What we are seeing is not new, the cameras are. Alongside the jackhammer repetition of modern media, where each new viewing opens the wound anew. Whether that will prick the American consciousness awake is a question yet to be answered. But for Black folks, we can’t go back to “normal.” Normal was literally and figuratively a death sentence.
We had schools that didn’t teach us, rules that don’t serve us, institutions that oppress us, and the shortest end of every stick. Including life span. In Oakland that difference is roughly 15 years of longevity based solely on your race and where you are born.
The public and private lynchings we have seen over the last couple of months are just the slicing tip of sword deeply embedded in the American soul. A country that promises opportunity but delivers a stacked deck with accidents of birth largely determining your life chances.
At the State of Black Education in Oakland (SoBEO) we have spent the last several years in community conversations, and driving actions to improve conditions for Black folks. One conclusion is clear from where we are and where we have been.
The old normal is nothing worth going back to. If you doubt me, let’s look at “normal” in Oakland for Black folks.
Our Schools Fail to Teach Us
18.5% of Black students in OUSD read on grade level, compared to 72.5% of White students. Think about that—if you have 5 children and you are Black you are lucky if 1 reads on grade level. Black kids are pretty much guaranteed to be illiterate and White kids are pretty much guaranteed to be literate.
What future do you have if you can’t read?
Math is even worse at 11.6% of Black Children on grade level while 65.3 % of White children are. Again, one in 10 Black children are doing math on grade level in OUSD
Odds are you can’t read or can’t do math if you are Black. All those shiny buildings, high tech jobs and high tech salaries right next door, and we will be lucky to be cleaning toilets.
What does the future hold for our children in the “normal” world of Oakland?
We Don’t have Access to high performing schools
The way enrollment works and where we can afford to live, determines where we can go to school. That usually means we are in underperforming schools, often concentrated in them. Schools where sometimes not a single child is testing on grade level. Or where you don’t have teachers for core subjects for an entire year or more. Just miles away there are schools, above the state average with very few impacted children, and ample resources for them. Again, let’s look at the data.
1% of Black children attended a school that was above the state average and making progress. One percent. Really less than 1% it was 23 students out of 5,082. Think about that. Of all the Black elementary schoolers 23 attended a school that is above average and making progress
The system is designed to fail us and succeeds almost universally in doing so.
Being Black by Itself is Bad for your Health
The 7th leading cause of death for young Black men and Boys is police violence. COVID has laid bare other disparities. And across just about every health indicator Black folks are worse off. We know the toll of this in Oakland, where the Alameda County Health Department estimates a Black person born in the West is likely to die roughly 15 years earlier than a White person born in the Hills.
This is literally an accident of birth, that determines so much about one’s death. There are host of reasons we could list, but racism and White supremacy are intricately linked to all of them. And the end result is the same.
I could go on to housing, and how we make up around a quarter of Oakland’s population and nearly three quarters of the homeless, or how most foster youth are Black and half are on the street within 6 months of leaving the system, or the long history of redlining and its ongoing effects. Or the fact that the average White household has 10 times the wealth of the average Black household.
And that is not even getting to the criminalization of youth, and the way we are brutalized by the state and have been since the first Africans arrived on these hostile shores.
So, you can keep your normal. Normal is a slow or fast death sentence for too many of us. We don’t need a new normal, we need a NEW deal that actually embraces us as full citizens, recognizes and attempts to remedy the historical inequities created by White supremacy, and changes the rules of the game so that we change outcomes.
Where an accident of birth does not become a death sentence.