John Deasy: Bridging the Chasm Between the World and Me — My Promise to Ta-Nehisi Coates

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“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is absent of tension to a positive peace which is in the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’ … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

An open letter to Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Mr. Coates, I have read with great interest your many provocative and painful articles and books over these past few years. I feel I must speak louder and broader about my reaction, my realizations, and my responsibilities; in writing to you, I am acutely aware of the imprecision of my language, so I ask forgiveness for my prose, and seek acceptance of my purpose.

I cannot come to any other conclusion about our country’s current state of affairs than that I believe we are now engaged in an uncivil war. The evidence is everywhere: our streets, our schools, our courts, our financial system, our borders, our neighborhoods — and, of course, our politics. I watch people being killed, being re-enslaved in poverty, being removed from the middle class; I watch as walls are erected to prevent upward mobility; I watch seemingly incomprehensible reactions to murder, market manipulation, and monstrously hateful rhetoric; I watch a criminal justice system that seems detached from justice, the willful and deliberate incarceration of our youth, and the deliberate means of school punishment perverted in ways to sort out young black men, and other youth of color.

I watch adults model rhetoric and incivility at a level of such hate and invective that it shames the soul.

This uncivil war is being fought in boardrooms, classrooms, jails and housing patterns; on street corners and throughout our political process. It has many causalities, and I by no means make light of death or destruction (for I am sick and tired of burying children), but I fear the greatest casualty is yet to come: that of a destruction of belief. Belief in our system of governance, education, finance — and most of all our structures built around belief in one another.

Layered in the paralyzing prose you have penned is the chilling statement that you have come to expect nothing from us.

Mr. Coates, you so eloquently place the conditions and plight of the black family in front of us, starkly, without apology. But then I put down your book, and see nothing being done to remedy these wrongs. Again, I read, like so many others, the chilling implications of our collective inaction. (One need only review the New York Times article by David Leonhardt on The 1.5 Million Missing Black Men to fully understand your points of pain)

As a career educator and public leader, I know much the same could be written about our Latino brothers and sisters, our yet-to-be-documented youth, our families who have recently descended into poverty. Your words also aptly apply to our rehabilitated felons who are seemingly no longer considered full citizens, and also our workers who earn minimum wage for work no politician will do, even as those same leaders push back against efforts to raise the minimum wage.

However, the excruciating impacts of America’s twin original sins — slavery and segregation — leave you no choice but to focus on our black brothers and sisters and their families. Wage justice, criminal justice, social justice, community justice, health justice and environmental justice seem to have been removed from “Equal Justice Under the Law.”

A school system that doesn’t believe in black kids

I take particular note of your comments about the education system. For the last 32 years, I have witnessed firsthand the insidious results of systems that seem set up to sort and remove black youth at every level of education — particularly disciplinary policies crafted in the (disguised) desire to keep all students safe that instead deliberately criminalize young black kids rather than educate them. I have witnessed policies and practices that deny these youth even the basic access to highly rigorous courses, highly effective teachers, or opportunities for advanced coursework.

The confluence of state policies, local policies, and collectively-bargained language frequently conspire to send the message that the school system simply does not believe in young black men — in fact, the current system often works deliberately to provide a suboptimal, poorly organized, less funded and explicitly expressed mantra of disbelief in our youth of color (and those who live in circumstances of poverty).

I have fought to overturn despicable laws and policies that hold back these children, to assure access to the best courses and teachers and to foster conditions that convey my unconditional belief that these students must have the same opportunities that the youth of privilege enjoy. However, the targeting of vast sums of money and the exercise of political influence in maintaining a strangled chokehold on elected officials by an educational monopoly that seeks to deny choices to low-income parents is remarkable for both its breadth and scope. The only losers in this political system are our most impacted youth.

Our seeming inability to take action(s) to right these injustices and causes of dissent, anger, and violence are present but not irrevocable. So many of our American brothers and sisters are missing: dead, incarcerated, impoverished, unhealthy, denied opportunity…I could go on. We are witnessing the murder, poisoning, sequestering, removal, deportation, mis-education and denial of opportunity to our families on a near-daily basis. Yet, our escalating anger never quite converts into action.

There is so much I do not understand because of my own life experiences; they are not your life experiences. And there is so much I am unsure of. However, what I am sure of is that I am nothing without the other.

I can’t be fully me without you.

Martin Luther King told us: “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny … an inescapable network of mutuality … I can never be what I ought to be unless you are allowed to be what you ought to be.” This covenant of mutuality is forged in the ability to see equal and unmitigated value in each other. The very fact that I see signs when I ride the subway that ‘Black Lives Matter’ signals that this covenant is broken (if it ever formed to begin with). It is impossible to stand at the door of any kindergarten classroom on the first day of school and not feel a sense of responsibility for the other, yet in nearly every corner of society’s structures, this sense of responsibility is often corrupted and coerced by the overwhelming superstructure of white privilege and the dominating force of inequity. I have come to believe that the human soul does not lie to the human conscience. Therefore, the opportunity to wrap ourselves in the single garment of destiny can be renewed daily … if we allow it.

The implications of this are so enormous that I fear the very fabric of the republic is being torn, and all I see is others engaged in the act of watching. (The personal condemnation of the previous sentence does not escape me) I have begun to wonder if America’s drug of choice is spectacle. We watch rather than do, and then attempt to absolve this act by ratcheting up the very venue of spectacle.

The drowning of our collective conscience in the drug of spectacle is creating paralysis; after repeatedly watching and then failing to act, we begin to forget.

Desmond Tutu so ferociously warned us of the peril of this form of national amnesia. We are addicted to spectacle rather than specifically being responsible for changing this condition. This pernicious form of amnesia is treatable and I, for one, accept a responsibility to act.

