Voices in Education

Charlottesville, Unalienable Rights, and Justice for All
“You will not replace us.”
“Blood and soil.”
“Whose streets? Our streets!”

The above refrain could be heard throughout the University of Virginia campus on the evening of August 11, 2017. Alt-right “protesters” assembled to oppose contemporary social movements in favor of a more pluralistic American society. The Declaration of Independence establishes “that all men [‘the good People of these colonies’] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Over 240 years later, Americans of all races continue to be mired in a recursive contradiction: debating about who gets to claim an American nationality and the associated “Rights” therein. Do women count? Immigrants? Black people? Muslim people? LGBT+ people? And who gets to determine or grant access to these rights, in America, if we’re all created equal? Considering that the United States is founded upon dispossession of Native Americans, how credible is the notion of “Rights” in the first place? 
White racial identity has historically been conflated with an American national identity. Omi and Winant (2005) insist, “U.S. society is so thoroughly racialized that to be without racial identity is to be in danger of having no identity” (p. 6). Looking from the perspective of our storied history of racism in the United States before and after 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived to Jamestown, Virginia, being American has presumed a blind adoption of White cultural norms, perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors. The White people who showed up in Charlottesville did so out of fear of a more multicultural society. Such a society grants a diverse citizenry greater access to positions of power (e.g., money, resources, networks, and authority). Having such influence determines how and to what degree US social institutions, laws, and policies effectively protect and provide access to opportunity for every person who has made their home in the United States. 
In my book Urban Preparation, I demonstrate how educators’ good intentions to improve young Black men’s academic outcomes can unwittingly reproduce these students’ racial and/or gender oppression (Warren 2017). A failure by these educators to counter White supremacist ideologies in their professional practice does little to subvert longstanding social constructions of Black people as inherently inferior to White people (Kendi 2016). Assimilation preserves White hegemony. Similarly, statements like those listed at the top of this blog, amplified by Unite the Right protesters in Charlottesville, suggest these individuals aim to ensure America’s national identity remains pure White. In other words, these White nationalists are actively engaged in ensuring the history and character of the United States remains unblemished by the diverse perspectives and experiences accorded to cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences. Up until Barack Obama’s presidential election in 2008, one of the most powerful leadership positions in the world had always been occupied by a White man. Obama’s inauguration personified a tangible threat to White dominance that alt-righters could not ignore. The rest, as they say, is history, which brings us to today. 
White men and women gathered in Charlottesville to publicly exclaim their intentions to enact violence upon those who attempted to jeopardize the legacy of White superiority (i.e. their “Rights”) in the United States. That is what made Charlottesville a White supremacist convening, and thus, not simply a demonstration of free speech. White supremacy most disenfranchises or disadvantages any individual who is not cisgender, Christian, able-bodied, English-speaking, wealthy, White, and/or male. In other words, White supremacy is bad for all of us. Three things we can each do right now to combat White supremacy include:
  • Protect and advocate for the most vulnerable. These are individuals who experience multiple forms of subordination as a consequence of their intersecting marginalized identities (e.g., Black Women, Queer Muslims, Undocumented Children). This protection and advocacy includes the courage of those in leadership to move these individuals from the periphery of their decision-making to the center when negotiating the politics and implications of “free speech” in public space.
  • Raise your voice. It is important that one actively oppose any words or actions that create an environment of violence or oppression. Everyone is entitled to believe whatever they want. Nobody, however, is entitled to compromise someone else’s sense of belonging. For example, refusing to believe people of color when they say they’ve been offended by something you’ve said or done is another form of assault.
  • Get involved. Engage in coalitional politics that build solidarity amongst multiple stakeholder groups and constituencies; no one person’s oppression is greater than another. Volunteer for a social service organization. Give money to a racial justice project or organization of your choosing such as the Equal Justice Initiative. Read and share blogs (like this one), books, and articles to educate yourself and those in your social network. It is unacceptable to be silent about injustice or sit idly by while those with whom you have influence oppress others through the words or behaviors.
The United States could not be “land of the free, and the home of the brave” without us—people whose ancestry, cultural expression, and language is rooted in every nation of the world. The “social activism” of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville was a reaction to the growing wave of everyday people raising their voices in discontent with the persistence of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, settler colonialism, and multiple other forms of injustice. It is incumbent upon all of us to resist, to question, to call out, and to push back against White supremacy. Don’t make Charlottesville about those particular White men and women or others who believe like them. Let Charlottesville be a symbol of our collective, renewed commitment to protect the “Rights” of humanity. 
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. “On the Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race.” In Race, Identity, and Representation in Education, edited by Cameron McCarthy, Warren Crichlow, and Nadine Dolby, 3-12. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Warren, Chezare A. Urban Preparation: Young Black Men Moving from Chicago’s South Side to Success in Higher Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2017.

About the Author: Chezare A. Warren is faculty in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His research interests center on issues of race & equity, culturally responsive teaching, and urban education.He is the author of Urban Education: Young Black Men Moving from Chicago's South Side to Success in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2017).