A Houston Perspective of A Yates High School Loss (George Floyd) by Bertie Simmons
The killing of George Floyd, a member of the Yates High School family, has poignantly exposed and made abundantly public the lives that blacks have lived for centuries in America. It is heart-breaking and calls several things to question: Why have we not, as the “privileged” class, done something over all these years to bring justice to the black community – a community that has made amazing contributions to our society? Why have we as the “privileged” closed our eyes to the unjust treatment they have endured all their lives? Our doing nothing shines a bright light on our lack of respect, understanding and empathy for others. The blame rests on our shoulders for our insensitivity and lack of courage to stand up for what is right.
Do you worry about your safety while jogging? Do you fear being killed by others who suspect you of doing something, even though they have no evidence of your having done anything wrong? Can you empathize with Ahmaud Arbery? Do you fear when your child wears a hoodie and goes to a convenience store to buy skittles that he will be fatally shot on the way home by a member of a neighborhood watch as happened to Trayvon Martin? I could go on and on. The incidences are too numerous and are well-known but not acknowledged by everyone. While some of the acts did not involve law enforcement officials, many were committed by rogue police officers. Even when these tragedies occur, the perpetrators are rarely, if ever, brought to justice.
My grandson, Austin Fendley, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, and I were discussing our concern for the unjust treatment of the black population and why few people have ever taken a stand in support of them. He told me about a quote attributed to Will Smith that he had read. Will said, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s just getting filmed.” We discussed that perhaps it is about dominance and power. The empowered do not want to lose control. He also reflected on the fact that the situation is complicated by many things including the reality of poverty. In some cases, blacks are born into an environment where they may have had to steal food to live. There are many of the “privileged” class who have never had to choose between survival and legality. I responded that even though there are many whites who live in poverty, they are not treated the same by the justice system when they break the rules.
I asked Austin why he had always had blacks among his best friends and why he didn’t feel hesitant about those relationships. His answer was something we all know but do not acknowledge. He said, “Race was not a defining factor in picking friends. How they acted, not how they looked was the important thing.” He continued, “You learn your values from authority figures. You must be taught to discriminate based on race. I was never taught that.” He also said that he had heard some white people say to a black person, “I don’t see the color of your skin. I am colorblind.” Austin said, “That statement wipes away the identity of that person and diminishes the individual’s worth. We must go further to learn that we are more alike than different, and we must embrace and celebrate our differences.”
Austin’s statements reminded me of the song from South Pacific, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.
- You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.
- You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
- It’s got to be drummed in your dear, little ear.
- You’ve got to be carefully taught. (Oscar Hammerstein)
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned as to what we might be able to do to correct the discrimination that has been a reality for so long. Talking with Austin reminded me that the youth of today can change the world and make it a better place for all people. Perhaps they can bring unity to the nation. The following are steps that we must take to set the example for the youth:
- We must exercise our right to vote. We must vote for those people who will bring equity and empathy to our government.
- Rethink education in such a way that we model and teach all students to respect, embrace, and celebrate our differences. We must teach civility. Include all parents in the effort to rethink education.
- Individuals and groups must join hands to start a movement to demand equal treatment in the justice system and insist upon systemic change.
- Rebuild the relationship between the police department and the community and insist on ethical leaders in these departments who will ensure all people truly receive equal protection and justice under the law. Unify and retrain law enforcement officers and make certain they police themselves and one another.
In Houston we are standing together. Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee continues to be a champion for social justice. Police Chief Art Acevedo exhibited inspiring leadership when he offered to march with protesters in a constructive way and provide a police escort for George Floyd’s funeral. I was encouraged when our mayor, Sylvester Turner noticed a black man power washing to remove graffiti left by some marchers. Turner said, “This is the Houston I know and love.” Let us follow these examples and take action. Perhaps the unity we so desperately need will be found and we will create a better world for everyone.
ABOUT BERTIE SIMMONS:
For 61 years Dr. Bertie Simmons, Ed.D. was a dedicated educator in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Simmons came out of retirement to serve as principal of Furr High School in 1999. During her more than 17 year tenure, she was instrumental in revitalizing the school and creating transformational opportunities for some of Houston’s most disadvantaged students. Known as a visionary and a change agent who can bring out the best in her students, the high-energy educator maintained that upbeat and infectious attitude to reach and inspire her teachers and students with her passion, knowledge, dedication, and maybe even the occasional rap song or two.T he first of Simmons’ seemingly countless honors came in 1965, when she was named the HISD Teacher of the Year. That distinction was followed by many more, including HEB’s Best High School Principal in Texas award in 2011 and KHOU’s Schools Now Spirit of Texas award. In addition, Furr was one of only three schools in the nation identified for the College Board Inspiration Award in 2011 As evidence of Simmons’ indelible impact on Furr High School, education advocate and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, recognized Furr High School as a recipient of a $10 million grant through the XQ Super School Project. Simmons’ school was one of 10 selected from nearly 700 schools nationwide for “reimagining high school education.”