We all know that the Internet teems with conspiracy theories and personal attacks. But a recent piece about Teach For America really struck a chord with me. In it, the author lays out what he sees as the master plan of TFA (I won’t give the article the dignity of linking it here but you can certainly find it on your own). It reads like a manifesto powered by a focus group session.
If it had been a simple assault on TFA, I might have looked the other way. But what intrigued me about this indictment was the deeper focus on two of TFA’s more visible members, Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson. Both are also leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. At the height of the narrative, the author—who incidentally is white—offers that Brittany and DeRay are plants from TFA; two convenient black faces fronting a movement to privatize education wrapped in the fight to stop police violence against black people.
This slander isn’t as offensive to me as its subtext. What the author was really getting at with his “plant” barb, though, were two ideas that are much more pernicious. Whether it's criminal justice reform as championed by Black Lives Matter, or education reform as led by black people like DeRay or Brittany or others of us who are black and strong supporters of change, the message is the same:
You cannot be black and have decided for yourself that you believe in the sort of change that upends the status quo. And “real” black people are loyal only to certain ideas. Hence, you are unacceptable, as a black person, for thinking differently.
This is the crisis in black thinking today. A lack of diversity of ideas, or a narrow range of people advocating for them, doesn’t typify the crisis. A lack of ability to accept the difference among them does.
Consider what Brittany and DeRay have come to stand for. Two well-educated black people taking on systemic inequity in our classrooms and on our street corners. You can argue, strongly, that failing schools and prisons filled with black and brown faces are the logical culmination of longstanding policies that devalue kids of color their entire lives. There is a massive expectation gap for black kids, and for black boys specifically. Low-income and minority kids are more likely to get teachers who are poorly trained, supported or rated ineffective, which President Obama has campaigned against strongly. And these kids are vastly more likely to attend segregated schools, even as folks stump for more integration. This point was driven home in the St. Louis suburb of Normandy recently.
Then there is the constant stream of death we see visited on these young people as they interact with the police. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. The names are too numerous and all tragic. Yet it is difficult to imagine these interactions with law enforcement ending with someone’s ending if the “suspects” were white. As a political matter, perception has indeed become reality where black lives—and the Black Lives Matter movement—are concerned. And at current there is no data you can show that would dissuade black folks (black men in particular) from believing it is open season on their person. If people can’t trust the police, they can’t be policed. This is not just about order or freedom, it’s about existence.
"Kids can't learn if they're dead" - ‘Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us’ http://nyti.ms/1F17kCK @deray
Let's be clear: Children deserve more than what is easy. They, along with marginalized communities across this country who continue to suffer from police violence, poverty and oppression, require that we get beyond what's easy - the harder work of making change. -Brittany Packnett
While a rogue police officer can kill you all at once, it may take someone their whole life to realize they died in the fourth grade in a terrible school when they didn’t learn how to read. In Brittany and DeRay’s work on these issues, we see the stakes for kids of color made clear. These issues are pressing. And they require innovation, intention and disruption to change their effects on people of color in this country.
The status quo has rules and change never fits into those rules. So instead of supporting young black intellectuals and activists who want to change the world for the better, an anti-change “thinkeratti” assaults and dismisses their ideas; weighing and judging them in a values framework that some black folks just don’t accept anymore. But you can indeed be black and have your own opinion. You can be black and disagree, chart your own course and go your own way. You can be true to blackness while you fight for change you believe in but others might not. Brittany and DeRay represent this will — this difference. And when the noise machine denies this, they enslave us all in an entirely new way. Black folks are already in a fight with the prison system. We don’t need our ideas imprisoned too.
Which raises the second—and arguably more troubling—issue of the ever-shrinking bubble into which acceptable “black thought” must be placed. The question of identity is also found in that bubble. Fear of “the other” is powerful, and in some cases justified. But the anti-TFA screed that catalyzed all of this could have been reduced to three sentences:
TFA is white.
Brittany and DeRay are TFA, so they are not really black.
Brittany and DeRay can’t be trusted.
But instead of acknowledging that these folks have elevated the ephemeral nature of black life (and black success) to an issue that presidential candidates now have to address, detractors hurl insults by characterizing them as corrupting agents of the white power structure.
You could only think this if you don't get that this is America. Blackness is the one thing that cannot be marginalized because it is taken with you every moment of the day. People wake up with it. They sleep with it. It is a powerful framework through which systems see us as black people. And it is there from the moment you draw your first breath until you gasp your last one. In the end, the authenticity (blackness) of what people like Brittany and DeRay represent can’t be marginalized because blackness can’t be marginalized in the American context. It is blessing and burden. And it is with you forever.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
Brittany, DeRay and other “black others” working on these issues symbolize the evolution that all ideas must have if they wish to claim and maintain relevance. We should be celebrating that, not tearing it down. We should be replicating the places that give people like this the chance to stand up for what they believe and the space to believe it. And when you don’t have anything to add but criticism and inaction, you should just get out of the way.
This post was written by Derrell Bradford, NYCAN executive director. He writes from New York City.