Race Equity Ed Blog

Race Lessons from Ferguson: Back to School, Not Back to Normal

By Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D.
Posted August 25, 2014

Children returned to school today in Ferguson, Missouri, just 16 days after a White police officer shot and killed an unarmed African American teenager. The start of the academic year there was delayed by seven school days amid protests, demands for justice and the arrest of Michael Brown’s killer, and a militarized police presence. What we’ve seen on television and in images from afar, kids in Ferguson have experienced firsthand. Surely, this traumatized them. Ironically, the Ferguson-Florissant School District explained on its website last week that schools weren’t opening on time because of concerns about safety. Were kids safer at home on the seven days they missed from school? Probably not. Did they feel safe when police officers aimed firearms at them and people they know, cruised their streets in army tanks, and released tear gas into crowds night after night in their neighborhoods? Definitely not.

It is unlikely that the children of Ferguson will ever forget what they’ve seen and experienced the past few weeks. Indeed, they’ve learned several painful lessons. As the nation and news media move on, these kids will walk the same streets on which a young man who looks like them was gunned down and chaos ensued. Few, if any, of them will ever trust law enforcement officials, especially the 50 White officers who presently comprise the police force in their community. 

As is typical in moments of racial eruption in the U.S., there will be an inclination to swiftly move on – to treat Ferguson as an isolated, unfortunate event that came and went. I suspect that few P-12 teachers there or elsewhere across our nation even know how to talk with children about what happened in the St. Louis suburb and the larger implications of this tragedy. Many will wrongly determine that avoiding the topic is the best strategy. A few will have conversations with Black kids about how best to interact with police officers. I seriously doubt that many educators will engage White students in critical discussions about race, policing, and the systematic miscarriage of justice.

 At best, lessons regarding Ferguson will resemble textbook accounts of slavery: some people came from Africa, they were slaves, Abraham Lincoln freed them, the end. Or flimsy Black History Month lessons about Martin Luther King: he was an African American civil rights leader who believed in non-violence, there is a national holiday named for him, the end. The Ferguson lesson, if there is one, will go something like this: an African American teen died, people in his community got very upset, the police had to come restore justice, things returned to normal, the end. The story will not be placed in larger historical, social, cultural, economic, judicial, and political contexts because most teachers won’t be willing or sufficiently prepared to engage these complexities.

Most school-age children in Ferguson are Black. They and Black youth across the U.S. need supportive spaces in which to process what happened. Likewise, youth from other racial groups (including Whites) deserve opportunities to talk about Ferguson, particularly what the implications of this tragedy are for their lives and our nation. Young people need to know the truth: Ferguson wasn’t an isolated incident, but instead is connected to a longstanding, more systemic set of structural problems and judicial errors. Last year, Chris Lehmann, a public school principal here in Philadelphia, and a dozen colleagues produced a guide to help educators engage youth in conversations about the death of Jordan Davis (another unarmed Black teen) and the subsequent acquittal of his killer (a White man who wasn’t involved in law enforcement). The guide includes several powerful lessons and useful resources.

Avoiding conversations about Ferguson with youth there and elsewhere will cyclically perpetuate racial misunderstandings, compel people of color to continually mistrust police officers, and teach youth that moving on as swiftly as possible from tragedies such as these is best for our nation.

Professor Harper teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Follow on Twitter @DrShaunHarper.