By Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou, Interim President and CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
These past couple of weeks have shown us all too well, again, how white tears are held in higher regard than Black life.
White tears, as Kyle Rittenhouse cried as he was acquitted of all five charges, were held in higher regard than the lives of the three white, men he shot — Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreutz–as they fought for Black lives. Two of those men, Rosenbaum and Huber, were fatally shot.
White tears, held in higher regard than Jacob Blake, who was left partially paralyzed after a white police officer shot him outside of his home.
White tears, held in higher regard than Jacob Blake’s children, who watched as their father was shot.
White tears, held in higher regard than Julius Jones, who has spent half of his life on death row, his sentence commuted only hours before he was set to be executed — to still face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
White tears, held in higher regard than Ahmaud Arbery, whose murderers’ conviction now gives his family and community a small fraction of peace, but not justice.
White tears, held in higher regard than Tamir Rice, killed 6 years ago by a white police officer for holding a toy gun.
And countless other lives cut short insensibly because white tears have been held in higher regard than Black life.
The systems that are supposedly meant to support and protect us — to create safer, more vibrant, and more supportive communities — are not broken.
No, they are working exactly as they were designed. To hold some lives up above others, especially white lives…unless those white lives are also fighting for Black lives.
To protect white tears above Black life.
It is hard to decouple the injustices of the criminal punishment system steeped in anti-Blackness from attacks on public education and real threats to democracy. It is no surprise that the U.S. has, for the first time, been added to the list of “backsliding democracies” by the International IDEA think tank.
To those who did not believe that the major confluence of factors threatening democracy and daily life represents an urgent crisis (especially for Black people and other communities of color) worthy of swift action —I hope this drives the message home and renews a call to act boldly.
As a former teacher, I cannot stop thinking about the lives and experiences of my students. Kyle Rittenhouse could have been a student in my class — so could have Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Julius Jones, and Jacob Blake. I continue to reflect on the ways in which our education community and our society at large may have supported them in growing into thriving humans — or failed them. I continue to think about my own role and responsibility.
That’s why the calls to teach the truth, to ensure that our children get the fullness of our nation’s history and present are non-negotiable. That they get all the facts to make meaning of this crumbling society and democracy, to be full participants in honoring and advocating for equity and justice for themselves and others.
As funders, especially funders committed to racial justice, we must think about our responsibilities beyond our narrow or specific organizational missions. We must honestly interrogate our personal and institutional connection to human life and suffering. For those of us in positions of greater privilege, we must show up in the fight for democracy with all of the tools and resources at our disposition, because we simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.
Those at the forefront of the fights — young people, community organizers, activists, and educators — are doing their part, laboring to manifest solutions, bearing the brunt of injustices, and telling us that our nation is not well. Will we listen?
Will we fully commit to joining the fight to stop holding white tears in higher regard than Black life?
That commitment is necessary if we are to significantly and collectively bend the moral arc of our society towards justice and freedom for all of us.