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By Christina Laster, a black mother and advocate for black lives
Just when I thought the 400-plus years in abusive relationships with racist American systems were up, President Joseph R. Biden is dimming the light of hope that poet Amanda Gorman had so profoundly beckoned with “The Hill We Climb.” The new president chose Cindy Marten to serve as the United States Deputy Secretary of Education.
And as a black mother who birthed a black son and daughter, I take issue with this particular Biden nominee.
On January 20th, Americans watched a seemingly bold and powerful white elected official declare war on white supremacy during a presidential inaugural address. It was truly unconventional. A white male public official, verbally committing to eradicating the social disease that plagues yet benefits his own race.
Two weeks before Biden’s inauguration, a majority white mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. Their fear of becoming a white minority was the irrational motivation they used for mob violence against all who stood in their way.
Nevertheless, the newly elected president tickled American ears with his tongue from the podium. His end goal was to unify a country that has never reconciled after the Civil War.
Black People Need Systemic Change, Not Another Echochamber
In what would become the proudest moment of his life’s achievements, Biden declared at the podium that “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
Although Biden’s heartfelt words were flattering and met the moment, Black Americans didn’t gag. His well-prepared speech that enamored many black voters quickly withered in his selection of Marten.
Since 1619, black Americans have grown accustomed to broken promises delivered by so-called virtuous white politicians.
When it comes to Marten’s professional record, most American parents are unaware of her zero tolerance practices in K-12 education that harmed black children.
Many black California parents whose children have or are currently attending the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) can list the mountain of racial infractions occurring during Marten’s tenure. Her record is laden with ill-treatment against black youth who needed more attention from caring adults, not harsher treatment and isolation.
Hence, they know about Marten’s racially discriminatory behavior and overall lack of addressing the needs of black children. Most are outraged at President Joe Biden’s shortsightedness in this nominee.
Black Students Hardly Improved Under Marten
During Superintendent Cindy Marten’s tenure at SDUSD, academics for black youth hardly improved.
On English Language Arts and Math standardized tests, black public school students performed lower than any other racial group.
Marten Didn’t Slow The Drip In School-To-Prison Pipeline
While her shortfall in implementing racial equity for black children remained absent throughout her tenure, the harsh punishment against little minds and their black bodies during these school years is unforgivable.
Under Marten’s leadership, the suspension rate of black girls was 46% higher than the district’s average. Furthermore, the suspension rate for black boys was 206% higher than the district’s average. Black boys and men have traditionally been the targets of harsh punitive treatment by non-black people in America, with black girls and black women being the least protected demographic.
Such high suspension and expulsion rates not only contribute to learning loss but to a real-life school-to-prison pipeline.
Marten’s punitive policies deprived hundreds of black children of having a promising future beyond high school.
Low test scores and high suspension rates don’t indicate that black youth are intellectually inferior or unteachable. It is a sign that the district’s leadership lacks the cultural competency needed to reach, thoroughly educate, and invest in its black students.
Notably, the buck always stops with the person seated at the highest position of leadership, and in this case, that person was Marten. But our situation doesn’t fall squarely on her.
Historical Roots of Educational Injustice
To be clear, black America is on fire and has been ablaze since Reconstruction failed under white American leadership.
Due to historic infractions committed by the American government, Black children should be the U.S. Department of Education’s top priority.
If the argument is finding a new way to measure a school’s success beyond standardized tests, we’ve been down this road before. To be frank, this argument becomes more annoying year after year because it tells me that many public education policymakers aren’t fully committed to educating black children.
We have been measuring what does and what doesn’t work for decades. There are plenty of data points leading to the right approach.
The issue is: Do white Americans have the will to invest in Blacks having access? Or are their fears or lack of empathy blocking America from achieving its best version?
Consider this: When teaching generational hurt and abused people, restorative justice approaches don’t work on black people because we have never been whole.
We still are displaced people, and so are our children. We have never truly felt wanted in this country. White-only spaces have confirmed and defined our black realities.
To heal we must be affirmed, invested in, and built up daily.
Most Americans are familiar with our Nation’s historically racist educational law that made teaching black enslaved people to read a crime.
Some Americans are knowledgeable of the century and a half of substandard educational choices and access that blacks were subjugated to in the years following emancipation. However, most don’t understand how historic racist educational policies impact each generation.
Suspending Black Children Should Be Unconstitutional
Hence, suspending a black child, regardless of the infraction committed, should be unconstitutional due to the historical injustices that have crafted today’s black experience.
Every time an American school suspends a black child, it flings the dirt from dried cotton fields on defeated antebellum plantations of injustice into the eyes of their descendants. Their debts remain unpaid.
Influential white people should therefore be listening to the voices of black parents.
Like Lazarus of Bethany, our black ballots politically raised Biden from political decay during the 2020 primaries. Yet here we stand in this abusive relationship that is America’s public education system with his nominee.
Whether it was Marten’s intent or not is of unimportance. What Biden and others must understand is that most black parents and black educators believe Marten is patently unfit to serve black youth because harm not healing is evident.
Black Parent Voices Matter
When will white democratic leaders stop taking our black votes for granted?
One would have thought that with racial equity and justice verbiage protruding from this White House that America would finally treat black children as well as they do white children.
So when the acting secretary of education Miguel Cardona is focused on his five-point plan to reopen schools safely, I’ll be praying he’ll pass my message to Biden regarding my concerns on Marten.
Biden should be centering our black children, whose needs have never been properly addressed since the founding of this so-called great Nation.
He needs to prove to Black American people that America can be great by investing in black youth and ending this pipeline that currently lures them into the criminal justice system.
I believe it can be done, but I’m not holding my breath until I see sustainable change and the elimination of racist systems. And Marten ain’t it.