Our Children and Race
This post was written prior to the inexplicable decision of the New York grand jury in the Eric Garner case. That event gives more force to the issues expressed below.
Leo Casey replies again today to Deborah Meier
The events in Ferguson—and in Cleveland—have been on my mind as well. The protests against the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American teenager, Michael Brown, have captured the national imagination over the last week. Less attention has been paid to another tragedy that has played out in recent days, when Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed a 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing by himself with a BB gun. Unlike Brown's death, Rice's death was captured on a surveillance tape, so there can be no dispute about what actually happened. A police car bursts unto the scene and comes to an abrupt stop right next to Rice. In a matter of a second or two at most, the car door flies open, Rice is immediately shot, and he falls to the ground mortally wounded. Neither the police officer who shot Rice nor his partner provide first aid to the fallen 12-year-old.
It is impossible for me to make sense of these two tragic deaths outside of the American prism of race. I can't read Darren Wilson's dehumanizing description of Michael Brown before the Ferguson grand jury, with its use of classic racist tropes of African-Americans as violent brutes, more animal than human, and not conclude that this way of looking at an unarmed black teenager made it all too easy to shoot him no less than seven times, with a final kill shot to the head as he fell. I couldn't watch the slaying of Tamir Rice, with its hair-trigger shooting of a 12-year-old before he could even figure out what was happening to him and not recall the powerful research of Phillip Goff on how racial dehumanization denies African-American boys "the innocence" of childhood, treating them as if they were much older—more worldly, more responsible, and more potentially threatening—than they actually are. I can't escape this bitter truth: Neither Michael Brown nor Tamir Rice would be dead today if they had been white.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Deb, let me be clear that I have a deep personal investment in this issue, as both a parent and a teacher. For nearly two decades, I have been the father of three African-American girls, from the days of their infancy to young adulthood in college and beyond. They mean everything in this world to me. As they have grown, my wife and I have worried all the worries of parents and struggled to find the balance between protecting them from harm and having them learn to stand on their own two feet. But our worries have had a particular edge to them: The world could be hostile and treacherous for our daughters in ways that derived entirely from how they were perceived through the American prism of race. We lived with fears for our children that parents of white children never faced, such as fears of what could happen to them at the hands of the police whom our society entrusts with our safety. Parents of African-American boys live with even greater fears.
Before I was a parent, I was a teacher of black and brown students who shared the complexion of my daughters and were perceived through the American prism of race in the very same ways. I taught them American Politics and Civics, American History, and African-American Studies. I struggled with how to prepare my students for the inevitable street encounters with the police in ways that would leave them safe and sound, while still arming them with the dignity and power of their birthright as free men and women in a democracy—their rights as citizens to life, liberty, and property, to due process of law, to be secure in their person and property, and to engage in free expression and association. It was no simple or easy undertaking to teach students of color both how to survive the actual condition of their rights in a city that would become known for massive "stop and frisk" directed at young people of color and how to struggle to achieve their rights as they should be. Anyone who claims otherwise never tried to do it.
Like many teachers, Deb, I found myself caring deeply for my students and thinking of them as "my kids." And in doing so, I first learned the challenges that every American parent of black and brown children confronts.
One incident was particularly instructive. Year after year, I enrolled my inner-city students in a national civics competition in which they regularly bested classes from New York City's and New York state's most elite schools. One year, as we competed at the state competition in Albany, we found ourselves staying in the same hotel as students from a wealthy, white Long Island district. After the competition was over, I learned that while in the hotel my students had been harassed and threatened by students from the Long Island school, who stalked the girls, even physically forcing their way into their rooms, and attempted to provoke a physical confrontation with the boys, calling them "pussies."
Outraged that this would happen at a competition where students debated the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I wrote a strong letter of protest to the school and to the organizers of the competition. I was told that the Long Island school needed to know which of their students had been involved, and I provided detailed descriptions from my students. The Long Island school then replied that the students in question denied their actions and chose to leave the matter there, as if my students had made up these stories out of whole cloth. The school did not even require them to apologize for what they had done. My students were left with a sense of wrongs never righted: Years later, I came across one student describing these events in a publication, with her feelings still as raw as if the competition had happened the day before.
I learned an important lesson from that experience: I could not protect my students from the racism they would encounter. It feels odd to write that so plainly, because I was never so intellectually naïve as to think I could. What I had done went deeper than an intellectual analysis: The instinct to protect one's children and one's students runs very deep in the parent and in the teacher, and the first impulse when they are attacked is to leap to their defense. But my defense had not yielded even an insincere apology, and the experience had left my students feeling disempowered. In subsequent years, I would take a new tack, consciously preparing my students for encounters with students from wealthy, all-white schools. I would talk about what had happened, how racism and sexism had been used as weapons of intimidation and silencing, and what would be appropriate responses when confronted with similar tactics. I framed the issue in terms of keeping our "eyes on the prize."
There was an important education for my students in this preparation. In ways that may seem counterintuitive to those with only a passing familiarity with the realities of inner-city neighborhoods, many of my students were quite "sheltered." Some of this was by design, as their parents sought to protect them from the violence and predation of the streets by insisting that they be either in school, in church, or at home, and that they travel as quickly as possible from one to the other. Some of it was the effect of the intense segregation of New York City: the only white people many of my students had ever known were teachers. When they graduated high school and went to one of the campuses of SUNY, they experienced the extraordinary culture shock of being a small racial minority, and of often coming across white students who were culturally ignorant and worse. It was important to prepare them for these trials.
I can't look at the pictures of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice without seeing reflections of the faces of my own children and my own students. We must arm our children and our students with the weapons they will need for their survival in a culture that so often assaults the dignity and denies the humanity of people of color. But we can't forget that that can never be all that we do: The freedom struggle that demands full dignity and humanity must be fought anew by each generation. I am reminded of the words of the civil rights leader Ella Baker, memorialized in a Sweet Honey in the Rock song: "Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest." Black lives must matter. Nothing less is acceptable.
I believe that it is impossible to understand the prospects and the challenges of democracy in our schools and in our society, Deb, without examining the place of the American prism of race in both. Might we not spend some time, in the next few weeks, in just such an examination?
Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City's teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers.