“Who belongs and who doesn’t” has been at the heart of an ongoing discourse of what it means to be an American. Answering this question requires understanding of the values, mindsets, and context that shape our national identity.

As Americans we value freedom, respect, and dignity considered to be inalienable rights of each person; we value individual identity, a can-do spirit with the belief that “do it” yourself is a natural born quality; making fresh starts, seeking new opportunities and yes, we believe in the American Dream as defined by J.T. Adams: “the dream of a land in which life is better richer, and fuller for every man with opportunities for each according to his abilities and achievement.” A Dream that can be achieved through hard work, family loyalty, and free enterprise. Our Bill of Rights protects the pursuit of happiness, economic freedom and the fair treatment of people, as well as the right to demand truth of our government. (1)

The 19th Century Horatio Alger notion of pulling yourself up from your bootstraps continues serving as a descriptor of Americanness, and perpetuates the idea that with effort, ingenuity and a bit of luck you can rise from “rags to riches” – it worked in a novel with a white male protagonist, but as history shows it is not the way it works for most others.

When Black-Americans were emancipated from slavery in 1863 they did not get any land while the white settlers were offered extensive areas of land establishing their economic base. At this time, agricultural colleges were established so that poor whites could get trained to increase their productivity. No luck there for black folks. (2)

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and eventually discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you go up to him and say, ‘Now you are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or get on his feet again in life.” He also added, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” As a nation did we truly expect free black men to be able to succeed? Did we see these free men as created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How does a man with no job or access to his/her own freedom pursue happiness?

Why was this so? What is it that motivated us to provide land and education to poor whites but leave free black Americans abandoned to their own devices? Imagine if at that time free blacks received the education they needed to lift themselves up, if there were family restoration programs honoring culture, tradition and language of the people brought to the colonies against their will; imagine if as a nation we could demonstrate appreciation for their contributions to building the wealth of the nation including the White House building we so love. Imagine if we recognize former slaves as the founders of this nation as we recognize white settlers, and appreciate their sacrifice and compensate adequately? How could these different actions have shifted the current state of the union, particularly in education? How might a different course of action shift the way we see other communities of color including immigrants?

The sad reality is that free slaves were feared, were seen as a community that needed to be contained and controlled out of white people’s fear of retaliation. The best solution we could offer as a nation was to begin to lay out the foundation for what became our prison system to further marginalize and remove black people. Eventually, the same mindsets and policies have extended to other communities of color: skin color has become stigmatized; immigration of non-whites rather than being understood as “seeking mobility for opportunity,” has once again, been seen as a threat, a threat to maintaining power in the hands of the white population; the contributions of all communities of color to the economic development of the nation in agriculture, creation of railroads, bridges and other infrastructure has not been recognized. The fear of retaliation has resulted in a system of control that limited access to resources for economic mobility, including access to public education, loans, and home ownership. Accumulation of wealth has been restricted to white people, by redlining policies and stories that criminalize people of color as dangerous “bad hombres”, drug addicts, terrorists and “those that bring sickness.”

Motivated by fear, a parallel system of norms has evolved to define Whiteness and therefore to establish the parameters of who belongs and who doesn’t. Of who is American and who is not.

Our students feel the effect of the White norming of society but do not have the language or the deep understanding of the historical context to withstand and counteract the impact that these norms have on them. It is hard to walk around having a sense and feeling that one is considered to be a “bad apple,” a trouble, a burden, etc. when these are artificial attributes superimposed on youth to control and marginalize, rather than educate, empower and support as equal.

Imagine a family where adults are constantly arguing and yelling at each other and their children trying to control each other. There are family secrets never discussed, whoever raises any of the secrets is considered a paria and yet, these secrets are very present and impact the family deeply. The children are acting out confused and scared, and the adults insist that in spite of all these dynamics the children need to self-manage their behavior, be respectful and resolve their conflicts in a self-directed way while the adults continue business as usual – because they are “the boss.”


It doesn’t work because the children are not in a safe and trusting environment. It doesn’t work because the children know these secrets, some of them very impactful and no one has the integrity to help them understand that there is nothing wrong with them. The adults created a history they are trying to avoid, and while they are asking the children to be accountable, the adults are asking to get a pass, covering their fear and possibly their shame in the active role they play in perpetuating oppressive narratives.

Lucille Clifton’s poem “Why some People Be Mad at Me Sometimes” comes to mind:

“Why Some People Be Mad at Me Sometimes” by Lucille Clifton

Why some people be mad at me sometime

They ask me to remember

But they want me to remember

Their memories

And I keep remembering


We can hear the plight of youth – Please do not erase my memories…help me understand them.

We need to get REAL. Our students deserve to understand how the norms that shape our society evolve, the truth about history and its impact on them and on all Americans. They have the right to know that as a nation we recognize our shortcomings and are willing to truly embrace truth and a reconciliation process. We need to get Real with honesty, Real with care, Real with education, Real with addressing fear and most of all, Real with LOVE for our students. This is a complex and layered experience that our students face. As educators, we are challenged with finding a door to initiate conversations with our students, what they would call “getting real” and sugar coating our histories, our experiences, and our realities.


“Roots of Success” developed at the Center for Powerful Public Schools can be a viable solution. “Roots of Success” provides students with opportunities to explore their identity, contextualize their place in society, and develop strategies to overcome challenges they may face as students of color in predominantly white spaces. Students develop the agency they need to take an active role in carving their own path in life.

References: (1) Bill of Rights retrieved from: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript

(2) Economic Equality: Martin Luther King’s. Jr. other dream. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/01/21/economic-equality-martin-luther-king-jrs-other-dream/?utm_term=.a37f0d0d3229

Social-Emotional Agency