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Keenan Anderson’s death was a tragedy on many levels

The 31-year-old, who died after being tased by Los Angeles police, was one of America’s few Black male teachers

An education website ran a harrowing headline last November: “Schools can’t afford to lose any more Black male educators.”

This report came to mind when I heard about the tragedy of Keenan Anderson, the cousin of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who died Jan. 3, hours after being repeatedly tasered by Los Angeles police responding to a traffic collision. In addition to the horrific circumstances of his death, there is another, more subtle tragedy: the loss of another Black male teacher. 

There is a compelling memorial for Anderson on the website of Digital Pioneers Academy, a charter school in Washington, D.C., where he was a 10th grade English teacher:

​​Keenan was a deeply committed educator and father of a six-year-old son. He had over eight years of experience as a teacher and leader,” wrote principal Mashea Ashton. “In less than six months at Digital Pioneers Academy, he established strong relationships with scholars and staff. He was beloved by all.”

The statement is also a manifesto, defiant in its assessment of the LAPD and forthright about the grief and anger over Anderson’s death. “Our school community will inevitably ask some really important questions in the days and weeks ahead,” Ashton wrote. “How could the police have de-escalated this situation? How are we going to stop losing our black boys and men to violence? How do we grieve and move forward as a community?”

The answer to that question might be found in Black male mentorship, which is scarce in the classroom and continues to dwindle. The headline in the first paragraph came from the Hechinger Report, which told the story of Preston Thorne, a former Teacher of the Year at Blythewood High School in South Carolina. At the time of his departure in 2017, less than 3% of South Carolina’s teachers were Black males, a number that hasn’t changed in the years since.

My parents, graduates of South Carolina State University, both have teaching degrees, and my mom taught for more than 30 years. She has three biological children, and thousands more through decades in her profession. The best man at my wedding is a second-generation educator. His legacy, and that of his late mother’s, is as ironclad in commitment as it is soft in empathy for children.

Yet only 7% of America’s teachers are Black, and less than 2% are Black men. That alarming statistic was highlighted in an ABC News report last month that noted the frustrations of Black male educators with being seen as disciplinarians and not teachers.

“The Black male teacher shortage will end when we as a country begin to learn how to love Black boys,” Travis Bristol, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley told ABC. “You can’t recruit people or create pathways for people in the profession until we stop suspending and expelling them before they even have an opportunity to enter the profession.”

The challenges that face Black men in education are part of the challenges that face Black men in America. The “fear of the Black superintendent,” which was certainly a dynamic before fear of critical race theory plagued school boards across the country. In November, the first Black superintendent in Berkeley County, South Carolina’s history was ousted just days after a trio of anti-CRT trustees gave the school board a conservative edge. Another Black man resigned as superintendent in Palm Beach County, Florida, in 2021 after the rigors of the job lead to sudden weight loss.

Other deaths, while not as violent as Anderson’s, still hit close to home. In the last month, within 30 minutes of my residence in South Carolina, two Black teachers unexpectedly passed away. Al B. Young, the son of a former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout, died at 47. Latimer Blount’s untimely death at 50 ended a 25-year career in the classroom.

My favorite subject growing up was math, and even now, my wife smirks when I answer a math problem faster than she can type it into a calculator. Over the years, I’ve developed a love for history, specifically, how the past can be both revolutionary and revelatory. It’s no coincidence that historians are some of our best predictors of the future.

I think of Keenan Anderson, and his terror-filled last words: “They’re trying to George Floyd me!” I see the outcomes facing Black men in post-Floyd America, after a supposed national reckoning over race, and as someone who loves history and math, some things just aren’t adding up.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.