Sunday, December 7, 2014

Racism isn't Dead

I have been befuddled by the vehemence with which my White friends and family deny that racism had nothing to do with Eric Chandler's, Michael Brown's, or Trayvon Martin's deaths (among many others). It is unfathomable to me to disbelieve the hundreds of thousands of protestors who speak to experiences of prejudice and racism in America.

And then I figured it out...

At least some of it.

I don't claim to have The Answer, but I realized as I read the responses to the lack of charges in Eric Chandler's death, that many of my White friends and family think that racism goes like this:

1) George Zimmerman hates Blacks and went out "hunting" for a Black to kill... if this isn't the truth, then it isn't racism.

2) Officer Darren Wilson becomes a police officer because he thinks all Blacks deserve arrest and punishment... or even just all "those" Blacks... if this isn't how it happened, it's not racism.

3) Officer Daniel Pantaleo saw Eric Chandler's resisting of arrest as an opportunity to kill off one more Black man... and if this can't be proven, it's not racism.

But that's just wrong. Sure, there are those evil people out there who truly hate all Black people. And there's no doubt that those people are racists. And yes, there are racist Black people who hate all White people. And there are racists of every race and every culture.

But that's not the face of racism I have seen in these situations and in my life. The face of racism is couched in our expectations and the assumptions that follow.

For example, a Black man is viewed as "threatening" by our society. Therefore, a Black man resisting arrest (clearly a wrong thing to do) is perceived as a bigger danger than a White man resisting arrest (just as wrong). It's not that the arresting officer was out to "get" a Black man, it's that the officer's sense of fear is heightened by the assumption that a Black man is inherently more dangerous than a White man doing the same behaviors. This does not point a finger at that arresting officer, but at the society that has created the assumption that Black men are dangerous.

Black people are assumed to be "poor," so when my affluent Black twenty-something daughter drives her very nice car, she is stopped by police for DWB (Driving While Black). This has happened to her many times. If a young White man had been walking in Trayvon's neighborhood with a hoodie on, it's likely he would've been assumed to belong in the upper-middle-class neighborhood, not followed, not murdered. It's not that George Zimmerman was out to "get" a young Black man, it's that he was afraid and assumed a Black man didn't belong in his neighborhood.

A particularly hateful assumption that I have found in my years as an elementary teacher in two states and four districts is that Black boys need more discipline than White boys. And of course, the general assumption that boys need more discipline than girls is in effect, too. What that means is that Black boys get disciplined more strictly and harshly than Black girls, White boys, and White girls. In other words, a Black boy is taught that he is more "wrong" than everyone else. And even more importantly, the Black girls, White boys, and White girls are all taught that Black boys are naughtier (more threatening) than anyone else!

I've even seen and heard about charter schools that are based on the idea that "those kids" (typically kids of color and of poverty) need more discipline and a more rigid curriculum. Entire schools based on an erroneous image of Blackness and poverty as "more wrong."

Another opinion I hear that I disagree with vehemently is, "I'm color-blind" or "The world would be better off if it were color-blind." Perhaps the second one is true if indeed the world could be entirely color-blind, but that's not the truth now. The truth now is that the experiences of a White person from birth to death are quite different from the experiences of a Black person from birth to death. The above assumptions, coupled with overt racism (My daughter repeatedly being told to "get her N* a** off our sidewalk" of a neighbor is just one example.), provide a completely different world-experience for those kids of color who walk into our classrooms, stores, churches, etc. If you do not believe this, ask people of color what their experiences are!!! We cannot fail to know these different world-experiences and expect to treat children of color "the same as anyone." Instead, we must work to include these children, to engage these children, to teach these children from an understanding of their experiences.

Racism isn't only about being or not-being a racist (meaning a person who actively hates another group). It is about being aware of the disadvantages given by society, history, and life circumstances to a group of people and actively working against those disadvantages... if you want to be a non-racist.