School Talk

We need to Listen. Stand Up. Engage.

My heart hurt while I listened to Eric Garner’s widow speak last night. She said that her husband of 27 years should be here enjoying Thanksgiving and Christmas with his children and grandchildren. She is right.

As a middle aged white woman, I know that some don’t think I should even weigh in on a race related topic like this. What do I know? Who am I?

Well. I’m someone who cares. I’m someone willing to have the uncomfortable conversations needed to be part of the solution. I’m an education advocate who believes that, without a doubt, we’d be in a better place these past few weeks if our educational system actually embodied the absolute truth that “all men are created equal.” I see my voice as one of many that can chip away at this giant problem of educational inequity, just one of many layers of the pain and injustice that so many of our fellow Americans are feeling today and everyday.

When we watch those commercials with gut wrenching images of starving children in Africa, our minds protect us from accepting that “those babies” are like our babies. There’s a cognitive disconnect that allows us to convince ourselves that those babies covered in flies with distended bellies are somehow different or an “other.” Hard to feel guilty if they aren’t human like us, right?

I’m convinced many white Americans do the same thing when they watch coverage of events like Ferguson and now NYC, with the recent decision by the grand jury not to indict the police officer whose use of a chokehold ultimately killed Eric Garner. Watching cars flipped over and buildings burned (as happened in Ferguson) conveniently plays right into our natural tendency to tell ourselves that somehow, some way, the outcome was deserved and the community has brought “these problems” on itself.  Because if that’s true, everything is just easier. Everything makes sense. Everything is someone else’s problem. Everything allows us to stay tucked inside our comfort zone.

Eric Garner, a husband and father of six, should be alive. Period. We, and by we I mean white Americans, have to stop finding a way to convince ourselves that breaking the law or even resisting arrest is an acceptable reason to die.  I do believe that Mr. Garner and Mike Brown should have complied with police and I do not for a minute believe that Officer Pantaleo or Officer Wilson set out to kill anyone. However, just as many sit in prison right today for involuntary manslaughter, we know that lack of intent does not automatically exonerate. It certainly shouldn’t automatically take away the opportunity for a jury trial, even if the defendant happens to be a police officer.
My mother used to visit a woman in prison. She had been a truck driver and had fallen asleep behind the wheel, crossed the median, crashed into oncoming traffic and killed someone. She didn’t mean to do it.

She wasn’t just put on trial. She went to jail.

My friend’s cousin was driving home after having had too much to drink. He wasn’t stumbling down drunk but his blood alcohol content was above the legal limit. He hit and killed someone. He didn’t mean to do it.

He wasn’t just put on trial. He went to jail.

Many blacks, including Cory Booker, Benjamin Carson, and Barack Obama report knowing firsthand what it’s like to be racially profiled, suspected of something solely because of their skin color. The truth is,  I can’t imagine being stopped by police for no reason. Not only has it never happened to me, but the majority of times I’ve been pulled over with cause (speeding, illegal turn), I’ve been given a warning and sent on my way. I’m a white woman. A mom, in a minivan.

Why do I deserve the benefit of the doubt and others don’t?

Some of my favorite, smartest, most sensitive students would probably scare many of the wonderful people in my life. Why, you ask? Because the students to whom I refer are big, black boys. They love to wear their hoodies and they often wear their pants low. (Too low in my view.) I adore these boys. They’ve played with my kids, been in my home, and bawled their eyes out on their high school graduation day because a special time has come to an end. Yet, if they were to walk as a group, or even alone, onto the little league fields in my community, my guess is that they’d likely instill a level of discomfort in many. Why is that if my little league friends and acquaintances are good people?

I’d argue that it’s because our society is too segregated. Our schools are too segregated. Our places of worship are too segregated. The reality is, it’s easy to fear and judge that which we don’t know. And sadly, we don’t know each other.

I’m one of the lucky ones. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of very diversified school communities. Not only have I worked in them but my children attend a school that is designed to be diverse. It’s a regional school that combines two suburban and two urban communities, where race and social class are all over the map and yet, perhaps to the surprise of many, it works. Despite living in a predominantly white community and playing on predominantly white sports teams, my three sons spend 8 hours a day with children of all races and all socioeconomic backgrounds. For them, skin color is meaningless. They don’t even notice it. Their comfort level around people of color sets an example for us adults; if only WE could be so non-judgemental, so at ease, so color blind.

Perception is everything. We cannot pretend it isn’t. Conservatives scream from the rooftops about their perception that there is a liberal media bias. They believe they deserve to be heard. And they do.

Parents organize, march, and rally because they believe their children are literally trapped in failing schools. They believe they deserve to be heard. And they do.

Well, blacks of all ages are screaming from the rooftops, literally, about their perception that they are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. It is high time that we, as a nation and as those watching from afar, start to listen. And listen well. Will they be right that racial prejudice plays a role in every case? Likely not. However, don’t they deserve to be heard?  Common sense and life experience tells me that in more than a few cases, they will be right.  We can hate and even condemn the looting and vandalism but still listen. We can believe that Officer Wilson may have acted in self defense, and still listen. We can be the wives, sisters, and mothers of police officers, and still listen.  

I’m asking others like me to come out of your comfort zone and to be willing to engage. If we believe that “all men are created equal,” we need to have the courage to engage.  What would we do if our children were treated unfairly under the law? How would we feel if our son or father or brother were killed and we couldn’t even get the closure brought by a trial?

I’ll hope you’ll do your part and chip away at this difficult problem with me.

What do you think?

One thought on “We need to Listen. Stand Up. Engage.

  1. Well said! I can only hope that some good can come from these recent tragedies and it will come in the form of intelligent discourse, which will only happen when a majority of white people wake up to the fact that we have a problem and that this problem impacts us all. Thank you for posting!

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