Our failure to engage in this most important dialogue about race, racism, power... significantly limits the manner in which various individuals can talk about their experiences [and] also prevents us from hearing and empathizing with the pain, frustration, and deep seated anger... particularly our young people, because they have been told that race is unimportant.
- Tyrone Howard, 2008.
Few people can ignore the recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri. On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager with his hands up in a don't-shoot position was fatally shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson for allegedly blocking traffic. Brown was scheduled to attend Vatterott College two days later. Massive protests against the shooting resulted in Missouri's Governor Jay Nixon calling in the National Guard and issuing a temporary 5:00 p.m. curfew. Police dogs, tear gas and rubber bullets were used against protesting crowds. On August 25, thousands of people from around the world attended Michael Brown's funeral.
The immediate and dramatic public reaction to this incident was fueled by the fact that it is not an isolated event. Numerous, highly publicized killings of other Black males by policemen have occurred over the last decade: January 24, 2004—Timothy Stansbury in Brooklyn, NY; November 25, 2006—Sean Bell in Queens, NY; January 1, 2009—Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA; Jan 29, 2010—Aaron Campbell in Portland, OR; July 18, 2011—Alonzo Ashley in Denver, CA; March 7, 2012—Wendell Allen in New Orleans, LA; September 16, 2013—Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, NC. Finally, on July 17, 2014—just one month before the Brown shooting—Eric Garner, in Staten Island, NY, was also killed by police officers.1
Although the Brown shooting in Ferguson was similar to other deaths of Black males, it was distinct in the unifying nature of the public reaction and support in inspired. Multiracial marches, celebrity visits and support around the world have made the Ferguson shooting potentially the Civil Rights event of this generation. There have even been petitions for intervention of the White House.
My original thought behind writing this article was to provide resources and tips that would help teachers unaccustomed to talking about race address the depression and anxiety black males could have surrounding the Ferguson shooting. However, when I started collecting data and references regarding young and adolescent warning signs for depression, I discovered that the symptoms and warning signs of depression—anger, moodiness, disengagement from school, lack of motivation and frequent absenteeism—are the same labels that are attributed to Black males placed in special education programs and detention.2 Black male push-outs from school are typically not because of violence or impaired intelligence, but because of behavioral norms. For example, Black students in general are more likely to be suspended for nonviolent offenses such as disruption or truancy, and to be removed from classrooms for nonviolent behavioral offences.3,4 Black student suspension overrepresentation starts as early as in preschool.5
It is neither helpful nor instructive to blame educators or to cast aspersions on Black males for this situation. But it is critical that we look deeply into this question: What does it say about schooling in America when indicators for depression are the same as those that push Black male students out of school? And more importantly: How can we address these issues?
As educators, we must to be sensitive to issues related to race, to look outside of our schools to our communities. Ladson-Billings (1994) reminds us that culturally relevant teachers see their connection to the community as integral to their identity. In addition, it's critical to remember the word relevancy—not hope—when working with Black males. Black males don't need to be rescued; they need to be active participants in matters that affect their lives. They need to be given choices and opportunities, not pity. If a Black male student feels sad about his neighborhood and wants to build a better community, expose him to career paths that can make a difference: architect, civil engineer, social worker, teacher. If a Black male student wants a more peaceful community, help him identify academic possibilities such as the Peace Studies major at Indiana University or United Nations Development Programme. If a young Black male student wants to do something positive with his life, but feels that he may not have the resources, introduce him to books about other Black young men like William Kamkwamba, who have succeeded despite facing daunting challenges. Kamkwamba built a windmill that produced electricity for his village in Africa out of discarded materials and scrap metal. Discussing positive ways to deal with problems is a healthy way to handle many emotions, including depression.
For more tips about depression and helping students, please see below.
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Tips for Parents and Caregivers
1 Harris-Perry, M. (August, 2014). The deaths of Black men in America. MSNBC. Retrieved from: msnbc.com
2 Grant, J. & Richardson, T. (1998). The retention/promotion checklist. Peterborough, NH: Crystal Springs Books.
3 Fabelo, T., Thompson, M., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. & Booteh, E. (2011). Breaking schools' rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students' success and juvenile justice involvement. Texas: The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas, A & M University.
4 Majors, R., & Billson, J. (1992). Cool pose: The dilemmas of Black manhood in America. New York: Lexington Books.
5 CBS News (2014, March). Black students more likely to be suspended –even in preschool. Retrieved from: cbsnews.com
6 Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.