by David Sheridan
Earlier this year, NEA and the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) brought together teenage students and educators from the Dallas-Arlington area to talk about institutional racism and how it affects the students’ lives.
And the educators learned a vital truth about today’s teens: They are acutely aware of racial discrimination in America, and given the opportunity, will engage in robust conversations about racism’s impact on them and our society.
As one participant, Luis, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, later said: “You created a place where I felt safe to discuss the difficult subject of racism and the fact that I am undocumented. It was cathartic.”
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Paola, a 18-year-old high school senior, reported she came away from the meeting feeling more “hopeful and courageous—I am more likely now to speak up when someone says something dehumanizing and racist.”
The educators in attendance also heard things that were painful to hear. One student from Africa related that when her teacher had trouble pronouncing her name and she tried to help, the teacher mocked her: “Do we have any other Bunqueeshas or Shenaquas in the class?” Another student reported hearing his math teacher say in class to a Muslim student: “I can see you making a bomb.”
What’s more, when surveyed, these teens said they thought institutional racism seriously impacted the success of individual students in public schools. “Because our school is considered ‘ghetto’ and lower scoring, it is provided with less opportunities and supplies than predominately white schools,” noted one student.
“The students’ stories are unforgettable,” said NEA Executive Committee member George Sheridan, who participated in the meet-up. “Their courage and determination are inspiring, and their generosity and willingness to help others can give us all renewed hope. I’d like to see this kind of student convening replicated in districts all across America.”
Everything learned from the Dallas-Arlington teens has been confirmed by Newsweek’s recently released “The State of the American Teenager.”
Replicating key questions asked 50 years ago in the first State of the American Teenager, the Harris Poll surveyed 2,057 teens, ages 13 to 17, from diverse backgrounds across the country, about a wide range of subjects including politics, education and popular culture.
The “most compelling findings” show that race and discrimination are crucial issues for teens today. In 1966, 44 percent of American teens thought racial discrimination would be a problem for their generation. Today, nearly twice as many—82 percent—say it will be problem for their generation. The outlook is even more alarming among black teens: Ninety-one percent think discrimination is here to stay, up from 33 percent in 1966.
The statistics are stunning. Newsweek writer Abigail Jones concluded: “Discrimination has always been an American battleground, but teens today are growing up in a world where it seeps into the crevices of everyday life in new and sinister ways.”
Says teacher Karily Garcia, one of the organizers of the NEA-TSTA convening, “As educators we have to be there for our students, helping them navigate today’s minefield of racial discrimination, and reminding them what Martin Luther King said: ‘Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.’”