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Black Lives Matter and education
Protest leader, Rashad Turner, far right, leads dozens of protesters in a Black Lives Matter rally in the neighborhood around Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul, Minn. Credit: Richard Tsong-Taatarii /Star Tribune via AP

Both the current education reform lobby and their progressive opponents feel a certain kinship with the Black Lives Matter movement.

They even send subtle and not so subtle overtures soliciting the group’s support.

“I would argue we are losing more black lives by ignoring an epic educational crisis,” writes education reformer and Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz in a letter comparing the educational setting in America to the killings of unarmed black men.

In “An Urgent Appeal to the Leaders of Black Lives Matter,” published by Diane Ravitch, teacher Joshua Liebner asks Black Lives Matter to take on the Super PAC’s of the one percent.

These overtures present a problem; Black Lives Matter should inform education establishments’ causes, not the other way around.

Related: Column Black math scores lag the most in segregated schools

When you’re black, white privilege looks the same from whatever clique you claim or work in. You see the one percent controlling educational movements from all angles. The public educational system wasn’t exactly serving black children before the modern day reform movement. After twenty years of reform, gaps have widened in many cases. And as it relates directly to a policy agenda put out by Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, reformers and progressives alike are seemingly on a different page when it comes to ending the criminalization of black youth.

“Putting a black face on a white agenda doesn’t show that black lives matter. It actually does the opposite.”

In Louisiana, a state bill that would have banned suspensions among young children (blacks are disproportionately affected) for low-level violations moved up to the full Senate for approval. But the bill met considerable resistance from the Louisiana Association of Principals, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, all opposing it. The bill was ultimately watered down to ban suspensions for uniform violations. The school to prison pipeline flows through traditional and reform schools alike.

Black folk don’t need partners as much as they need justice.

I appreciate the Black Lives Matter Movement because few of us black folk actually work in organizations that can openly and brazenly place black people at the center of the work – not educational growth or gap closing. And save the reverse racism nonsense. Building self-reliant communities demand a ‘we can do this’ attitude that black folk seldom have the luxury of actualizing. Whites have a hard time wanting blacks to exercise the same luxury they readily impose. Blacks who have a “We can do this” attitude are deemed uppity, angry or non-team players.

Related: In Mississippi, best teachers don’t go where they are needed most

When you’re really working within a community, you don’t have to partner – community engagement isn’t necessary.

Black people know too well how partnering becomes co-opting. Education organizations are good for propping up black parents and children to parrot an agenda that the CEO or president should have given. Strutting a dark skinned boy on a stage to help make important announcements became almost mandatory (along with the tears). Now, mainstream education advocacy groups across the ideological spectrum want to show they’re genuinely engaged with black people by having parents write blogs, lead marches or present at press conferences.

White educational leaders really want the passion, numbers and unapologetic activism of the black lives matter movement. But putting a black face on a white agenda doesn’t show that black lives matter. It actually does the opposite. Especially in education, community engagement is typically a euphemism for how to deal with black folk.

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But others can support the movement.

“Genuine care for the fate of black people means following our lead,” says Brittany Packnett, a Ferguson and national activist who also happens to be executive director of Teach for America-St. Louis, adding:

“The Black Lives Matter movement has led and is continuously clear on what it looks like to stand in solidarity with us. It means supporting our agenda to protect black lives because it is right, not because you expect that we support yours in return.

“It means being influenced by our movement and examining whether or not your organization is truly preparing black children to lead by driving culturally responsive education.

“It means listening to the black voices within your organization who can and will help you evolve into more equitable spaces. Education organizations of every kind would be wise to listen closely and learn from this movement how to be better for children of color and evolve from the inside out.”

One has to learn how to support without co-opting. Progressive educator Chris Thinnes says that whites and progressives can learn how to support and follow black leadership. “But maybe extraordinary current movements in the education space led by primarily by educators and activists of color – the #FightForDyett hunger strike, the Seattle Teachers’ strike, and the #Educolor movement are only a few examples that come to mind – may serve instructionally to help white progressives listen, learn, and follow.”

Black Lives Matter is necessary because it gives education something that’s been missing – a black-led movement.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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