Thoughts on Ferguson

I’ve been hit with a lot of emotions today and I feel compelled to share a few thoughts on my experience and my take on the events in #Ferguson today. This seems like an appropriate time to share something that I’ve realized and grappled with through my time in the classroom: I am racist.

I say this admittedly partially for shock value, but I’ll try to clarify. I acknowledge that I am racist not because I think I have any explicit biases, opinions, or hatred for people of other races, but because my inaction and inability to acknowledge the impact of cultural and racial oppression makes me complicit in the system of racism in America.

Racism in America today is not often an active expression or an active decision to hate. Rather, it is a passive, cumulative cultural bias that becomes visible primarily from a wide view. It is easy to consider a specific event and not see the way that culture and past experience plays a role. This current form of racism is more dangerous and insidious than the forms of the past mostly because it is so much easier not to recognize or acknowledge.

I am racist every time I have less patience with a black boy in my classes than a white boy in a different class that is actually exhibiting the same behavior (this has happened before). I am racist every time I let thoughts of foreign students being less intelligent than other students creep into my head because of the struggle they have in communicating clearly in English as their second language (this happens to me too much...) I am racist every time that I fail to acknowledge or try to appreciate the authentic experiences and perspectives that my students from different communities bring to the classroom (I miss these opportunities daily).

As an educator, I’ve been forced to reckon with and move forward from this. My experience is not unique. Get any educator to really be honest with you about their experience, and chances are they’ll admit to having similar experiences. What gives me hope through all of this is that once I acknowledge my (unintentional and passive) part in perpetuating the effects of racism, I can work to help fix it. I feel no shame in writing this because I’ve come to realize that we can’t help but be influenced by the common cultural experience of our country and the people around us. Racism and other forms of intolerance are to some degree, unavoidable. However, it is only remains a problem when we fail to acknowledge that it is present. A few stories and quotes have been hard for me to ignore today.

On Sunday, Rudy Guliani was debating on Meet The Press and dropped this bombshell as he was speaking to his black co-participant: "White police officers wouldn't be there if you weren't killing each other.".

The article linked from the quote analyzes the context of this statement quite well. Dyson responds by arguing that this is a “false equivalency” (a similarly high percentage of white murders happen by white people, he argues). Guliani’s comment is indicative of a potentially harmful underlying assumption, namely, that black citizens have failed to foster or maintain “civilized” structure in their communities because of either a lack of leadership, poverty of their own creation, or worse yet, an inherent inferiority. This may seem like a stretch, but I’ve heard many people before who latch onto this line of thinking as a means to rationalize other decisions and opinions regarding race and money in America.

The second thing that I can’t stop thinking about is an audio teaser I heard on the radio of a forthcoming ABC interview exlusive between George Stephanopolous and Darren Wilson. In the clip I heard today, Wilson replied that he did not believe he could have done anything differently in the situation to prevent the loss of life. That just is shocking to me. He couldn’t have done anything differently? As an educator, I am constantly seeing missed opportunities and things that I could have done better in interactions with students, particularly when it comes to race. Every time a situation escalates, I can point to some place where I could have taken a step back or to the side to de-escalate. A place where I could have anticipated how a student might react to something I was about to say. A place where I could have demonstrated more empathy or understanding about what factors were contributing to this behavior.

I can’t believe that as a professional, Officer Wilson can’t acknowledge that things could have possibly ended differently. To me this is anything from a demonstration of professional incompetence to evidence of a latent and deep-seated rationalization. This is the problem. I have no idea what happened that day in Ferguson, and I doubt any of us ever will. At some point, that’s not the issue any more. The issue is this:

Arne Duncan, our current Secretary of Education, gets it. Why doesn’t Officer Wilson? We must confront the affects of racism in America. There’s no hope of finding equity for students until we do.

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