All the Scientists Were Black
In a long-form reflection on the relationship between race and education in this country, 2016 Camelback Fellow William Jackson, PhD, discusses the increase in DEI work, the need for a collaborative Black community, and why the work must stay rooted both in lived experience and data.
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Growing up, my mom brainwashed me. She made me believe that all scientists were Black. For real -- I had no sense that there were White scientists. When I was a kid, my mom glorified individuals like George Washington Carver, Alice Ball, John Drew, Mae Jemison, Garrett Morgan. The fact that she specifically hyped up Black scientists wasn’t something I was aware of. To me, they were just scientists. There was never a doubt in my mind that I too could be a scientist. I had no stereotypes in my mind of what Black people were or were not capable of; I actually thought that science was our “thing.” (And not football, basketball, hip-hop, or any of the other careers or life-paths that Black Americans are assumed to pursue.) I pursued science in college, and still take a scientific approach to anything I do. I will always be grateful for that -- I never fear asking questions.
Why are education and racial identity intertwined?
My mom was a second grade teacher for a long time. That’s an exciting grade to teach -- it’s all energy and enthusiasm for the pursuit of learning. My path started just by hanging out in her classroom. Years later, after tutoring and before I started to teach, I graduated from my HBCU as only one of 5 chemistry majors, and I was the only guy. I had the sense that something wasn’t right, and the gears in my mind couldn’t stop turning.
There is a developmental period in a young person’s life around racial identity with public versus private regard of self. Once you get to a stage where you can separate your feelings from other people’s feelings, moving from being egocentric to knowing empathy, you have the realization, “You see me as less than, because I am Black.” They need to be able to learn and believe, “But that doesn’t matter to me, because I’m just as good as you if not better.” Then, that means that micro-aggressions don’t hurt as much. I don’t have to internalize it. I can externalize it. That’s a solution to helping young people proactively combat the reality of systemic racism.
This was a powerful learning experience for me in my life. I think back to my own childhood. By the time that someone called me the n-word in fifth grade, it didn’t matter to me. My mom and dad were so purposeful in their teachings to me around race and my identity. (Remember? Black scientists.) The n-word literally did not compute -- I recognized that they were trying to call me something that didn’t match with my perception of myself; I recognized that their intention was to hurt me, and so I did not care about their viewpoint. There are kids though that don’t have that super positive upbringing. And thus the slights and belittling sinks in. That shapes you. It’s not their fault, and it’s not their parents’ vault. A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge the troubled history of this country, to deal with the painful reality of our present. It’s a lot to put on a Black parent, especially with all the other systemic things they have to deal with every day.
To me, a Black intervention was necessary. An unfortunate solution to a deleterious national problem. And so, I started my work with Village of Wisdom.
If we actually value equity in this space, why do we measure the data we do now? Who chooses its value, and how we use those findings to make impact? Why is there such a chasm between the decision makers and those affected?
Since beginning my work with Village of Wisdom (VOW), I have had many affirming moments both in the communities we serve and in the ed-reform space at large. Sometimes it’s a sudden look as they say, “Wow, you’re trying to change all of this” -- it can be from a Black mom already doing all the good advocacy that Black moms do or an executive at a multi-billion fund. And in those moments, I see that they recognize our potential to come together and to change this country. It’s being at our Black Genius Fest that features educators, designers, scientists, artists, government leaders, chefs -- and just seeing a sea of kids wearing backpacks that read “Black Genius” on the back. These little kids have these big backpacks on...they look so free, and confident in their potential.
Over the past five years, I have seen an aggressive uptick in the number of people who say they want to do “equity” work, yet have a total disconnect between their conceptual thinking and their actions. I have been surprised by how many people say they care about racial equity but don’t actually invest in it. If you say you care about racial equity in schools, and your only measures of it are gap between test scores and suspensions, then you don’t fundamentally understand what’s going on. These measurements are proxies, and possess littlet nuance. Research says that kids’ grades and performance are profoundly impacted by racial bias -- whether it’s by stereotype threat or teachers’ affect of performance. We know that kids are suspended disportionately not because the kids are doing anything, but because the teachers have different preconceived notions of when a Black or Brown kid does something and not a White kid. If you’re a philanthropic organization that is measuring suspensions or grades, then you’re trying to assess a child in a situation where the environment is the problem. That is not a focus on equity.
