As people finally rally for Black lives, we need to ensure Black education matters, too
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Just a couple hundred years ago, in much of the United States, teaching African Americans to read and write was illegal. In the antebellum south, this was part of a strategy to maintain racist, unjust systems. There was good reason for white enslavers to see Black Americans' literacy as a threat. Inspirational abolitionist texts brought uprisings to the Caribbean, and deep biblical readings led Nat Turner to revolt in Virginia.

Slavery ended well over a century ago, so the slave codes that outlawed teaching African Americans to read should be relics of the past. However, as a woman of color and educator, I see that their spirit lives on today.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fewer than one in five African-American 12th graders reach reading proficiency, and Black students fared far worse than all other racial and ethnic groups that NAEP tested. The percentage of white seniors "at or above proficiency" was nearly three times that of Black seniors. Despite the immensity of African-American teens' literacy crisis and its role in their oppression as adults, we're doing little to address it.



A recent court case in Detroit was a small step in the right direction toward change. This midwestern metropolis has the highest proportion of Black residents of any U.S. city. Over 80% of its population is African American, and 97% of its public schools' students are people of color. These kids don't have access to adequate education. This may be caused by structural racism, or mismanagement, or both. In 2018 seven Motor City students looked to the law for help. They brought a class action suit charging that the state of Michigan, which manages the city's schools, was violating their constitutional right to an education that provides basic literacy. The case points out that reading and writing competency, which most Detroit students lack, is required to participate in society.

After being dismissed in a lower court in 2018, a few months ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with the students and asserted that they do have a right to literacy. This is a great first step towards educational equity, but the court's ruling doesn't go far enough in its assertion that public education must "provide access to a foundational level of literacy." It needs to do a lot more than that. "Foundational literacy" won't suffice for participation in our democracy and 21st century economy. Much higher reading levels will be necessary.

In the fall, then presidential candidate Andrew Yang warned that the robots are coming. They're only coming for some of us, though. The first jobs to get automated won't be those of lawyer or executive—they'll be those that don't require complex reading and thought, jobs like driver and cashier to which nonreaders are relegated. Thus, a Brookings report that Black workers' jobs are at higher risk from technological advances than those of whites isn't surprising, given the state of Black students' literacy and their subsequently limited career opportunities. Brookings' Automation and Artificial Intelligence found that African-American "workers are concentrated in more automatable occupations."

Yang dropped out of the race months ago. He won't save us from a jarring Fourth Industrial Revolution or unequal education. It's unclear if the current democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, can either.

In February, the New York Times reported on Biden's commentary on African-Americans' literacy. He noted the problem that Black "parents can't read or write." I'm still waiting to hear his solution.

Expecting politicians, and even education leaders, who are overwhelmingly white, to take up this issue without external pressure is unrealistic. It's taking weeks of daily protests to force us to reassess law enforcement's policing of Black bodies. Similarly, it will take our persistent pressure on government and school-district heads to push them to reexamine the education of young Black minds. Equal schooling and, thus, equal opportunity are an integral component of antiracism.

As the rallying cry that Black Lives Matter grows louder and louder in diverse communities around the country, it needs to be amended. It's time to demand that Black education matter too.

Several years ago, you wouldn't have known what QAnon was unless you spent a lot of time reading through comments on Twitter or frequented internet chat rooms. Now, with prominent Q adherents making headlines for storming the U.S. Capitol and elements of the QAnon worldview spilling into mainstream politics, the conspiracy theory/doomsday cult has become a household topic of conversation.

Many of us have watched helplessly as friends and family members fall down the rabbit hole, spewing strange ideas about Democrats and celebrities being pedophiles who torture children while Donald Trump leads a behind-the-scenes roundup of these evil Deep State actors. Perfectly intelligent people can be susceptible to conspiracy theories, no matter how insane, which makes it all the more frustrating.

A person who was a true believer in QAnon mythology (which you can read more about here) recently participated in an "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit, and what they shared about their experiences was eye-opening. The writer's Reddit handle is "diceblue," but for simplicity's sake we'll call them "DB."

DB explained that they weren't new to conspiracy theories when QAnon came on the scene. "I had been DEEP into conspiracy for about 8 years," they wrote. "Had very recently been down the ufo paranormal rabbit hole so when Q really took off midterm for trump I 'did my research' and fell right into it."

DB says they were a true believer until a couple of years ago when they had an experience that snapped them out of it:

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

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Two weeks ago, we watched a pro-Trump mob storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of a U.S. election and keep Donald Trump in power. And among those insurrectionists were well-known adherents of QAnon, nearly every image of the crowd shows people wearing Q gear or carrying Q flags, and some of the more frightening elements we saw tie directly into QAnon beliefs.

Since hints of it first started showing up in social media comments several years ago, I've been intrigued—and endlessly frustrated—by the phenomenon of QAnon. At first, it was just a few fringey whacko conspiracy theorists I could easily roll my eyes at and ignore, but as I started seeing elements of it show up more and more frequently from more and more people, alarm bells started ringing.

Holy crap, there are a lot of people who actually believe this stuff.

Eventually, it got personal. A QAnon adherent on Twitter kept commenting on my tweets, pushing bizarro Q ideas on many of my posts. The account didn't use a real name, but the profile was classic QAnon, complete with the #WWG1WGA. ("Where we go one, we go all"—a QAnon rallying cry.) I thought it might be a bot, so I blocked them. Later, I discovered that it was actually one of my own extended family members.

Holy crap, I actually know people who actually believe this stuff.

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If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that being in a pandemic sucks.

However, we seem to be on different pages as to what sucks most about it. Many of us are struggling with being separated from our friends and loved ones for so long. Some of us have lost friends and family to the virus, while others are dealing with ongoing health effects of their own illness. Millions are struggling with job loss and financial stress due to businesses being closed. Parents are drowning, dealing with their kids' online schooling and lack of in-person social interactions on top of their own work logistics. Most of us hate wearing masks (even if we do so diligently), and the vast majority of us are just tired of having to think about and deal with everything the pandemic entails.

Much has been made of the mental health impact of the pandemic, which is a good thing. We need to have more open conversations about mental health in general, and with everything so upside down, it's more important now than ever. However, it feels like pandemic mental health conversations have been dominated by people who want to justify anti-lockdown arguments. "We can't let the cure be worse than the disease," people say. Kids' mental health is cited as a reason to open schools, the mental health challenges of financial despair as a reason to keep businesses open, and the mental health impact of social isolation as a reason to ditch social distancing measures.

It's not that those mental health challenges aren't real. They most definitely are. But when we focus exclusively on the mental health impact of lockdowns, we miss the fact that there are also significant mental health struggles on the other side of those arguments.

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