As a fellow man of color, I appreciate former Sen. Alvin Jackson sharing his perspective on race in America. I also appreciate his service to our state and how much work he must have done to get to that point. Growing up in Utah, it was extremely rare for me to see a person of color as an elected official. I am thankful there are a handful of more recent examples for our youth to look up to.
However, I must respectfully disagree with his description of the current efforts to educate youths on racism. People are not advocating for students to learn that they won’t be successful if they are a student of color. Nor are we advocating for individual white students to consider themselves inherently oppressors. What we are asking for, and what Sen. Jackson asks for as well, is more equitable education for our youths.
The history I was taught growing up did not give equitable consideration to the history of my family or others like me. I learned about the great things the Founding Fathers did, the good works of the pioneers, and the disproportionately white leadership that has continually existed in our country. There was not an equitable amount of time given to teaching the displacement of Native Americans or the enslavement of people of color in establishing this country. Nor was there much education that the “pursuit of happiness” only applied to white men at the time it was written.
I would have also liked to learn more about leaders that looked like me. I may have read a paragraph on Caesar Chavez in school, but never heard of Delores Huerta, who was just as important to the labor movement. Instead, we learn only the triumphs of our presidents, all but one of which have been white men, and not what they could have done better. Or we learn about successful business leaders, which in the current list of Fortune 500 companies, 86% of CEOs are white men. In the name of equity, we should be presenting more information to students, not the same information that has brought us to our current time in history.
As Jackson pointed out, there are numerous examples of successful people of color. I think we agree their success should be taught more in schools. I would like for that to be balanced with the barriers they had to overcome. Some have argued pointing out these barriers people of color experience in society will increase racism. However, how else would one explain these persistent inequities that exist across our society, if not a system that inherently upholds structural whiteness?
People of color are disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system, pushed out of schools at rates higher than white students, and have considerably less overall wealth than white families. Do families of color not love their children? Do we not want our youths to be successful? Are we just lazy?
Having spent most of my social work career working with families of color, I have yet to see a parent who doesn’t want the best for their child, or a youth who doesn’t have high hopes. Our families work just as hard, if not harder than anyone else. And yet, throughout history opportunities have not arisen through hard work alone. In the entire history of our country, there have only been 11 Black U.S. Senators. There have been many more hardworking, politically ambitious Black individuals than that.
Perhaps only saying that a system of white supremacy exists in America could discourage some people. However, that’s why providing context and history is even more important. This system was created over hundreds of years, through countless policies and practices. Learning this would provide hope. What we have created can also be dismantled; we should give our children the knowledge and tools to do so.
In this, I agree with former Utah state Sen. Jackson: There is a better way.
Miguel Trujillo is a licensed clinical social worker in the State of Utah. He is currently a social work Ph.D. student at the University of Denver. His work revolves around educational equity, with a specific focus on the Latinx community.