A Mom’s View: As an Education and Civil Rights Activist, I Demand Racial Justice for Our Children, Especially in Our Public Schools

Christina Laster and her daughter Aniyah at a protest outside the Democratic presidential candidate debates in Los Angeles. (Daniel Laster)

In September 1977, I was born in San Diego into a lifelong battle. I didn’t choose this fight. Many people get to choose lifelong outcomes, but that’s not an option for people like me. The fact that I was born with dark skin meant that I had no choice but to engage in a lifelong battle against racism. People think of California as a beautiful place, with military towns, palm trees, beaches, museums, amusement parks, Hollywood — great diversity in land and activities. What people don’t see is the black experience, the pain of not being part of that celebration of diversity, of not being welcome or appreciated.

Like black people across the nation, black Californians face injustices in law and order, the outright and blatant erasures of our history, annihilation of our men and mistreatment of our children by our education system.

As a civil rights activist in education, I know that the connections among race, access and opportunity are clear. Educators are supposed to be molders of children’s dreams. But in public education, black children are stigmatized, labeled, excessively punished and ill-taught. Day after day, I listen to nightmarish testimonies from parents and educators alike. Cries from moms and dads simply begging for quality public education without racial discrimination. When our children enter school, we have hopes and dreams for them, but they are soon suppressed. The effects of this type of oppression are astounding — children start to regress in toileting, suffer psychosomatic physical symptoms, bite their nails and pull their hair out of anxiety and fear, and ultimately, many become depressed and even suicidal. A policy statement last year from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the impact of racism on child and adolescent health reflects those experiences. It calls this suffering a socially transmitted disease.

Christina Laster and her son Daniel at a demonstration in Los Angeles. (Aniyah Laster)

Educators are tasked in loco parentis as acting in the place of parents once children are under their jurisdiction. But data on black students and the collective experience show that something different is happening. And the damage is done not only to the children targeted by racism. There is a harm to those watching, too. When my son experienced harsh, excessive, outright inhumane treatment by his first-grade teacher, I noticed a decline in his overall well-being. But the mistreatment of my son also affected the other children in the classroom — some of them black, some not — and permeated their home lives. Their parents heard their daily complaints and agony over his treatment. They began to speak out about the example the teacher was making of my son through extreme punishment to scare the other children. But the more they complained, the more they were told to mind their business since it wasn’t their child.

Are all educators bad? Of course not. There are teachers black and non-black who cry and suffer over the injustices our children face in school every day. When they attempt to advocate, the workplace suddenly turns hostile. If it’s hostile for them, hostile for black parents, then imagine what our children internalize.

Black children throughout the state of California share similar, if not worse, experiences. Our children are outnumbered at school and need trusted allies. We do not have a dominant black community, and in fact our population size in cities across the Golden State averages about 7 percent in each. That means our children enter schools as 1 to 3 percent of their schools’ total population. Some black students attend school where they are the only black child in the class and the school doesn’t even have enough black children to report on the California dashboard, the state’s school report card. There are also many schools with no black educators or personnel. District administrations and boards are absent black decision makers. This must change — education is the mode by which we accomplish our goals and dreams. 

The feelings of helplessness that black parents experience over their children’s education can be remedied by quality public school options. This is our only hope to combat what takes place in district schools. As black people, we can fight against the very mechanism that denies our children an education that supports their different learning styles and appreciates our cultural heritage and history. Resolved to advocate for quality education and remove the barriers of racism, I homeschool my children through a public charter school network and daily inform parents of their options. 

Battling the traditional public education system is an unending fight for black parents. We, our parents, our family members and now our children experience suffering through the system. Every time one of our children suffers, the whole family and community has to take up the fight. We cannot change district behavior, we don’t have enough money to fight unions, and we may not have enough allies to shift the schools’ unchecked power. But we do have our feet! We don’t have to drop our children off in places that force assimilation, that miseducate, that abuse their bodies and minds. We, as black parents can one by one and collectively say — enough.

We also realize that the problem cannot be resolved only by us. If educators truly believe that every child is entrusted to them as their own, they must treat our children as they want their children treated. This resource is a place to start.

As a black mother and grandmother and civil rights activist, I realize I may never change district behavior, but I change what I can control, and that is my behavior. I admonish you to do the same. Choose what’s best for your lifelong learners. Their livelihood and well-being depend upon your decision. 

The former education chair of the Southwest Riverside County NAACP, former statewide community organizer for the California Policy Center, currently a civil rights activist and humanitarian, Christina Laster advocates for families nationally. She is also a National Parents Union delegate and adviser.

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