Is there a role for white leadership today?

There is but one way forward for our white allies, white accomplices, and our white leaders. The driving impetus to write this letter came from a deep reflection on my role today. The role of a white man of unearned privilege, in a complex multiracial society of staggering inequity, having spent my adult life leading the education of our children. What am I to do? Is there a role for white leadership today? I believe the answer is a resounding yes, but not in the way it has been previously exercised.

I must help alter the persistent structures of white hegemonic power at all levels of my society. The continued ability to lead is absolutely required, but maybe from the side, the back ranks, not necessarily always from the front of the stage. As I shift from watching to doing, it must be with my brothers and sisters — not to my brothers and sisters. I must voice my promise not to stand between you and the world; must stop pondering and start promising. And then I must start acting, must be held to public accountability for my actions in service of these promises.

The structures of these promises require the deliberate and legitimate development of your voice, your access, your opportunity to the ‘justices’ I mentioned above. The justices of: wage, civility, social, community, housing, health, environment, dignity, and true criminal justice regardless of age. I promise to use my unearned privilege no longer to assure these justices for the other.

A few simple but powerful examples of how we can take action — and reverse our national amnesia:

VOTE! I promise to urge others to become truly knowledgeable and vote responsibly, especially in school board elections. It is mind-boggling to watch the outcome of thousands of school board elections in this country. (The same goes for mayors, city council and other local elections). A shockingly small fraction of the electorate is put into power annually, and it is these individuals who have the direct authority to decide school opportunities for youth, the discipline codes and practices for youth, and the so-called ‘restorative justice’ practices that are often a thin disguise for keeping the hard liners and union leaders happy while pandering to the advocates for the voiceless youth who suffer under appalling inequities.

No single person should abdicate their right to vote when the outcome is so consequential. I will urge others to “truly know about candidates; and act on candidates.” If we continue to hail public education as the sole opportunity for upward mobility, then I will urge every elected official to promise that they will enroll their own children in their local public school. If they refuse, I will urge them to explain why — and if they then profess “high-quality choice,” I will insist that they support high-quality choices for all parents.

Yet another course of action for my “white moderate brothers and sisters:” SPEAK OUT when witnessing micro aggressions. We must, and I vow to, speak when seeing. Let’s use the national security tagline to target endemic racism: “If you see something, say something!” Speaking publicly will help us start to cure the ubiquitous disease of watching without acting. And this seemingly small action is actually crucial in mending the fabric of mutuality.

Of course, this is not easy, but it is necessary if “we” are to act rather than watch.

I am a big believer in the power of “small acts inside the big acts.” Not everyone can hold a march on Washington, but everyone can call out and demand an end to an institutionally racist practice or act. Now that would be a chorus worthy of a single new line in: ‘This land is my land, this land is your land…”

The case for reparations

Mr. Coates, you have made the “case for reparations” and I agree with your argument.

I now promise to help think about how these reparations can be made, using the country’s structures for distributing wealth. We have yet to explore or commit to opportunities like universal access to preschool, higher education or high-quality education for all (including the imprisoned). We must stop trying to dismantle universal access to health care or affordable prescription medication, to housing, to seats in government and boards. Our tax codes, housing, community, and educational investments must be rethought, to square up with this promise. I promise to not be a community member who merely watches.

I reject spectacle and embrace responsibility — the responsibility to use my voice and unearned privilege to speak and act in the cases where I witness these injustices. If my child has access to the highest quality education, so too must your child. If I can have reasonably priced prescriptions, so too must you. If there is a wage offered for a job I would not take, then you must not either. I commit to use my leadership to make good on these promises.

Much more specifically, my last promise is to use the next phase of my career to champion juvenile redemption, and to help promote alternatives to juvenile incarceration. Since my graduation from college, I have witnessed every conceivable policy and practice for dealing with youth discipline. What remains crystal clear in my opinion and experience is that nearly all forms are devoid of the essential experience of redemption.

I will use my strength and privilege to establish alternatives to mass juvenile incarceration that are designed instead to be fully redemptive; to eliminate recidivism. There are, of course, consequences to breaking the law, and yet, there are few, if any, ‘programs’ that fundamentally lead to non-recidivism. This will be one of my obligations for having the ‘proverbial’ knapsack of white privilege in our society. I will seek the support of my non-white colleagues in making good on this promise to join the chasm that exists in this space “between the world and me.”

It is my hope that this push to create avenues for incarcerated youth can also support the drive for reconciliation. I believe reparations are necessary but not sufficient. I want to promise one further thing: To be part of Truth and Reconciliation. I believe that reparations without truth and reconciliation are a continuation of our national amnesia. Truth and reconciliation without reparations is momentary pain without commitment to change. Neither alone helps address our mutuality of destiny.

I do believe that an honest and deliberate approach to truth and reconciliation is part of the treatment necessary to combat our symptoms of amnesia and break us free from the cycle of spectacle. The very act of a banker sitting across from a homeowner sold a toxic product, of the police sitting across from a victim’s family, of school leaders sitting across from a dropout, of community leaders sitting across from an incarcerated 14-year-old, all engaged in honest conversations about the outcomes of their actions rather than protection or litigation, can begin a new chapter. Of course, this is all impossible without a national conversation about responsibility and tangible actions that can disrupt our current pattern of mutual disinterest.

Reparations, paired with truth and reconciliation, can lead us forward down that path so emotionally paved in Tutu’s understanding that: “There is no future without forgiveness.”

John E. Deasy, Ph.D. was previously the superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, Prince George’s County, Santa Monica-Malibu, and Coventry, Rhode Island. An Aspen Fellow, Deasy is currently working on rethinking youth incarceration and criminal justice efforts for young offenders.

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