“Don’t set your sights so high.”
“You’re not Princeton material.”
“You are 16, you shouldn’t apply to law school.”
These words sting. They hurt. They impact our souls and live in our minds. We carry them with us and words such as these could easily push us away from our dreams when we feel overwhelmed.
When I read the release by the White House about the life journey of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on Friday and saw that her high school guidance counselor told her “don’t set your sights so high” when she told the counselor she wanted to attend Harvard University, I felt that stinging feeling again. It’s not a new feeling or new experience, to be honest. It stung because it is something that so many Black students in our nation experience and feel each year in our schools as administrators, counselors, and teachers try to limit our dreams simply because of our DNA.
As a young student, I had those experiences. It started in elementary school when my teachers and school administrators repeatedly told my parents I couldn’t sit for the gifted and talented assessment test. As I continued my own education journey and started college early I had counselors, who fit the perceived stereotype, tell me “you people are so entitled” and I couldn’t take the courses I wanted at my community college. There were also those who told me my choice of Texas Woman’s University for my undergraduate education would be harmful because it was a second-class school no one respected. I had others who were specifically charged with helping minority students and shared many of my DNA characteristics, tell me I couldn’t go to law school at 16 and not to bother applying. I have had others tell me I do not have the intellectual ability to comprehend complex issues.
Those words still reach deep into my heart and soul. If I am being honest, there are moments where I can hear them again. When I do, I stop for a moment to contemplate if maybe, just maybe, those who told me those things could be right. If not for my parents and the village they helped me create, I am not sure if those words might not have won and pushed me off my path.
So when I read what had happened to Judge Brown Jackson in high school, I was taken back to those feelings. I was taken to wonder what would have happened if Judge Brown Jackson had listened to her high school counselor. Imagine what our nation would be missing out on this week if she had listened?
Judge Brown Jackson’s story is powerful in so many ways. Her image will be sure to inspire so many Black boys and girls to pursue a career in law. Judge Brown Jackson’s story is also powerful because she shared with us this incident that happened to her. By sharing this personal story about a trusted school employee falling back on racist stereotypes and beliefs to counsel and advise a student, Judge Brown Jackson has given us as a nation an opportunity to engage in a long-overdue discussion about these types of harmful incidents.
Of course, there will be those who read what was told to a young Ketanji Brown Jackson and will attempt to explain it away as an isolated incident. When you share with them the similar story Michelle Obama experienced from her college counselor they will once again say it’s still isolated. When we then share our own experience as Black students in our public and private education system, we will be dismissed and left to believe that we didn’t experience what we actually experienced.
When I read or hear of these stories of blatant racism and think of my own experiences in our education system, I am often reminded of an excerpt from Alex Haley’s—by the way I was named Haley after Alex Haley—The Autobiography of Malcolm X where he captured an experience a young Malcolm had with his English teacher.
“In school, I kept close to the top of my class. The top-most scholastic standing shifted between me (and two white students). I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, my English teacher. He told me, ‘Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career.’ I told him, ‘Well, yes sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.’ Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised. He kind of half-smiled and said, ‘Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, we all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. You’ve got to think about something you can be. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”‘
This isn’t something new in our nation. Black Americans, and all Americans of color, have been navigating a public education system that was never designed to see us for our full potential. The system was designed to ensure that we never set our “sights so high”. This is done by having adults in the system create self-doubt by reinforcing our place in society through stinging words like “you’re not Princeton material” and also by ensuring that our system was never truly equitable.
There is overwhelming data about the inequities in our schools. In January of 2020, Ed Trust released their report Barriers That Keep Black and Latino Students Unequally Represented in Advanced Coursework. The report detailed how Black and Latino students are kept out of gifted and talented programs in elementary school and lack access to AP courses in high school. They point out that the root of this lies in many areas including inequities in funding and lack of diverse educators. But they also point out that “educator bias is one of the biggest barriers for Black and Latino students when school leadership overly rely on the recommendations of teachers and counselors whose judgments may be shaped by implicit or explicit racial bias.”
Many of our neighbors will celebrate the nomination of Judge Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court of the United States. They will post on social media how they support her and share what an amazing person she is. What they are likely to ignore is her amazing journey to this point in her life and the barriers that were put before her at such an early age simply because of her ethnicity and skin color.
The truth is a difficult starting point for many discussions in our nation today. The truth is our education system has been and is fundamentally flawed and unable to support the potential of Black and Latino students. Just watch any local school board meeting to see just how far some of our neighbors are willing to go to ensure the system is never changed.
As we as a nation watch the confirmation process that Judge Brown Jackson will traverse over the next few weeks, we should use this as an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s education system. If our public and private k-12 education system was up for confirmation would we have the courage to acknowledge its faults and take deliberate and purposeful action to solve the inherent built-in inequities that deny Black and Latino students their ability to fulfill their full potential?
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t set our sights too high on our nation’s ability to accept this truth and take any action to solve it. Just like Judge Brown Jackson and former First Lady Michelle Obama disregarded the racist advice they received, the reality is we as a community must never accept this current formulation of our education system and push forward demanding change and accountability.
Photo by Joan Kwamboka on Unsplash