1. Nine people are dead. Three managed to live, but they will never be the same again. All under the roof of the very first African Methodist church in the nation – a church that was birthed from the black struggle and revolution of the colonial South. Death, tragedy, despair – all because of a deep-seated white supremacist hate that words can’t really describe.
People are blaming the victims for the massacre itself. South Carolina Representative William Chumley suggested the 9 victims chose to die the way that they did. He said they “waited their turn to be shot.” The emotions are running high from the incident alone – the gruesomeness of the crime and its racial implications exacerbate these emotions. But after hearing a politician openly blame the victims for the massacre, the anger, isolation and disappointment set in – especially for me, as a woman of color.
Hearing about the privileges afforded to the shooter – from the Burger King meal police purchased him hours after the massacre, to a judge urging people to pray for the shooter’s family, to the funds raised by numerous of people and organizations to support the murderer – is a real slap in the face. The more we hear about folk sympathizing more with the murderer than his victims, the more we can all clearly see the systematic devaluing of black people and the ubiquitous never-ending privilege granted to white criminals in action. And it hurts. Deeply.
The day after the shooting, the South Carolina capital had its flags at half-staff to acknowledge the tragedy – well, not all of its flags. The day after nine lives were violently snuffed out in the state of South Carolina, both the American and the South Carolina flag were lowered to half-staff. The day after a vile hate of black lives resulted in a church massacre, the flag that historically condoned slavery and white supremacy, the confederate flag, flew high — business as usual. This gesture served as a grave reminder that times haven’t changed nearly as much as we’d like to believe they have.
Over and over again, the historical implications of the confederate flag have been misinterpreted, misunderstood and/or completely ignored. Only slaveholding states could join the confederacy. To boot, the designer of the confederate flag wrote the following on its behalf – “As a people we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior colored race. […] As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race (Our Flag, George Preeble).” And some people are STILL baffled and even angered by black people’s resistance against the flag. But maybe they aren’t baffled. Maybe they know the ugly truth…and they’re just as ugly.
Mental illness is being used and abused. Many attribute the murderer and his crime to poor mental health and drugs, despite his manifesto, his PLANNING of this slaughter and his DECISION to target this particular church based on its historical significance – all of which require clear, lucid and organized thoughts. Meanwhile, people who truly suffer from mental illness suffer undue abuse in jails and prisons across the nation and across the world. Meanwhile, blacks who commit crimes or are suspected of criminal activity suffer an automatic character assassination and are deemed “thugs.” Rarely is “mental illness” ever a serious consideration in the court of public opinion.
Since Charleston, black church fires in the south have been largely on the rise. Although these arsons and suspected arsons may not receive the same amount of media attention as other incidents as of late, they are happening. It seems as if black folk can’t even pray in peace. History repeats itself, as we’re coming up on the 52nd anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four innocent little black girls.
President Barack Obama recently told a radio show that he is “fearless.” His fearlessness has been conveyed through his candid talk about race. His sentiments have opened up the floodgates for writers all over the nation to feel just a little more comfortable speaking on their experiences in the raw, no holds bar. It has been so refreshing to see a man, our PRESIDENT open up and speak up for his people – but as the same time, it has been disheartening that his openness has evoked fear and anger in the thoughts and opinions of the racists around us. Some have said the President is starting a race war. Black writers revealing their stance on things like the confederate flag, the public opinions on the Charleston shooting and race relations in this country as a whole have been vilified, to say the least. People are going as far as threatening to unsubscribe to papers. For them, black writers talking about their un-white washed opinions makes them feel too uncomfortable; it makes life feel too real. It’s easier for people to live within selective realities than to open their ears and eyes to diverse people, experiences and opinion.
Just as people have been opening up about race relations, racists have been themselves in the past few weeks – and they look like our friends, our coworkers and our neighbors. Chameleons are among us, and as they are revealed, our stomachs twist, our hearts break and our feelings hurt. We are saddened and we are disgusted. People aren’t always who they seem to be. But we must take this more as a learning experience and less as a let-down. We must let people show us who they are and we must take note…and then? Onward we march.
