The Frightened Tennis Shoes of Black Kids

Dear Mom,

You were here in Seattle when the grand jury decided not to press charges against Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. Isabella mentioned that you two saw protestors when you were downtown. What was that like? By the time the grand jury made it’s decision in the Eric Garner case you had gone back home.   We have had more protests here, and heard from friends who attended a youth-led protest this past weekend. Have there been any protests in Buffalo?

I read an interesting article in the Seattle Times last Saturday that struck a chord. In it, police officers were quoted as saying “Everyone is just demonizing the police” and went on to say that many “feel demoralized, misunderstood and ‘all alone.’ “ While politicians, protestors, and even the President are calling loudly for change, according to Patrick Lynch, president of the NYPD police union, officers “feel like they are being thrown under the bus.”

I get the protests. I empathize with the need to get out and vent your frustration. I think some of it will in fact do some good. But how much time and energy can we spend trying to convince one another that racism exists? It does. Of course it does. Anyone who suggests that police departments are not filled with policemen and women who sometimes act out of racist beliefs is just talking from a position of privilege and power.

While I understand the need to protest, I also understand the defensiveness coming from the police officers quoted in that article I read. As a public school teacher, I can empathize with other public servants who feel the weight of having to correct right now the collective injustice of a privileged society that we live. I think that we have both felt the weight of being blamed for the incredible harm perpetuated by a small percentage of the bad apples in our profession.

We have talked at length about the achievement gap that exists in our national public schools system around race. (There are also huge disparities that exist in public schools for those who identify or are even suspected of being LGBT, or for those who are poor, and for those who need special education services—but those are conversations for a different day.)

Teachers are consistently blamed for not doing enough to address this gap. We are told—by building and district administrators, by college researchers and academics, by pundits and politicians—that we are not doing enough, or not doing the right things, or just not doing anything, to address the inequalities in our system. And they are all right. We are not doing enough. We need to keep trying. We need to figure out a way (as our district says) to work smarter and change our practices and evolve our perspective.

But where is the time? Where are the resources? How can we really be expected to effect meaningful, lasting change when we are only a part of the problem? Patrick reminds me—and again, he’s right (there, I said it baby)—that doesn’t allow me, allow any of us teachers to sit back and say “it’s not all my problem so it’s not my problem at all.”

There are teachers out there—I am fortunate to work with so many of them in my district—who care deeply about social justice, who spend time considering their own internal racist attitudes, and who struggle each and every day to combat the achievement gap. Sadly, it’s just not enough yet. We still are not making enough change. But we do try.

It’s hard to believe that after all we have seen in the past few weeks, months, years and decades that there are police out there who are also trying, but I am sure they are there. Of course their mistakes and shortcomings can lead to much more dire consequences in many ways than mine or my colleagues. If I fail, or the education system fails, the consequences are not as immediately drastic. For police, as we have seen, the consequences can be deadly.

Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who has worked extensively with the Los Angeles Police Department on how they treat minority populations, offered her perspective on NPR’s Morning Edition last week. She spoke about how the overwhelming response she heard when she interviewed over 900 cops over 18 months was that they were scared of black men. According to Rice, “when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

Fear isn’t a justification or an excuse, but Rice believes that the simple admission of those she interviewed hints at a starting point:

“So what I’m saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together. On a single platform of we’re going to solve this by empathizing. We’re going to solve it with compassion and we’re going to solve it with common sense.”

Listening and seeking to understand seems like a possible way forward. We need to find a way to stop yelling at one another, and move beyond protests, beyond the 24-hour news cycle, and beyond the blame and helplessness. It sounds like a tough path, and not especially quick. But it just may make some change.

Love, Christopher