On Wednesday, a Pius X student published an opinion article in the school newspaper* titled “Contradictory focus of Black Lives Matter.” The overtly racist column caused a stir, with statements such as, “The Black Lives Matter movement, to fulfill their stated mission, would do more for their cause by focusing on countering Planned Parenthood propaganda than by rioting to counter police mistreatment.” For a white student at a Catholic school to hold problematic views is unsurprising, and not even the biggest issue at hand. Rather, the Journalism teacher and school administration are at fault for allowing this piece to reach publication and for failing to correct the student. An “apology” from the school was posted online: “some have received the opinion piece as denying that there is more work to be done to remove all elements of hatred, prejudice and racism from our hearts and our institutions.” This is insincere and places blame on readers for their reactions. The administrative statement also refuses to assume responsibility for what is the big issue here: better educating students – and teachers – on issues of race.
Inaccuracies in the article should have been the first point of re-education. The student cites a tweet from the NAACP from 2014 as stating that “76 unarmed Black men and women were killed in police custody between 1999 and 2014.” Though I could not locate the original tweet – and am therefore curious as to whether or not the student did – it is quoted in other resources (with most references going back to this Gawker article) as “the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund Twitter posted a series of tweets naming 76 men and women who were killed in police custody since the 1999” (italics added). A teacher with semantic awareness, or maybe just racial awareness, would have noted the significant difference the little word “who” makes in naming 76 people killed by police, and mis-representing the source as claiming 76 people in total were murdered. Even if their copy-editing skills missed the deletion of the word “who,” someone who cares about accurately teaching students about race would have realized that this number seems suspiciously low.
Since the Washington Post began tracking police-involved fatalities in 2014, a trend of about 1,000 police shooting deaths per year has remained steady. When a student hears that roughly half of those deaths are those of white people, they may be confused, as this student is, by the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement. The point of correction here would be to teach demographics: 62% of Americans are white, while Black people make up only 13% of the population. Although the overall number of Black Americans killed by police is lower than whites, there is a disproportionate impact. Black people are about 2.5 times more likely than whites to die by police shootings. Having knowledge of police violence would have made the student’s educators aware that she needed help in selecting serious sources and checking them for accuracy.
The student’s use of the phrase “Black on Black violence” is upsetting, to say the least, but still a teachable moment missed by those in charge at Pius. The majority of murders and other violence occurs at the hands of loved ones, friends, or acquaintances, regardless of racial demographics. This is important for children and adolescents to know for their own safety, as they are vulnerable groups and should have tools to advocate for themselves if needed. It is also important for them to understand intraracial violence: if most people are hurt by those they know, and racism flourishes because of our deeply-segregated communities (especially white communities), it holds that most people are hurt by people of the same racial or ethnic group. Opportunities to expand students’ understanding of racism are vast and untapped here.
Of course Pius X cannot be assumed to teach students differently about abortion. It is a topic largely untouched by public schools, and private schools like Pius X have the specific aim to teach students to be firmly anti-abortion. While they clearly should have addressed the student’s inaccurate information and racially-charged language, there is no assumption that a private Catholic school would address the more complicated issues of the role of race in reproductive rights. But readers of the “Xchange” article who were upset by statistics on Black abortion rates should consider the complexities of race and reproduction in the United States.
Black women do “have the highest abortion rates because they are the most likely to have an unintended pregnancy,” according to scholar and author Dorothy Roberts. This is because they “face a host of structural barriers to accessing reproductive health services, are more likely to be deterred by restrictive abortion laws, [and] risk injury and death as a result, both from having unsafe pregnancies and unsafe abortions.” The disproportionate impact of reproductive disenfranchisement runs much deeper in the historical context of Black pregnancy and motherhood in the U.S., from slave women being made to dig holes for their bellies to protect their unborn while they were whipped; to the racist campaigns to sterilize women of color across our globe, including the abusive way Norplant was used on Black women in the 1990s; to the controversial background of Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger.
Only that last point is touched on by the student-author; she notes the “Negro Project” and quotes a paper about the history of birth control from Sanger that calls for “the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extinction, of defective stocks.” Of course, the student leaves out that Sanger’s actual proposal for the “Negro Project” uses even more direct racism, stating that high birth rates “among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.” Roberts tells us: “the project’s purpose becomes more complicated when we acknowledge that Sanger was quoting verbatim none other than the great civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois.” Du Bois was not racist, yet advocated for Black rights in sometimes racist terms, to appeal to whites in power. All arguments reflect the political and social context they are made in, and therefore need to be presented in this context. The birth control movement began as advocacy for voluntary motherhood – nothing more – but was quickly tied to eugenics to gain traction among the men in power. Roberts tells us that “the alliance of the eugenics and birth control movements bolstered the contemporaneous struggle for women’s emancipation. . . But this was a warped conception of women’s liberation, for it was an exclusive liberation in the service of racist social ends.” There is no need to cast any historical figures as racist villains or non-racist heroes, but to more accurately understand how racism has shaped our history, and to identify and combat it in the present.
We should be able to acknowledge those complexities to try to more fully understand racism without reducing it to simplistic terms, and then teach students to do the same – especially when a direct opportunity, like this Pius X article, presents itself.
*Please note that another article in this issue titled “Emphasizing the ‘life’ in pro-life” is the sort of empathetic writing we want to see from students. You can read it below.