For the first time in more than a decade of living in Milton, I was recently proud to be a part of this community. On Monday, June 1, there was a vigil in support of the memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Toni McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery at which I spoke and shared my own anguish about recent events. On June 4, we lined Blue Hills Parkway in a stand-in that culminated in taking a knee for almost 9 minutes to honor the life of George Floyd who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. In all my years of living in Milton, it was the first time I saw so many people publicly take a stand against police brutality and address the deeply embedded problem of racism.
My pride dissipated the following day, when I spoke with a friend, who is also the only Black teacher on the sixth grade team, one of the few Black teachers at my son’s middle school. She was distraught after being placed on administrative leave for a comment she made in class regarding the protests and police brutality in our nation. She said, “Ahmaud Arbery was killed by two racist white men, and many cops are racist.” Many cops are racist. Her sentiment is one held by many Black people in the United States who are familiar with the legacy of police brutality in our country. In fact, when I asked my own 12-year-old son what he thought about the statement, he said he thinks “most” would have been more accurate than “many.”
Within minutes of speaking to my friend, my husband and I sent messages to the principal and superintendent — both of whom we have worked with closely — to express our concern about the suspension. We then wrote to parents and friends asking for their support for the teacher. The response was extraordinary. We were inundated with messages, calls, and texts. People wrote to the school leadership to express their outrage. By the end of the night, my friend was contacted by her union representative to let her know that the suspension had been reversed.
While we were thrilled by this outcome, we remain painfully aware that the response directed to one individual did nothing to undo what is a systemic problem in our school system as well as in many suburbs throughout the Commonwealth. As a parent and an educator, I believe that this moment represents a crossroads for us in Milton inviting us to ask, what kind of town do we want to be? As an activist committed to working for social justice, I am convinced that this incident must be the jumping off point for us to do better in Milton.
Milton has been lauded as one of the best suburbs in the United States. This is an accolade that does not only apply to whites. When the Globe Spotlight team reported its special issue on race three years ago, Milton was named one of the few suburbs with a diverse population.
But the suspension of the teacher shows us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to education. To be sure, our town can be distinguished from others in the state. Of the town’s six public schools, three have Black principals. Our schools are well-resourced. Our student population is far more diverse than in many school districts. The elementary school that our children attended, Tucker, is one of the most economically and racially diverse schools in the state. But entrenched divisions remain across race and class. While we regularly have workshops, speakers, and events related to discussing diversity, we have yet to address systemic racism and racial injustice in our schools and in our town. As L’heureux Lewis-McCoy points out in “Inequality in the Promised Land,” while many Black parents flock to suburban schools because of the resources available to their children, they are often disappointed by how the racial and class inequalities persist in the school systems.
The suspension of the sixth grade teacher has brought into greater relief the urgent need for a holistic antiracist approach. We need curricula and policies to guide our teachers and educate our students. As we stated in the letter to our superintendent and middle school principal, “If recent events in our country have revealed anything, it is that race and racism in the U.S. are not simply a collection of individual interpersonal actions on the basis of racial prejudice. They have revealed the extent of and nature of racism in our country as institutional, structural, generational, and endemic. They have revealed the pain of racism that it is coursing through our people, our children, our communities. They have shown that racism is inside all of us, because it is the air that we have all been breathing for so long, and it will take all of us to get it out.”
Indeed, and as Al Sharpton so poignantly articulated in his eulogy for George Floyd, “it’s our job ... to let the world know what time it is.” We are in a new season, a different time, a moment that calls for us to act and do differently, and we long for our education system to make concrete policy changes that include: equipping teachers to address racism, mandatory professional development opportunities, and an antiracist curriculum that pushes students and teachers to think critically about race relations.
Régine Jean-Charles, a Milton resident, is associate professor of African Diaspora Studies and French at Boston College and the author of “Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation.”