It is unacceptable that the question of whether Black lives matter is still a question. It is impossible to silence the screams and cries of the fed up after the unspeakable and unjustifiable killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black lives lost to police officers and wannabe police officers. But these screams and tears have echoed in my heart since I was 16 years old.
This pain started when I was 16 years old because that is when police officers stopped and frisked me around the corner from my home in Brooklyn, NY. I was one of few Black students attending the prestigious Bronx High School of Science (where there are even fewer today) and I was getting ready to start an exciting summer enrichment program the next day. But none of that mattered when I was up against a brick wall being searched and aggressively questioned about where I was coming from and where I was going. It might not sound like much to be questioned about where you are coming from and where you are going. But I was taught that I was free. Yet, I still had to very respectfully justify my movements to angry men as the only way out of the shamefully deadly crime of walking while Black. This moment permanently stripped me of my full humanity. This idea of America, this promise that lit up my family’s eyes in the depths of their dark struggle to immigrate to the United States was betrayed. This firm belief that their American children will be entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that all will be well if you just do the right thing, was shattered.
There is something about this notion of an unfulfilled promise that leads me beyond the criminal justice system. As a teacher-by-day, law student-by-night, I was grateful for the incredible volunteer experience of spending time with brilliant young people who were amazing problem solvers, brilliant at thinking on their toes, and born leaders. These mostly Black, Brown, and overwhelmingly poor youth were, without question, the most entrepreneurial, analytical, and persuasive young minds I had ever come across. I could not figure out, however, how these brilliant young minds ended up juvenile detention. My semester as a student attorney for my law school’s juvenile justice clinic showed that we are leaving genius on the table. There are no doubts about the promise these youth showed, but their promise was going unfulfilled. I watched enough commercials for the United Negro College Fund to understand that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Yet, here I stood, seeing brilliant minds needlessly placed in cages.
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This confined brilliance felt familiar. It reminded me of what it felt like to constantly be labeled as having “poor self-control” and to always find myself in some sort of trouble in kindergarten and first grade. These challenges miraculously disappeared when tests for my speech impediment and behavior challenges revealed that I should have been in gifted and talented classes since I was in kindergarten. My part of Brooklyn did not have an elementary school with a gifted program, so I was bussed to a different school as one of twelve students in my grade level with access to this transformational experience. Transformational is not an exaggeration, because the same behaviors that would have eventually landed me in juvenile detention were required in my gifted classroom. Walking around and interacting with my peers was meaningful collaboration, not goofing off. Questioning the teacher was intellectual curiosity, not badgering. Telling the teacher there was a better way to do something was effective advocacy, not willful defiance. I was still, surely, subject to the injustices of a systemically racist school system and society. But my mind was free.
A free mind gave me the privilege to ask questions. Questions like why did I have to get bussed to a school to have access to rigorous and challenging instruction grounded in critical thinking? And why were there only 12 of us in this program when there were brilliant young minds in every single classroom? Education equity advocates in New York City are outraged at the dismal numbers of Black and Brown students admitted to Bronx Science and the 8 other specialized high schools. But when there are over 400 high schools in New York City, what does it mean, really, when “success” means you make a child like me commute 90 minutes each way from Brooklyn to the Bronx?
Black lives matter. But if we are to truly live, don’t our brains matter, too? I understand and deeply resonate with the cry of “stop killing us.” But I cannot ever be content with simply having permission to exist. Descartes’ revelation that “I think, therefore I am” speaks to the need that mere survival is not enough. The Notorious B.I.G.’s observation “my mind’s my nine, my pen’s my MAC 10” goes a bit further, speaking to the unquestionable power of a brilliant, expressive mind. The reality is, access to critical thinking matters now more than ever. We need to unlock brilliance any and everywhere it exists. The survival of our world depends on it.
Unfortunately, the same racial injustices that treat Black lives as unworthy also treat our minds as inferior. My existence in advanced academic programs was inseparable from the broader conversation, then and now, about equity and access in gifted education. The glaring underrepresentation of Black students in gifted education means that at the moment we need critical thinkers more than ever, we are still deciding to treat critical thinking as a luxury good. The critical thinking gap in our education system results in an underclass of students who get taught what to think while the most “elite” students in the most “elite” schools learn how to think. I am sick and tired of seeing Black folks with brilliant minds behind bars. I am even more sick and tired of the more systemic challenge of denying brilliant Black minds access to educational opportunities that keep their minds in cages.
With the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic estimated to force massive cuts to education budgets nationwide, a compelling case for treating gifted education as an issue of racial justice must be made. The common, but false, belief that gifted learners will be “just fine” already leads school systems to shift resources away from students who subjectively need these resources more. Even before this crisis, Seattle Public Schools eliminated their gifted and talented, and New York City discussed doing the same in the name of equity. This is not equity.
A racial justice agenda in education must be committed to the full liberation of Black minds. This means that there need to be more, not fewer gifted and talented program opportunities in schools serving high numbers of students who are typically denied access. More, not fewer, advanced academic offerings at all middle and high schools serving large numbers of Black students. Equity means that education systems shift their focus to serving all students to unlocking the excellence of each student. This means that we need to hold several ideas in our heads at the same time.
First, we must accept that all students have gifts, but not all students are gifted. Second, gifted students and advanced learners exist everywhere and deserve a right to experience an academic challenge every single day. Third, all students can and should benefit from gifted and talented teaching strategies, but gifted learners require services to meet their specific learning needs just like any other exceptional student population. Fourth, gifted education identification practices and service delivery remain deeply problematic across the country and must be improved. Fifth, fighting for equity should never result in an outcome where everyone gets nothing, even if the equity issues are not being resolved rapidly enough. These five considerations must be addressed in concert, so we can stop leaving genius on the table. Racial justice means we stop talking about simply closing achievement gaps and start talking about shattering achievement ceilings.
This is not just about Black students. It also makes little sense that we have English Language Learners who are thinking in multiple languages, navigating across multiple cultures, and piecing together complex puzzles all day every day. Gifted education representation challenges and the availability of gifted programming for Native American students and students in poverty, everywhere, are additional examples of areas access and equity must be expanded.
One of the most important moments in our lives is the moment we realize that our unique power, unique qualifications, and the opportunity to take advantage of opportunities put us in a unique position to make a unique difference in our world. It hurts me to the core that so many of our young people will never get to experience this moment based on nothing else but the color of their skin. Black lives matter. But we cannot ever forget that Black minds matter, too.