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Will education return to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic and protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake? As a Black teenager from Oakland, California, I hope not. The events of the last few months have provided all of us in this country with a tremendous opportunity. By addressing our nation’s deeply rooted racial inequity, we can create a new normal, built on societal justice and the ability of individuals to make a difference.

As institutions that shape the perspective of future generations, schools can take the essential first steps in solving the problems we face. A portion of our population is in denial about the existence of institutionalized racism. Teaching about institutionalized racism in schools can ensure that all students and future adults know about the injustices that people of color encounter every day in the United States.

This fall, as I return to school online, I would like to see my classes teach us about the modern-day inequities and systemic struggles that hold back Black and brown people. Students need to know about the inequalities in wealth and about the overcriminalization of Blacks if they are going to understand how systemic racism disadvantages entire groups. All students need to be exposed to the harsh realities of an inequitable America.

History is something we can both learn from and act upon. Lessons on slavery, the Jim Crow era and current injustices can help all students understand the complex topic of institutionalized racism.

Schools also need to teach us about the solutions to these problems. When members of certain groups are favored in societal systems, students need to learn ways of overcoming those injustices.

Students also need to learn that they have agency, that they can make a difference in society both as individuals and as members of groups. Student agency means taking responsibility for your own education and making sure that your education leads to change. Providing students with knowledge and agency will enable them to not only identify and acknowledge problems but also to effectively attack them.

Related: College students push for race and ethnic studies to be required, but some campuses resist

As a first step, public schools need to be funded equally statewide. Schools with majority Black and brown student populations need and deserve the same funding as schools with majority white student populations. Part of this funding for schools can go to extracurricular activities, which will give troubled young people more alternatives to crime and violence.

Teaching about institutionalized racism cannot be allowed to discourage students of color. The truth needs to serve as a motivation for Black and brown students, not as an excuse to give up.  Black and brown people already face many expectations that prevent them from acting. They need to understand both the problems they face and how to fix those problems.

 “I would like to see my classes teach us about the modern-day inequities and systemic struggles that hold back Black and brown people.”

The majority of students at my school are Black, Hispanic and of Arab descent, and people of color are well represented in the school administration.  The events of the past few months have provided all of us with an unprecedented opportunity to learn how all people can be treated fairly and with justice.

Previous generations have failed to attack systemic racism and the lack of equal opportunities for all. Today’s students cannot assume that people with outdated views who are in  positions of power will even challenge the status quo, much less solve the problems we face. 

Historically, changes in civil discourse have often originated with young people. We can coordinate mass protests, organize collective action and envision a better future for everyone. Providing young people with agency is a guaranteed route to racial justice.

Students see and are subjected to all the problems facing our society. We can be at the center of the solutions. Listen to us. Give us a chance.

Jayden Cummings is a 17-year-old senior at Emery High School in Emeryville, California, and a member of Energy Convertors, a program that teaches youth student agency.

This story about schools teaching about racism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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