By Sikivu Hutchinson
In all my years of “post-Jim Crow” public education no one ever handed me a book written by a black woman and said that what she wrote is universal truth. I was never told that so-called civilizations rose and fell on the power of her words, or that entire belief systems sprung from her ideas. I was never taught that the world’s greatest intellectuals worked plantations, were herded onto reservations, or traveled everyday from barrios and “ghettoes” to keep white people’s children. Intellectuals and philosophers—serious thinkers—were white men, with no need for a living wage job. They did not ride public buses or clean houses or go to schools where stop-and-frisk was a routine practice. They did not have to worry, like my students do, about being assigned to special education classes because they were chronic discipline “problems” or didn’t speak “proper” English. They were never told that they would be more likely to drop-out and get pregnant than go on to a four-year college. These vaunted intellectuals and philosophers were certainly not seventeen year-old East L.A. girls like Paula Crisostomo, a Mexican-American Filipina activist who helped spearhead the Chicano student walkouts of 1968. As a student at Lincoln High School in East L.A. Crisostomo was influenced by social studies teacher Sal Castro, who recently passed away at the age of 79. Castro’s fierce commitment to culturally relevant education inspired generations of youth social justice activism in the LAUSD. His guidance of Crisostomo and other youth leaders helped make the 1968 walkouts the largest high school student protests in this nation’s history. Thousands of students boycotted their classes in protest over lack of college access, tracking policies, prohibition of Spanish in the classroom, and racist curricula.
I did not learn about the walkouts in high school. In the march of great Western liberal democratic traditions there were no textbook portrayals of the homegrown activism in our own communities or link between the apartheid legacy of the past and its echoes in the present. Instead, “social justice” history consisted of canned recitations of how Martin Luther King “led” the civil rights movement. Then, as now, many of us disengaged from these token classroom discussions because activism was framed as though it was a distant, hallowed phenomenon propelled by charismatic god-status heroes. Racism equaled the Klan, black people getting hosed down and spit at, black men being lynched, and the indignity of segregated water fountains. Racism wasn’t the systematic sexual terrorism of black women in the Jim Crow South and the de facto segregationist North or the demonization of black women as welfare queen matriarchs. Then, as now, there was no room for analyses of sexism, racial apartheid, heterosexism, and patriarchy and how our lived experiences diverged from the corrupt pedagogy of the American dream.
Last year, Crisostomo came and spoke to a group of my students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. She drew parallels between the racism she’d encountered during the Vietnam War era and the de facto segregation of the Obama age. Girls like Ms. Crisostomo were not supposed to go to college. Homemaking, caregiving, becoming a maid in a white household on the Westside—these were the common life expectations for young Latinas. For Crisotomo’s generation, the military was pervasive. Youth of color died in disproportionate numbers fighting and killing other dark-skinned peoples in Vietnam because college was not an option in the “ghetto.” Despite an increase in the number of students of color in college, aggressive military recruitment continues to be a reality for black, Latino, and Native American students. For many, college preparation and equitable college access are still a distant dream. For some, simply graduating from high school at campuses where less than 50% of the entering freshman class makes it to graduation is an accomplishment. This has become the standard in an era in which the Education Trust estimates that only “one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from high school and go on to a four-year California university” in the next decade. While predominantly black and Latino schools in South and East L.A. are besieged by military recruiters, the more affluent white schools get the college recruiters, college prep classes, and highly qualified teachers. The Americana fever pitch of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines is unheard of on predominantly white campuses in Los Angeles. It is a given that these students will be going to college, not dying on the frontlines.
Forty-five years after the walkouts, high drop-out rates, black student suspension rates and low four year college-going rates undermine the illusion of post-Jim Crow progress. The conditions that walkout activists like Crisostomo and Castro protested are still in place, just with a “kinder gentler” post-racial varnish, buffed to blinding.
*Excerpted from Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels