DFER Deep Dive: We Must Have Change – The Reality of Racism


September 8, 2020

Leaders of Color Discuss Today’s Reality of Racism and Inequity

By Dr. Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez, with Carolina Ramirez, Biena Depena, and Constance Barnes

Current race relations and community-police dynamics are finally shedding much-needed light on the struggles that communities of color have long gone through simply to exist alongside those who are entrusted with their protection. While the stories of these pains are far from new, and far from few, they’ve historically been swept aside. But for some of those who grew up in marginalized communities tasked with proving their worthiness daily, their experiences with systemic racism have only served as motivation to fight against the continual violence and historic oppression against people of color in America–the oft-ironically named Land of the Free.

“My name is Carolina Ramirez, and I am an artist and an educator. My upbringing in the inner-city education system was far from easy.  At nine years old, my father was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison—a tragedy that inspired me to pursue a career in law. At age 13, hoping to follow my dreams and save others from the pain my family suffered, I made a decision—based on shoddy advice from a middle school counselor—to attend Washington Irving. By 14, I was traveling almost an hour to downtown Manhattan from my home in Harlem. Every morning, I’d wait in blocks-long lines, whether rain or shine, to attend classes in a Title I school—where 90% of students were from low-income families, test scores were low, and resources were scarce. The start of my day also meant walking through metal detectors, and I was also submitted to intrusive body scans–a humiliating experience endured daily merely to access an education.

But my reality is far from rare. In fact, this is the norm for most Black and Brown schools across the country—resulting from fraught relations between overpowered school safety and discipline officers and overzealous state police departments—and the students they are supposed to protect.”

By the late 1980s, New York schools—by-proxy of the state Board of Education—relinquished school safety management to the NYPD. Under these parameters, school safety personnel and school assigned officers report directly to NYPD, and are therefore not beholden to any child-focused provisions that support a student’s development. By the 1990s, New York’s schools were experiencing a crippling crisis in understanding and handling student behavior, choosing to forgo benevolence and enacting instead a zero tolerance philosophy that mandates strict and severe predetermined consequences.

These policies, coupled with over-policing are found particularly in schools predominantly populated by students of color, and are a clear indicator of the systemic issues plaguing marginalized communities, and the promotion of the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Much like Carolina, I am familiar with a difficult school experience. My name is Biena Depena, and I am an education reform activist. I remember my high school days as an immigrant attending school in the New York suburbs mostly as overcoming hardships. For four years, I walked a mile and half to school, waiting in long lines no matter the weather, only to get in and walk through invasive metal detectors—all so I could have the opportunity of an education. I recall receiving multiple detentions for being late to class, even though my tardiness was caused by security guards holding me up for further inspection—a hindrance that my affluent white peers never seemed to experience. I remember this also as my first painful realization that the policing of Black, Brown, and poor bodies was alarmingly different than the policing of wealthy white bodies.

Sadly, the experiences of Carolina and myself are not a dark historical note that we’ve learned from; rather, they’re seemingly more prevalent than ever: a plague of oppression amongst Black and Brown schools where students just want the chance to learn.

As a country, we are at a time when we must heed the call to action. It is time we diverge from the structures that have failed—and continue to fail—students and communities of color. It is time to start investing in social, economic, and political structures that empower students who have been so often marginalized and disenfranchised. It is time to build an educational system that serves as a safe space of transformative learning, social and emotional support, and development for every student.

In the last few months, I have been pondering over social media posts made by my white former colleagues. With statements like, ‘Why does it have to be about race?’ and, ‘All lives matter,’ I can’t help but assume these people have no idea how it feels to be unfairly prosecuted by the color of their skin—even when you’re an innocent and hard-working young student. I know, like Carolina and Constance know, that these people don’t know the petrifying fear Black and Brown folks experience when a police officer pulls them over, or the crippling anxiety the heats your blood as you run through all of the things you imagine you may have done to deserve it. And we know these people making these social media posts don’t understand that, many times, the only thing Black and Brown people have done to ‘deserve’ their treatment by police is exist.”

“Biena and Carolina are far from alone. I, too, am struggling with the structure of our country. My name is Constance Barnes, and, for me, reality is trying to catch my breath in order to not drown in a sea of complexity and confusion. I sit somewhere between sorrow and rage watching the lives of Black men needlessly sacrificed in real time, thanks to social media. There are so many scenes of protests, where it’s sometimes hard to discern who is actively marching for the cause, who has been so incensed that they are moved to violence, and who has infiltrated the greater good for their own personal agenda.

I am the granddaughter of southern sharecroppers, and I can clearly recall my mother’s tales of racism and segregation growing up in a rural Alabama town. My father, born and raised in New York, had brushes with the law as a teenager and dropped out of school by ninth grade; and I am keenly aware of the fact that one third of all Black men will have an encounter with the penal system in their lifetime—a statistic perpetuated by the school-to-prison pipeline—because this statistic has ravaged its truth amongst my immediate family.

Our experiences aren’t isolated. Rather, they are the collective history of Black and Brown folks across the country. We are all  of us every day inundated and oversaturated with imagery reminding us of the systemic and systematic racism that has prevailed in our country since its origin. Yet, despite being stripped of our native inheritances, communities of color haven’t sought hand-outs. Instead, we have simply sought acknowledgement as equal, living, breathing human beings. We aren’t asking for favoritism in justice, education, or provision of health, nor preferential treatment in housing or transportation matters—we’re merely asking for equity.”

The feelings of fear described by these women permeate so many of our realities. Coupled with the structural displays of inequity, further compounded by negative police relations dynamics in our schools and communities, it’s no wonder that people of color are hindered from living the free life promised by the U.S. Constitution, and enjoyed by so many white citizens.

Indian ethicist Mahatma Gandhi once said that “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and, my friends, we must.

We can no longer sit idly by and wait for change. Each person has a responsibility to actively engage in positive changes for their community and society. I implore each of you to consider how you can be civically engaged through opportunities such as formal and informal education, voter registration, outreach and engagement efforts, community and school board processes, supporting political candidates and organizations whose values resonate with yours, running for elected office, and being involved in your child’s PTO, and more.

At Leaders of Color New York, we’re doing our part to look at this moment as a springboard for growth. We strive to raise the voices and elevate the experiences of Black and Brown leaders—like Carolina, Biena, and Constance—by providing a suite of resources to help these leaders run for elections and increase their positive influence. While community-based leaders are uniquely positioned to understand the need for education reform, local leaders who support reform values are also the least likely to receive the supportive services they need.

Leaders of Color seeks to bridge this gap with our training program that unapologetically seeks to usher in a new, bold group of Black and Latino elected officials.