Black teacher: my hope for my students in the fight for racial justice (Opinion)


Long before smartphones began to record cases of excessive force, I, like so many other black youth, had trouble with the police. When I was 17 years old, I and two of my brothers were harassed in the parking lot of a shopping center near our hometown of Camden, New Jersey. We were there to buy Christmas gifts for our mother. They thought we might want to steal from parked cars.

Months later, while walking alone one night, an officer stopped his car a few meters in front of me. Where was he going, he asked, unaware that he was on summer vacation from college. "Home," I said respectfully. He said the youth were causing trouble in the neighborhood, but that they soon moved.

A few years later, again in South Jersey, two of my brothers and I were enjoying dinner at a restaurant full of Denny's. Two state troopers suddenly stood guard on our stand; one was holding a rifle toward the ceiling. There was a report that three black men had just robbed a business down the street. Standard police practice meant calling nearby restaurants to see if anyone inside could be suspected.

Fortunately, the restaurant manager told the soldiers that since we were eating dessert, we had been there too long to be thieves. I still regret not asking the soldiers to explain the situation to everyone else in the dining room. That we weren't criminals.

As one of the very few African American men on the University of Florida faculty, or any PWI (predominantly white institution) in the US, and how people across racial lines are in the wake of George's death Floyd beginning to consider systemic racism, I struggle not to presume how a student, black or white, is dealing with our national calculation of race.

One of my white students recently texted me, "Hello, Professor Lowe. I just wanted to communicate and tell you it's on my mind, and I send you a lot of love. I know I don't know what is right, but I wanted to communicate and let him know that I care. "

I felt all that love. We chatted quickly for over an hour. I asked him if he had black friends at UF. She does not. She said she had approached the lonely black student in our reporting class. I advised that most, if not all, had news of their white peers these days.

They probably distrusted or discouraged attention. (In fact, a black student said to me, "I don't have time to help them understand what I'm going through. I have things to do.")

The white student said she understood. I suggested ways to contact the classmate and not seem so obvious. She said she would take my advice. Then he asked, "How are you?"

This is not the America that I want to transmit to my children.

Just like usual, I replied. I have been a black man in this country for decades, so I don't expect my daily existence to change much. Sometimes it was too difficult compared to the race in the years before 2020. Sometimes it is too difficult this year. Sometimes it will probably be too difficult next year too. In short, I just hope I get home safely without someone putting their knee on my neck.

Again, to be fair, more white Americans have been speaking out against racism recently. As I move away from peaceful street protests, I am aware that apparently everyone in higher education, as well as in our nation's newsrooms, supports inclusion, diversity, and equity.

Until, they are asked to do something different.

Recruit more college students from downtown schools? Are standardized tests no longer required for entry to graduate school? Hiring a more diverse faculty, especially black men and women as a faculty? Further suppress the racist actions of white students and teachers? Address the isolation and stress concerns inevitably experienced by black students and teachers?

Do we dare to believe that this time will be different?

Yes, we are seeing more stories about campus leaders and student groups trying to get it right. But too often we see others pointing out that for each step forward, we must go back two steps.

For example, whenever there is something big in my office that I need to take home, I am careful to take it outside during regular hours, not at night or on weekends. Why risk having a university police officer treat me in a way that would probably never happen to a white colleague?

PWIs should acknowledge the poor service they do to both white students and teachers by failing to put meaningful actions behind their words of inclusion.

Too many of my students, black or white, have never before had an African American man give them a grade. Think about it for a moment. That is from kindergarten to the previous semester. I remember my wife once saying that I am probably the first black man that these young adults will know who is caring, charismatic, compassionate, and considerate. His words is not mine.

More than ever, our college students of color need to have more mentors and role models on campus who are from families and communities like yours. Who better to offer them not only inspiration but also comfort in an increasingly complicated and dangerous world?

I am as eager as anyone for the coronavirus pandemic to end. I miss my students, yes, whites too, come to my office to talk about their classes, professional development, or just about life.

Hearing students of color talk about their college experiences regarding race can be heartbreaking. I will never forget hearing a black woman, for example, say at a student leadership meeting that she feared for her boyfriend every time she left her bedroom or library. He also wished that the white females didn't grab their bags when it happened.

Without a doubt, students of color on my campus feel like all PWIs. They had a hard enough time before the latest wave of black men and women who died at the hands and knees of the police.

I hope and pray that in a few years they will not have to remember times when the color of their skin unnecessarily led to police interaction. Or that just seeing a marked car scares them.


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