Universalizing Racism in Public Schools in 2020


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October 23, 2020

Universalizing Racism in Public Schools in 2020

By A middle school teacher in Baltimore

  • Black Lives Matter
  • child parent separation
  • child separation
  • Democracy
  • History
  • Holocaust
  • immigration
  • WWII

I am a first-year teacher at a middle school outside of Baltimore. My school is one of the most diverse – and therefore most low income, underrepresented, and overpoliced – schools in my county. Many parents in this Baltimore district use false addresses just to remove their children from the city school system, and our middle school is a close option. It’s not hard to understand why the children in my classes can exude a certain cynicism, anger, or distrust. They are exactly the kind of children we have been failing, whose lives are most at stake. But they shock me every day with their hope and forgiveness. They listen to each other and empathize with each other’s experiences. It is just astounding. 

I wonder if the fact that we are completely virtual (at least for now) helps students to listen to each other respectfully and to open to each other as they broadcast into the classroom from a familiar, private space. Of course, e-learning is not the same as in-person learning and has enormous challenges. But I’m trying to focus on the benefits: plenty of kids who didn’t come to school because they had to take care of their siblings can now learn; we’re installing free Internet and giving out laptops for the many families who don’t have any; shy kids are blossoming. In some ways, it’s actually an exciting time to be in education.

As I prepared to show this fantastic film to my Model UN Club students, I worried they wouldn’t respond to it in the way it deserves – it’s so true that younger generations know next to nothing about the Holocaust. Moreover, my students do not represent the kind of population that has been exposed to world history, in general. But my worries were misplaced. They were rapt. The most impactful connection they made was with Fred Margulies’s story: one student said it must have been horrible to know as a toddler that your life was precarious (I’m translating the phrase  “so YOLO” from middle school-ese); two others pointed out that they understand Mr. Margulies because they feel the same way about their own lives and futures. They, too, see their mothers sigh in relief when they come home safe. They went off on a twenty-minute discussion all by themselves, connecting the stories of Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, George Floyd, and POCs in general with Mr. Margulies, and then to the Jewish population as a whole. 

I floated the question of whether they felt there was any connection between these survivors’ accounts and the heartbreak happening in US detention camps and beyond. Not shockingly, my Latina student was the one to comment first. She became visibly angry about how some humans think they can lock fellow humans away, in ghettos, camps, or cages. The discussion took a turn from this topic when her fellow students attempted to add another layer of connection, probing the problems of racism then and now: “but Jews are white and rich, how can they have anything in common with us poor black and brown kids?” It stung to have to end our time together on that note, but I could hear the cogs in their brains creaking. This is territory we will need to traverse; I’m confident that they will get there. If only negative “isms” like antisemitism and racism could be solved in one hour over Google Meet! We will push through it over the course of this academic year.

Thank you for sharing this with me and my students. Obviously, they wouldn’t be able to synthesize that they were searching for that “intense description of what is irreducibly particular,” as Marci Shore notes in her introduction, or that they were contemplating life as a whole. But even over grainy video, I could see the flashes in their eyes. Those flashes are the reason why us educators do it.

Author: a middle school teacher in Baltimore.

Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. Images courtesy of the Margulies family (Fortunoff Video Archive). 

This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?

Read Marci Shore’s introduction to the project here. Find the Table of Contents listing all contributions here

The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research


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