Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators

Every year as a faculty member in an urban-focused, university-based teacher education program, I pose the following questions to the teacher certification candidates and certified teachers in my classes: What is your vision of social transformation, and how far are you willing to go in your capacity as classroom teachers to achieve it? Sadly, the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is the latest of a never-ending series of tragedies that underscores the urgency of these questions. As teacher educators, it is crucial that we seize this moment to encourage and support classroom teachers’ efforts to end white supremacist violence in the lives of youth of color.

Those who deny the permanence of white supremacy in America will surely concoct a litany of excuses and justifications for George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to killing Trayvon Martin. As demonstrated time and time again, white supremacy is amazingly adept at defending itself by denying its very existence. Regardless of whatever preposterous defense may prevail on Zimmerman’s behalf, the details of Trayvon Martin’s final moments paint a clear picture of a young man who became yet another casualty of American society’s enduring, well-rehearsed, and unforgiving assault on black bodies. That advocates for redress on Trayvon’s behalf are forced to make the case for the obvious—America’s suspicion of and contempt for young black males—detracts time and energy better spent on strategizing our collective responses for justice. Consequently, I will not devote more time to asserting the obvious. Readers who want to debate the “merits” of the case against Zimmerman are encouraged to do so in other spaces.

What I hope to do in this blog entry is to engage fellow teacher educators in discussions of the roles that we can play in the aftermath of Trayvon’s death. The public outcry over Zimmerman’s audacity and the Sanford Police Department’s complicity has turned the murder of Trayvon Martin into a potentially powerful teachable moment. The following are strategies that teacher educators can use to help teacher certification candidates and certified teachers transform this tragedy into a springboard for critical thought and collective action.

1) Engage teachers in rigorous examinations of white supremacy. The gravity of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent silence that surrounded it cannot be fully grasped without a critical understanding of white supremacy as a systemic arrangement of power that has privileged the lives and interests of white Americans from this nation’s inception, and that continues to do so despite social and political struggles for racial equality. Framing the historical and systemic nature of white supremacist power in America is crucial for helping white educators—specifically those who bristle at critical analyses of white supremacy—to understand those analyses as critiques of oppressive systems of power, not as indictments of individual white people. A critical examination of white supremacy can also help teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand that while white supremacy privileges white people over racialized others, it can be reproduced by a multicultural cast of characters that aligns itself with white supremacist power structures (e.g., someone like George Zimmerman). In my experiences as a teacher educator, work in critical race theory by scholars like Gloria-Ladson Billings, William Tate, and Adrienne Dixson, analyses of privilege and power by Allan Johnson, and racialized examinations of white teachers by scholars like Christine Sleeter and Gary Howard, have been great resources for teachers who are learning to grapple with the realities and repercussions of white supremacy. A rigorous understanding of white supremacy is a prerequisite for teachers who want to stand against the white supremacist domination of youth of color.

2) Help teachers to connect youth of color to resources and strategies for negotiating white supremacist oppression, both individually and collectively. Learning to resist is not just a political undertaking—it is also a pedagogical act. As Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking work has taught all of us, just as the oppressed have to learn the terms of their oppression, they can also learn to create the conditions for their liberation. Teacher educators who are committed to social justice must find ways to support classroom teachers’ efforts to facilitate analyses of and resistance against white supremacy with youth of color. Continue reading “Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators”