Crisis in Urban Education

The audience at the Council of Urban Boards of Education luncheon Saturday at NSBA’s annual conference in San Antonio gave a standing ovation to speaker Christopher Emdin after he said black school board members and superintendents have earned privileges by conforming to the dominant culture, and now they have a duty to “reframe this whole ballgame” so that black students do not have to do the same.

School is too much about conformity, and that can be toxic to black youth who get the message that they must abandon behaviors and ways of expressing themselves to make themselves acceptable in a white-dominated society, said Emdin, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too.”

In a talk entitled, “The Crisis of Urban Education,” Emdin said it’s a mistake to look at the black or Hispanic valedictorian and think, “If all the other kids where just like you, working so hard, the world would be better,” he said. That devalues the unique forms of creativity that are born not of privilege but of deprivation, he said. “The lack gives rise to the cool,” he said.

After ascertaining that most of the audience had seen the movie “Black Panther,” he said, “Your cool is your Vibranium.”

“We all know someone who was smart, and creative, and interesting” but didn’t become an achiever because he couldn’t “play the game of school,” Emdin said. “He might be the strong one … he didn’t want to go along to get along.”

At the other extreme are school board members who are members of minority groups, he said. He showed a PowerPoint slide filled with a photo of a package of Oreo cookies. That prompted gasps from the audience.

While sometimes used as a metaphor for a person of color who is so comfortable in the dominant culture that they are “white” on the inside, Oreo can also be seen a metaphor for American society, Emdin said. “White filling … supported by brown cookies.”

“Kids want to be free” to be their authentic selves,” Emdin said. “We have to create a pedagogy around freedom while teaching them to navigate” the dominant culture, he said.

“Trade in your Oreo cookies for some freedom work,” Emdin urged, adding: “We need some white co-conspirators to get this done.”

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