Let’s use a well-referenced analogy of the fish and the water. This space is talking about how we’re measuring the fish, our student in this case. People will say, “We got vitals on the fish, eyes good. How’s their heart, how’s their gills? Is the fish nice to all the other fishes?” But we’re not measuring the fact that 90% of the water is infested with lead and has smog juice in it. If we were really measuring equity, then we would have a lot more water-based metrics. In real life, folks don’t look at a bunch of dead fish, and go, “Wow, how is this one fish crushing it despite this toxic water? Let’s study this one fish and see how we can make all the other fish into super fish just like this fish.” No. People say, “There needs to be a filter for this water and we need to clean the water up.”
So I’m confused. I’m disheartened. And a lot of times, angry. I can’t believe we’re still measuring the vital signs of fish when we know the water is messed up. And that there’s so many “smart” people who insist that this is the way for change.
Why do we insist on labeling Black communities as targets for “charity?”
I wish people knew that all Black people aren’t poor. And that is not to say that we aren’t, of course, at a comparatively, collectively massively lower socioeconomic status. I take those two realities in hand. But it is very frustrating that folks want to cast out all black people as low-income. And we know why folks are low-income has nothing to do with their ability or work ethic. But it’s also just not true that our entire community is poor.
Racism and economic inequity are very intertwined but they’re not the same thing. So when people approach the solution as if no one has ANY economic resources to come to this challenge that we’re fighting, then you’re coming to the solution WITHOUT the full range of resources available. This attitude is endemic to why we are struggling to change the system.
Close to 40% of Black Americans are at middle class or above. That means they have a little bit of money and a little bit of time to do something. Because of the way our communities are, these folks are probably still close to or related to someone living in a low-economic situation. If we were really intentional about building a thoughtful, intentional, active Black community and encouraging this black communication across classes, perhaps we could change something. We could recognize how problematic the language around financial literacy is that middle class Black people try to shove down low income people’s throats. Our community is being torn apart, and we need to build it up more. And that agenda of internal destruction is pushed by White folks. “They’re poor because they didn’t work hard enough.” The reality is that they’re poor because there’s been generations and generations of wealth stolen.
Unfortunately, our conversations in the education space have often entirely avoided the reality that Black poverty is a symptom of historic and systemic oppression. And without this analysis, the only conclusion and solution that makes sense and thus that is funded is: “We help disadvantaged youth.” And therefore it is unsurprising that in this country we see educating Black children largely as CHARITY work.
But it is not that. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Dorian Burton - many others have explained this more articulately than I. But what it comes down to is that for Black communities, equity work is what the people of this country DESERVE. We have to stop talking about philanthropy work in this way where we see the target audience as pitiful. We should not support organizations that treat people this way. These people have value and are amazing and are and will be the true saviors of their communities.
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Why am I ruthless for good? And why should you be?
This idea, ruthless for good, is interesting in of itself. And before I get into this long thing, I’ll just go ahead and say that I am ruthless for protecting Black genius. (No surprise, right?) Ruthless about the yes and no decisions we have to make. Ruthless about not having space for folks who have no patience or desire to do the difficult internal, self-work necessary to serve our children in a way that they deserve to be treated.
I do frequently think about the ruthless nature of this world. I think about how people in power have been ruthless for maintaining that power and consistently stealing it away from people who ever started to build their own. There are people who want to do good in this world, I truly believe that. But they aren’t necessarily playing the same game. To play this game, it means you have to go for the jugular, the root, the heart of oppression. This non-profit work is not always about helping people and feeling good about yourself for your Facebook profile picture with kids from Africa. This is not charity. It’s about the ruthless pursuit of killing oppression. So in that way, ruthless for good as a mantra speaks to me. There is aggression in that sentiment, but there is this reality that we can no longer stomach oppression that is creating and leading to to consistent outcomes of giving some of the country the worst we have to offer, and to others, the cushiest, best of everything. And it’s always the same people that get which.
The moment I was telling you about -- when the spark in their eyes goes a different way, of trying to disrupt this system… this is an attack on the system that defines what our kids have been able to do or not do. Let them enjoy their full capacity and ability and our country will thrive; when you steal everything from them, everyone loses. That’s what I’m ruthless for. Shaking up this system. And attacking it at its core to obliterate oppression.
Why does this matter?
Since the Camelback Fellowship, I became a parent myself. When I attend school board meetings now, I’m not just thinking of how to make systems better for my community’s kids -- I’m also thinking literally of my child. The pressures of being a Black parent are my own. I know that, in my daughter’s life, she will be exposed to many voices that will try to tear her down. But in these early years, I can make sure she sees amazing people and hear the amazing things they say.
When I put my daughter to sleep, I play recordings of Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. As the latter says in one poem:
Love is // you and me.
Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
Seek patience and passion in equal amounts. Patience alone will not build the temple. Passion alone will destroy its walls.
If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.