Education is the tool with the best chance to mend divisiveness among races and faith communities, according to panel members at a May 6 program hosted by Temple Shalom in Aberdeen. But, said the panelists at “A Caring Conversation for Unity — Speaking Out Against Racial and Religious Bias,” many school systems are failing to provide guidance in wielding that tool to achieve that outcome.
Noting that curricula are generally based on a European/American point of view, Rabbi Marc Kline, of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, said, “We spend almost the entire school year teaching aspects of white history and culture, and just one month when we focus on all the other cultures of the world. This increases disengagement and dropouts.”
Kline identified a syndrome known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which sees schools unintentionally “setting up some students to fail. Disproportionately, these children come from two groups: racial minorities and youngsters with disabilities.”
African-American students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled, he said, citing research by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. While just 8.6 percent of public school youngsters are deemed to have learning disabilities, they account for 32 percent of youth in juvenile detention centers.
Kline attributed much of the problem to insufficient resources; Americans are more willing to spend money on entertainment, he asserted, than they are on education. Although teachers and counselors are best situated to break the pipeline, there are not enough of them, and classrooms are overcrowded. Standardized tests associated with concepts like “No Child Left Behind” create incentives for school systems “to push out low-performing students to boost overall test scores.” Kline also argued that overly harsh disciplinary policies propel students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system. Suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised, fall further behind in coursework, fail, and eventually drop out, he said.
The Rev. John Armstrong of the New Light Baptist Community Church in Keyport told the more than 90 attendees of being reared in rural Georgia. He was born in 1954, he said, the same year the Supreme Court declared an official — but not actual — end to segregated schooling. Armstrong, who attended all-black schools until the 11th grade, said, “By the time I got into a school that was supposed to be integrated, almost all the white students had been taken out by their parents and sent to private schools. I knew something was wrong with this picture.”
Armstrong stuck to it and graduated from high school in 1973, and his educational background enabled him, in 1985, to earn a degree in theology and religious education from the Eastern Bible Institute in Irvington.
In recent years, Armstrong has led his congregation in interfaith services with Temple Shalom on the weekend before the Monday celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Armstrong’s son Joshuwa, who serves as associate pastor at the Second Baptist Church in Cliffwood Beach, was also on the panel. Born in 1978, he grew up in New Jersey more than a decade after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Yet he, too, he said, has experienced discrimination.
Once, as a teen, he and a black friend were attacked by a gang of white teens. Though they were not the instigators and suffered the more severe injuries, they were the only ones taken into custody. Also, while serving in the U.S. Army, he was passed over for a promotion that went to a white soldier who had less time in grade.
The younger Armstrong joined the other panelists in calling for more effective education. “We have to recognize racism when it occurs, and when we see it, we have to speak out,” he said.
“As Muslims, we are taught that all people are people of the book and therefore are in the line of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and all the other prophets, including Moses and Jesus,” said panelist Imam Mustafa El-Amin, leader of the Newark-based Masjid Ibrahim, an Islamic teaching and development center. El-Amin told the Temple Shalom audience that “Islam is based on a book, the Qur’an,” and that education is one of the paramount requirements of the faith, urging followers to read, believe, write, and teach. Ramadan, the holiest time in the Muslim calendar, is a month of education.
“I think that religious intolerance and bias in many cases are due to ignorance and lack of education,” he added.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-Dist. 6), representing parts of Middlesex and Monmouth counties, set the tone for the event, observing that when the signers of the Constitution decided the United States would not have an established religion and there would be separation of church and state, these were radical ideas. And, he added, “They are still difficult concepts for some to accept.”
But, he emphasized, they are central to the core of the American system, and it is vital that all citizens recognize and accept this as true. “I believe education is the key,” said Pallone.
Filling out the panel, Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the Newark-based American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, called for a change in laws and policies that deny voting rights to people who are in prison or who have been in the past.
“Times have changed, and it’s high time we recognize that no one should lose the right to vote because of a criminal conviction,” she said. “Currently, there are nearly 100,000 people in New Jersey who cannot vote because they are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. We are all much more than the worst thing we have done in our life.”
Prison inmates still count as human beings, Houenou said, and are not denied their other rights, such as life, safety, food, shelter, health care, and even some level of education and entertainment. “In a true democracy, everyone should have — and never lose — the right to vote.”