community that Black lives matter. He called on school districts to adopt the curriculum and embed the historical context into core classes.

For Popovich, stepping into social justice issues is nothing new. But meeting State Board of Education Member Marisa Perez-Diaz, who was influential in obtaining state approval for both African American Studies and a Mexican American Studies, made him realize more students needed the opportunity to learn about the racial and ethnic identity of all Texans.

Among San Antonio’s 17 school districts, only San Antonio Independent School District and Judson ISD are offering African American studies this fall. Others, including South San Antonio and Northside ISDs, plan to introduce it in the future, but won’t offer the course this school year.

Popovich acknowledged that school districts might say they don’t have the staff or resources to offer the courses and suggested that corporate or other outside partnerships could help. Curriculum that accurately reflects history and represents students is essential, he said.

“I don’t think anything of substance will change unless at some point the truth begins to be told so that history is both accurate and does not leave out what needs to be known,” Popovich said. “Understanding the accuracy of our past and what has been left out is the essential beginning of developing citizens who respect all cultures, all races, all religions. There’s no me and them.”

Before Mexican American Studies and African American Studies won state approval, Perez-Diaz said, the lessons students learned in Texas classrooms were incomplete.

She helped push for both courses, but often found herself in the role of student, learning about historic events, tragedies, and notable figures that she had never heard of before during the state approval process unfolded.

Perez-Diaz was shocked to learn of the lynchings of Mexican Americans at the hands of the Texas Rangers and that white Tulsans massacred Black residents in 1921.

“I feel like those stories were stolen from us,” Perez-Diaz said. “If youth of color knew about the progress that we made and how many times we have been bashed down by power, then maybe they would understand why they need to take pride in who they are.”

Popovich, too, found himself learning. In the five weeks he and his team have spent in the NBA bubble, they’ve watched films and discussed important topics like the role of policing in society, the civil rights movement, and why athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.

He discovered a startling statistic that he felt highlighted his own ignorance. The coach learned that between the Civil War and 1950, 6,500 people were lynched.

“I grew up in the ’60s and I don’t remember my family talking about lynchings or it ever coming up in school,” said Popovich, noting that’s more than one lynching per week over nine decades. “… And we’re going to have school districts in Texas that don’t want to teach this?”

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Karla Broadus directs the African American Studies program at the University of Texas at San Antonio and spent her summer leading seminars for educators interested in teaching the course’s curriculum. Teachers came from Austin, Dallas, Houston, and as far away as California to learn more about the class.

The demand for more guidance on the subject only reinforced her belief of the class’ importance for every student, no matter their race or ethnicity.

“All students need to be exposed to it because our society is made up of all kinds of people,” Broadus said. “We’ve already had an African American president and now we have a [Black] woman running for vice president. Our students need to learn the history about the African American culture and community – how we arrived, what occurred when we arrived.”

To get buy-in for districts to offer the class, influential voices outside the education system must lobby on behalf of this curriculum, Broadus said. Just as industry leaders and employers often call on schools to train students to fill their labor needs, they should recognize the value of a student with empathy for others and an accurate understanding of history.

Popovich agreed.

“Any of us that has a platform should speak out because these systems of oppression, they’ve mostly impacted people of color,” he said. “They don’t impact me or other white people. But people of color are affected, and disproportionally Black and brown people.

“Anyone who has the ability to speak about inequity but does not is really implicit in allowing it to continue.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.