When Jose Vilson posts a blog, I read carefully, and I donât multitask.
I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire 52 years in the South where racism clings to our region like the stench of a house razed by fire. And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white.
So when Jose posted âAn Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],â I listened, and I recognized:
âAnger isnât a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; itâs the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnestâŠ.
âHowever, for anyone to say that racial insults are âno big dealâ speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, âYou canât build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.â Iâd take it one step further and say that we canât build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two peopleâs terms. I refuse to believe that we canât coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.
âHow can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?âŠ
âAdults, on the other hand, donât get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront.â
I learned, painfully and too slowly, I regret to admit, to read and listen to Jose as I do with Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do withMartin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of a book project I co-edit.
I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people and specifically African American males.
I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white menâyet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers), and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live.
I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, that the most beautiful humans, the greatest reasons to live on this planet are children of every possible shadeâred and yellow, black and white children laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race, or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.
America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as any race of people
America the Beautiful created a criminal class out of African America men, building a new Jim Crow with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs.
America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero tolerance school houses imprisoning urban communities.
And these are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit, as James Baldwin, in âA Report from Occupied Territoryâ (The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted as an âarrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American lifeâ and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: ââBad niggers,â in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killedâ:
âHere is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speakingâspeaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. âThey donât want us here. They donât want usâperiod! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for themâand thatâs it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They donât want us on the street âcause the Worldâs Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnamâwherever they come fromâcan come and see this supposed-to-be great city.â
âThere is a very bitter prescience in what this boyâthis âbad niggerââis saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of themâŠ.â
These realities of racism from 1966 linger today, the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:
âThis is why those pious calls to ârespect the law,â always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.â
And thus, Baldwinâs conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:
âOne is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word oneâs countrymen say. âI canât believe what you say,â the song goes, âbecause I see what you doââand one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of oneâs situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. âThey donât want usâperiod!â The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroesâthose who surviveâshall enter the Great Society.â
Today, the racism is thinly masked, and only the adults refuse to see it.
However, âthe children do notice.â
In 1853, Frederick Douglass  recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:
âFellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.
âAs a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nationâs scorn and contempt.â
Douglassâs charges remain in Baldwinâs âNo Name in the Street,â which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:
âThe truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like âthe final solutionââthose Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days.â
America doesnât know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Donât suspend and expel young black men, donât incarcerate young black men, donât lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, donât allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.
Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it, we will not unmask it, and ultimately, the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and James (âJimmyâ of the allusion-as-blog-title) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love: Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among usâchildren, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderlyâand do so color-blind.
I may have no real right to these words as a privileged, white male, but I offer them, as I stated above, because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Jose, refuse to believe âthat we canât coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.â
And as Baldwin referenced: ââI canât believe what you say,â the song goes, âbecause I see what you doâââand we all must hear what everyone else says, the words they choose, never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.
To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love,
 The passage below is cited by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.