Life as a whole is one big learning experience– and the Charleston shooting is yet another lesson that we’re all responsible for teaching to others. As the victims are being laid to rest, the criminal trial of the murderer begins, the survivors try to start the healing process, the politics of the confederate flag are grappled with and other aspects of the massacre start to unfold, people will be looking to us for guidance. Our youth will have questions, our friends may want to hear our take on things and our family members may need help digesting everything. We are teachers. We are ALL teachers. We have to figure out how to help the little black boys and girls love the skin they’re in, despite the hate that radiates like heat all around them. We have to show our peers how to respect our opinions, particularly our differences in opinions. We have to strengthen our family units with the love, affection, education, awareness, wisdom and support to survive in a world where churches are slaughterhouses, white supremacists are supported physically, emotionally and financially and the real opinions of black folk are discouraged and in some ways, prohibited. This means more work for us and heavier loads for us to carry. But during times like this, when the world seems to be working against us, we can’t afford to sit idly in our frustration and our disgust and our sadness – we have no choice but to get to work.
Dedicated to the 9 lives lost at the hands of hate.
According to Teach.com, special education provides tailor-made educational programming to meet the specialized needs of each and every child (i.e. children with autism, developmental delay, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and other hindrances). Essentially, children who may have challenges in the classroom are supposed to receive individualized attention and curriculum, based on what each child brings to the table.
What special education often looks like
A little boy doesn’t learn in the same ways or at the same pace as his fellow classmates. The teacher gets frustrated and sends him to special ed. His very presence in the special ed class labels him for the rest of his school career. The special ed label tells teachers and classmates that he has no potential. A vicious cycle ensues. Because he probably won’t get the specialized attention promised by the special ed department, he gets lost in the sauce – as the teachers give up on him, he slowly gives up on himself. In effect, a bleak future including but not limited to the school to prison pipeline may ensue.
PS- If this little boy is black, there is even more of a chance of this scenario coming to life.
When it comes to gifted programs, black boys at all levels of the achievement continuum are 2.5 times less likely to be enrolled (even high achieving black boys who qualify for such programs).
In Virginia, while black students make up about 24% of the entire state’s student population, they make up over 31% of special education students.
(NEA; IDEA Data Center)
An author’s experience with Special Education
Ronnie Sidney II — author, educator and supervisee in Social Work — knows the special ed debacle all too well; after all, he was just like the little black boy I introduced you to earlier. “It all started in 3rd grade. I remember a teacher that I had taking me out of class and asking me to do a math problem for another teacher. The whole situation felt weird. Then I remember being taken from my class daily by a teacher who met with a small group of students in a different classroom,” he says. In third grade, Sidney began being tracked in special education. Although his experience in special education started in third grade, the stigmatization and ill-effects of his new educational placement became even harder to handle in middle school.
“I remember taking a series of tests asking me to do a variety of things. In sixth and seventh grade I recognized that something about me was different than the other kids. I felt embarrassed and didn’t want my friends to know. I began resenting my parents for putting me in special education. I didn’t feel like I needed it, I thought that I was smarter than that. I was unable to take classes with my friends and it made me feel helpless. I was in class with kids who didn’t care about anything except making each other laugh and messing with girls. I wanted more. I wanted to leave this small town and stigmatization behind and go to college.”
Although special education has been traditionally thought to bridge the gap between education and students’ individual education obstacles, it actually brought about more hindrances in Sidney’s case – he wasn’t allowed to take college prep or foreign language courses because of his special ed status. It all came to a screeching halt the day an 8th grade Sidney came home from school crying, overwhelmed once the school decided it would be best if he were in ALL special ed classes. “I felt like they were putting me on a path that I didn’t want to be on.” Shortly after, Sidney’s parents withdrew him from special education. He kept his dealings in special education to himself, afraid of being teased. “We were all vulnerable and it was those vulnerabilities that you had to hide or protect because the weak were eaten alive.” Not until he started college did he reveal that he was put in special education as a young boy.
