Five-Fifths

On August 26, 2017, Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett was a victim of police brutality. The very thing that Colin Kaepernick protested against, for which he has not been signed to an NFL roster, is the very thing that happened to Mr. Bennett. Mr. Bennett, who recently began sitting for the national anthem in protest against police brutality, penned an open letter on his twitter account detailing his account of confrontation with the police that night; an account that is unfortunately familiar to Black people. The recent video posted by TMZ corroborates Mr. Bennett’s account. In response to Mr. Bennett’s telling of the account, the Las Vegas Metro Police Protective Association called out Mr. Bennett for his “disrespect for our American flag, and everything that it symbolizes, while asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to investigate Mr. Bennett for his “obvious false accusation.” Mr. Goodell responded to Las Vegas Metro saying, “While we understand the Las Vegas police department will address this later in the evening, the issues Michael has been raising deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community.” However earlier, when asked if Colin Kaepernick was good enough to be on an NFL roster, Mr. Goodell answered, “I’m not a football expert.” But I digress.

This incident reminds Black people of a hard truth; that wealth cannot shield you from racism, racial profiling and police brutality. Michael Bennett is the latest Black millionaire athlete to experience police brutality, along with James Blake, Mike Scott, and Thabo Sefolosha. The hard work and perseverance exhibited by a Black person will not prevent a police officer with an ingrained fear of Black skin from taking a Black life; those would be killers do not see a Black person’s story, but rather their skin. Educators can no longer call on Black students to put the blinders on in the name of academic achievement. Educators must call out White Supremacy for what it is and in addition to teaching the content, educators must teach Black students their rights and protections according to the United States Constitution and the Amendments to the Constitution. A consistent goal of educators and education reformers is closing the achievement gap between Black and White students – many aim their focus on improving academic achievement in the form of higher test scores and student growth measured by data points. Improved standardized test scores among Black students does not protect them from police brutality. A Black student who shows academic growth in eleventh grade is not absolved of a traffic stop experience due to racial profiling. In light of what happened to Michael Bennett, and what has happened to numerous Black people dating back to Oscar Grant, the most empowering thing you can do for Black students is to teach them their rights under the law.

The United States Constitution is one of the more powerful documents in human history. The U.S. Constitution is the theoretical foundation for which we base our rights and privileges as Americans. Not only does it lay out the rules for governing, but it is also the mirror by which we look at ourselves as a nation; for better or for worse. As a former history teacher, I may come off bias, however, to know and understand this document is critical. For students of color, understanding this document may be a matter of life and death. The Founders created a text that would guarantee the rights and freedoms of men who would come many generations after them – including men whose ancestors were enslaved and received no such rights or freedoms. Unfortunately, all of the people were not included in the preamble. The bodies of slaves were only good for labor and a governing compromise for White representation in the House of Representatives. The Indigenous were removed from their lands and almost annihilated from existence. However, the 14th amendment recognized Black people as five-fifth citizens; no longer three-fifths property. Former slaves were grandfathered into the protections of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights and the other amendments to the Constitution can play a vital role in addressing the barbarism and brutality White Supremacy breeds within our institutions. Teaching the Constitution to Black students is about taking a document created with Black oppression in mind and using it to secure Black empowerment. Colin Kaepernick teaches Black empowerment via constitutional knowledge to Black students through his Know Your Rights Camp.

According to the website, Know Your Rights Camp is a free campaign for youth fully funded by Colin Kaepernick to raise awareness on higher education, self-empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. The goal is to help build a stronger generation of people that will create the change that is much needed in this world. These camps have been held in the cities of Oakland, Chicago and New York. Not only do these camps empower young people to know and exercise their rights when confronted by police, but they encourage young people to engage in social activism in pursuit of justice for all peoples oppressed by White Supremacy. In the spirit of the Black Panthers ten point platform and free breakfast program, these camps teach financial literacy, nutrition, and history in addition to their legal rights with ten points and the camps feed young people upon their arrival. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in school districts nationwide; some states are adopting a program on the contrary.

For example, in New Jersey, the state Assembly passed a bill that would require school districts to provide instruction on interacting with law enforcement as part of Core Curriculum Content Standards in Social Studies. According to the bill, the instruction shall provide students with information on the role and responsibilities of a law enforcement official in providing for public safety, and an individual’s responsibilities to comply with a directive from a law enforcement official. Also, the governor of Texas signed a new law mandating high schools teach “certain public school students” how to interact with police. Many people believe that it is the responsibility of the young people to show respect to police and comply, specifically Black students. While all individuals should address law enforcement with respect, playing the respectability politics game doesn’t solve the problem. “respectable” Black people are still racially profiled and brutalized by police officers. According to the TMZ footage of Michael Bennett’s detaining, Mr. Bennett wasn’t yelling obscenities at officers. He wasn’t yelling at all – he was calling the man who had his knee in his back with a gun to his head, Sir. These futile attempts of addressing interactions with the police gone wrong do not address the need for civilian rights training for officers, it reinforces victim blaming among Whites and tells Blacks that it is their responsibility to not get shot. That sort of “teaching” doesn’t empower anyone but the police officers who fear Black bodies and view Black people as threatening.

Teaching a Black student their rights under the law may influence them to one day legally challenge the devastating precedent rendered by the Supreme Court in Conner v. Graham. Teaching a Black student their rights under the law may prevent them from getting shot by a police officer. It will take for districts to be willing to spend more time on teaching social studies and not be afraid abandon the trends of standardized testing and cramming in hours of literacy and mathematics instruction into a 90 minute class period. Black students can no longer afford to be taught information for only three-fifths of their lives. We must teach to the five-fifths of Black students; empower them with the knowledge of best handling their experiences as Black people in a White dominated society. Any teacher incapable of doing that can learn. Any teacher unwilling to do that should be removed from any classroom with Black children. Those of us who know how to do this must teach those who don’t. If school leaders maintain the status quo in their districts, they’re only continuing a tradition that allows for the comfort of White lives at the expense of Black lives – a journey that begins with schools and could end with being choked to death or shot. Michael Bennett should be so lucky he can die a slow death due to head-on collisions on the field.

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