Snowed in for a three-day weekend? It’s a good time to re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s unflinching expression of faith in the power of love and nonviolent direct action.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in 1963, in a message that’s as timeless as it is powerful. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
But readings on race, justice and civil rights shouldn’t stop there. Here are a few other suggestions – a list based on books that I’ve had a chance to read:
- “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” by Barbara Ransby. This book belongs at the top of the list. It changed my understanding of the civil rights movement. Yes, King’s leadership was important, but even more essential was the patient, fearless behind-the-scenes work done by Baker and others like her over decades.
- “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Six million African-Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and West in the early 20th century, fundamentally reshaping America. Wilkerson tells the story with grace and intimacy, weaving it around the experiences of three individuals who made the journey to freedom and opportunity.
- “The Wall Between,” by Anne Braden. Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as intermediaries in 1954 to help a black couple buy a house in an all-white Louisville suburb. The house was bombed and Carl Braden was imprisoned for sedition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Louisville couldn’t desegregate its schools, because the school segregation reflected housing segregation that was voluntary. This book shows the court was wrong.
- “On the Laps of Gods,” by Robert Whitaker. In 1919, black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, met at a church to organize a union. White authorities showed up, shots were fired, and white militias and federal troops hunted down and killed over 100 African-Americans, including women and children. Over 200 local blacks were jailed; 12 were sentenced to death but were saved from execution by the heroic work of black attorney Scipio Jones. It’s one of the real tragedies of American history, and a continuing tragedy that so few know about it.
- “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi. The American University historian traces attitudes toward race from the first white settlement, framing them as segregationist, assimilationist or antiracist. It’s a wide sweep of American history seen through a critical, unsparing lens.
- “The Negro in Indiana before 1900,” by Emma Lou Thornbrough. This 1957 book by the late Butler University historian and activist may seem dated, but it’s eye-opening for folks like me who have lived for decades in Indiana without knowing a lot about the state’s racial past.
Black students are suspended from Indiana public and charter schools at about four times the rate at which white students are suspended, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.
Multiracial students, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and special-needs students are also more likely than their peers to be suspended, the data show.
This is alarming but not surprising. Disparities in discipline have been studied by academics and reported by the news media. Some research has found students of color are more likely than white students to be punished for the same behavior. A General Accountability Office report found that black students made up 15 percent of students in public schools but accounted for 39 percent of suspensions.
Experts point to a variety of causes, including zero-tolerance policies, implicit bias by teachers and administrators and a lack of awareness of alternative approaches to discipline.
Out-of-school suspension is tied to lower achievement, higher dropout rates and other adverse outcomes. If students aren’t in school, they aren’t learning and they’re more likely to grow discouraged and give up. Advocates say suspensions contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Tyrone C. Howard draws a line between sympathy and empathy for poor children and students of color.
Sympathy – feeling sorry for students – can mean teachers have lower expectations, settle for less and choose not to challenge students, he said. It can lead to a “pedagogy of poverty” that focuses on basic skills and denies children the rich opportunities offered to more advantaged peers.
Empathy, on the other hand, means listening to students, learning from them and understanding how their culture and life circumstances influence how they think and talk and behave in school.
Tyrone Howard (UCLA photo)
“I’m asking you to be empathetic and to expect and demand excellence,” he told an audience of Monroe County Community School Corp. teachers this week.
Howard, a professor of education and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, spoke with teachers Tuesday during a professional development session on cultural competence. A renowned scholar of race and educational equity, he is the author of “Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools” and “Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males.”
Howard suggested it can be easy to fall into the sympathy trap. Take the nation’s 56 million public school students and compress them into one classroom of 30 students: 12 will live in poverty, and three in extreme poverty. Ten speak a primary language other than English. And one is homeless.
Seven will experience physical, emotional of sexual abuse during childhood. And perhaps that many more will experience abuse that goes unreported and undetected. No wonder some students are angry, some are sullen, and some act out in ways that adults consider inappropriate or disruptive.