Sidney and Nelson Beat the Odds
Throughout college and graduate school, Sidney read and researched about the over-representation of black boys in special education. Not only was he educated and enlightened by his findings, he was also relieved to discover that his story was no isolated incident – it was indeed part of a phenomenon occurring across the nation. “I read Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys by Jawanza Kunjufu and I was like whoa! It answered so many questions that I had growing up. The book was refreshing and encouraged me to go back to my old school and retrieve my special education records. In college I wrote a paper entitled Special Ed : The Disproportionate Placement of Minorities in Special Education and was able to research the topic further.”
Sidney has since written Nelson Beats the Odds, a graphic novel surrounding a little boy’s experience with being placed in special education. In the book, Nelson has been acting out in school and a frustrated teacher puts him in special ed. Despite the little he expects of his special education placement, he gets more bang for his buck once his special education teachers and his parents work with him to tackle his challenges in the classroom head on, believing in his ability and his potential.
Nelson Beats the Odds is quite similar to how Sidney himself beat the odds, as the book is based on his own story. His support system, including a few teachers that truly believed in him and his parents, is what he credits his success to. Sidney attained a 1.8 GPA in high school and went on to acquire not only a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s degree in social work. He has since written this book, started a therapeutic consulting company and has become a speaker on many issues, from black fatherhood to special education.
How we can all beat the odds
Sidney sees biased standardized testing as a major culprit in the over-representation of black boys in special education. “I think a majority of them are misdiagnosed. I don’t believe the tests accurately assess black children’s intelligence as much as they do white or European children’s intelligence. There is plenty of research and controversy surrounding the racial bias associated with the bell curve and SAT tests. I feel like if those test were truly accurate I would have been in gifted and talented instead of special ed.” Sidney also attributes the mass placement of black boys into special education to teacher bias. “My behavior as an elementary school student was off the chain. I was really hyper and would talk a lot in class. I believe if I sat in class quiet and wasn’t a behavior problem then I probably wouldn’t have been identified.”
Sidney believes that black boys need to be pushed to excellence – but in order to do so, schools need to take the time to find best practices. Sidney refers to Chicago’s Urban Prep School and New York’s Harlem Children Zone – the former boasts 100% graduation rates and 100% college enrollment for its graduation classes, comprised of 100% young black men and the latter not only works tirelessly with students in the classroom, it also cultivates the health and overall well-being of its students. He also underscores the importance of active cultural competency in teachers – including but not limited to internships with immersion in low income and predominately black areas.
When asked what we can do, Sidney has quite a few suggestions. “My advice to parents is to advocate for your children. Parents also need to arm themselves with information especially if the school believes your child has a learning or emotional disability.” He insists that parents with children believed to have a learning disability should get their children evaluated by a private psychologist if they disagree with the school’s psychological evaluation. In general, he said the duty of educating our students is one that is shared between home and school. “The main thing is educating them at home. You should not leave the education of your children solely in the hands of teachers.” He also asserts that children must be stimulated with hands-on activities and creativity, despite the bland teach-to-the-standardized-test educational culture our children live in today.
What Nelson will do to help us all
“Nelson Beats the Odds” serves to uplift the many children who end up in similar situations dealing with special education. Sidney intends to make teachers aware of the detrimental effects of bias with the book. He also notes his intentionality with the characters in the graphic novel. “I wanted to create a book that has a diverse group of characters. Many times the black characters in books look stereotypical and don’t reflect our diversity as a race. I asked the illustrators to include children of all complexions, hair textures, heights, weights and disabilities.”
Sidney hopes to make a lasting impact with Nelson Beats the Odds:
“I know that there are boys and girls out here right now who are experiencing stigmatization, resentment, vulnerability and disinterest in school and I want to let them know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I want educators to read the book and see how their biases or lack of bias influence children. My special education teacher was a huge influence and inspiration in my life and I include her as a character in my book. Teachers have the power to give life to kids or take it away. I am thankful that I had a supportive family that believed in me and continued to give me life. The resilience that I developed during my childhood education experience continues to fuel me today. I want the kids to use all the negative things people say as motivation to overcome their challenges and defy the odds.”
I think this book and its message has the potential to make a significant impact, not only in the black community, but the educational community at-large. I personally haven’t seen anything or heard of anything quite like this. As someone who started with a developmental delay and was subsequently put into a special education preschool program when it wasn’t needed, I can attest to the frequency of this phenomenon.