With issues of race arise I always wonder, “should I talk about it?”. Typically, my willingness to talk about it is less than other people’s willingness to talk, and is rarely matched by people’s ability to objectively listen.
When I arrived back from honeymoon to the images of life in #Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown I was so unaware of American Politics that I needed to get caught up, and the highly polarized media reports and shifting stories made that task difficult. As the facebook/twitter/etc. conversation steered away from this one incident and towards the larger topic of race in America, and people began connecting what happened to incidents in their life. Somewhere between reading this post about privilege and watching John Stewart’s coverage of Fox news’s coverage it got stuck in my head that I need to write something about this incident, and what it means for our country. But it was hard to figure it out, one, because of the confusing nature of the incident, but mostly because of the role of race in America.
Race is to defined as differing sub-species of people, but in America, race usually refers to our social system. From before the country there was a need to associate citizenship, with race, with being White specifically. Owning land, and wealth was important, as was being male, but being white was always really important for early Americans. More important, were our national ideals of freedom and liberty, and so the flawed ideas about race led to a number of social movements to direct our country out of this flawed way of thinking. Fast forward to the legal mandates that followed the civil rights movement, and you’ll notice a country rapidly distancing itself from it’s past.
Then something happened. I’m not sure what it was, but the achievement gap stopped shrinking, the number of high school graduates flattened out, and a lot of the progress stopped progressing. Perhaps it is related, but a great deal of young black males began getting incarcerated perhaps having to do with overly aggressive sentencing rules. It appeared, and still does, that the nation has started regressing towards the pre-civil-rights-era social norms. The story of the black person on the rise, living the Cosby-esque middle class family life, never really disappeared. But, it does have to compete in the nation’s eye with the black person as a threat. The fact that these two story lines are competing at all conjures up a short-sighted America, wrestling between the promise of social change promised half a century ago, and the troubling, deep-seated, racial beliefs impressed on the country from the early colonial days.
Mike Brown’s few remaining moments tell the story of this struggle for America. Mike Brown was a recent high school graduate, headed to college, and perhaps a successful life as his family expected of him down the road. Certainly America wants this story to happen. This is the kind of story that I want to help play out, as we all would. At the same time, there is the competing story about Mike Brown, the 18 year old who, to the officer’s knowledge, was walking in the middle of the street in defiance of the town’s laws. The idea here is that young black teens could head down a road towards crime, perhaps violent, and need to be punished immediately and severly. This is a story that I also see as an educator and that troubles me. The “avoiding crime” story of telling a student what not to do, and punishing them accordingly doesn’t coincide with any kind of education model for people. People get motivated about where they are headed, not where they shouldn’t go. Surely both stories need to get taken into consideration when talking to students, but we seem to be emphasizing the latter and are thus putting the former in jeopardy.
We’re conflicted about whether our nation wants to nurture our young black males in our schools, or punish them in our prisons. Our politicians who emphasize the allure of lower crime rates but not school equity are perhaps why so many black students in certain neighborhoods get stopped by the cops, but not nearly enough of them graduate high school. This problem, then, is not just for people in these neighborhoods to consider, but for every member of the country who is voting. When we vote on our anti-crime bills, or our state’s prison-building bond initiatives, we’re deciding what we as a country should emphasize. Perhaps, if Ferguson didn’t have so much money to spent on surplus army equipment, they would have had to put more effort into maintaining better community relations. Perhaps if that money was spent on programs to engage teenagers, Mike Brown would have had something better to do. If we don’t like what our public institutions are doing, it is up to us to change them.
The emphasis on cracking down on teen crime also implies that such harsh treatment will be effective. When we impose a consequence on a kid before we have a conversation with them, especially when that consequence is meant to “teach them a lesson”, what are we really teaching them? As an educator, I put a lot of work into planning lessons, and the best ones usually don’t result in kids learning stuff. When people choose to impose harsh punishments on kids to “teach them a lesson” it is quite an insult to the word lesson. Swerving your police car and waving a gun at someone might not teach them a lesson, or at least not whatever lesson that you are intending to teach. If they are supposed to be thinking about how they need to respect traffic rules, that might not be what is understood, what might be understood is that you don’t value them as a person, and they should react out of fear and anger. I was at a school once where a 6th grader was getting arrested. Parading middle-schoolers through their class and their school in handcuffs might not be teaching them to avoid crime, it might just be teaching them to not trust their teachers and that they can’t feel safe at school.
Ultimately, it is up to us to choose which narrative of young black males we want to emphasize. If officer Wilson chose to emphasize how important and valuable it would be to have a 6’4″ black male attending college in a couple months he may have thought that it isn’t worth shooting all 6 of those bullets, maybe he could have not used any weapon at all, and perhaps have talked to him about why he was in street. If Brown was the starting left end of the local football team, would he be approached the same way? Would he have a different emphasis if he was stopping a police officer’s son? Mike Brown could have been example to the community of what happens if you do everything right, but instead the officer decided that the best example to make of him would be that of a corpse, perhaps so his friends could “learn the lesson.”
The sad part of this incident to me isn’t necessarily the treatment of the protestors (which is a whole other conversation), but the fact that the Mike Brown, the potential criminal, was deemed more important Mike Brown, the potential college student. We’re setting dangerous precedent by saying the value of a young Black person’s life is measured by how threatened they make another person feel, and a Mike Brown court case seems like it will offer more support for this idea. This makes a statement about the worth of Black people that seems to echo the “punishment without trial“, or even the 3/5ths clause in the constitution, and is evidence of a continuing slide backwards. It might be a scary time for U.S. race relations. Let’s hope it’s scary enough that we all decide to move forward. Deciding what to emphasize, and what not to emphasize, is an easy first step.