Challenging Goliath: Justin Hudson

By Johnathan Smith 9-24-2010

David and Goliath. Is there any story in the Bible -- within both Christian and non-Christian circles -- that is more well known? Part of its popularity likely stems from its gripping narrative: A young, inexperienced shepherd boy, armed with only a slingshot and the pebbles he collected from a stream, takes on a massive, fear-inducing giant, and against all odds, the boy prevails! I remember reading the story as a child and being struck by David's courage, his ability to stand toe-to-toe with Goliath.

Recently, I had an opportunity to revisit that epic story. This time what struck me about the narrative wasn't the more fantastical elements of the tale -- Goliath's taunts, David's attempts to suit up with King Saul's armor, his exchanges with the giant, or his amazing, awe-inspiring aim -- but David's moral character. David, you may recall, is spurred to action only after seeing all those around him -- his brothers, the entire army, and even King Saul himself, too afraid to take on the threat that Goliath posed. As the Bible tells us, David, shocked by their inaction, incredulously asks: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" In essence he was asking everyone who was cowering in fear, how they could simply stand aside while Goliath smeared the name of their God and their legacy? How could they witness such injustice and oppression and do nothing?

There are modern-day Davids among us. They may not be famous. They may not be profiled on 60 Minutes or grace the covers of People and Us Weekly. But just like David in the Bible, they life lives dictated not by fear, but with moral conviction. And just like that David, they can inspire us to be better, bolder, and more courageous.

One such person is Justin Hudson.

I don't personally know Mr. Hudson. I first learned about him in a recent New York Times article discussing a debate regarding diversity efforts at one of New York City's finest and most elite schools, Hunter College High School (the alma mater of recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan). As the article explains, Hunter uses a single, teacher-written test to decide which students are admitted into the school despite the fact that many within the school's community believe that using only one indicator of academic success results in severely limiting the number of students of color that attend the high school (while the New York City public school system is 70 percent black and Hispanic, Hunter is only 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic). Many members of the faculty have urged the school to use other criteria, such as interviews or portfolios of student work, to assess students' fitness to attend the elite school in order to increase diversity; thus far those efforts have not been successful.

Mr. Hudson, one of the school's few African-American students, decided not to sit in silence, but to use the influence he possessed to address the school's lack of diversity. When he was selected as the student speaker at the school's graduation program, he could have used his moment in the spotlight to celebrate his accomplishments. He could have opined optimistically about the bright future that he and his classmates no doubt have before them (approximately 25 percent of the school's graduates are admitted to Ivy League colleges). But he didn't do any of that. Instead, Mr. Hudson, a young man likely no older than seventeen or eighteen, got up, and in front of his classmates, teachers, administrators, family, friends, and no doubt large hordes of strangers, lambasted Hunter's admissions process. Up on that stage he declared:

If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that. It is certainly not Hunter's fault that socioeconomic factors inhibit the educational opportunities of some children from birth, and in some ways I forgive colleges and universities that are forced to review eighteen year-olds, the end results of a broken system. But, we are talking about eleven-year-olds. Four year-olds. We are deciding children's fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colors. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we're smarter than them.

Imagine how much courage that required. Imagine the thoughts that were running through his mind as he approached the podium and had no idea how the audience would respond. Yet, despite those challenges, he didn't back down. Because I believe that just like David, Mr. Hudson was motivated to do what he did not because it was the popular or easy thing to do, but because, how could he stand there in the face of such inequality and injustice, and simply say nothing?

As schools around the country open their doors to students for another academic year, we should embrace the challenge laid down in Mr. Hudson's speech. The unfortunate reality is that Hunter College High School is the norm, not the exception. In communities around this nation far too many students are denied a quality education simply because of the color of their skin or because they were not born in the right zip code. And as Mr. Hudson powerfully explained in his speech, this inequality in our education system is robbing these young people of fulfilling their God-given potential. "We are playing God, and we are losing."

portrait-johnathan-smithJohnathan Smith is a New York-based lawyer. He also serves as a youth minister at Gethsemane Baptist Church.

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