Why the Rich Need Racists: Prejudice as Social Control

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HELP WANTED: RACISTS
Anywhere, USA

-Must have an irrational fear and hatred of all things African American.

-Must honestly believe black people get all the breaks, have it easier than whites.

-Must believe black people are naturally inferior to whites, lazy, prone to criminality, less intelligent, etc.

-Must believe racism ended with either (1) the civil rights movement or (2) slavery.

But must hide these beliefs under a thin veneer of civility. For instance:

-must never use the N-word (in public)

-must never beat or kill a black person (unless on the police force)

-must never light a burning cross on a black person’s lawn (and get caught)

-must never tweet or express these views publicly in a way that can be traced back to you.

Enjoyment of rap music, black culture or black sexual partners optional. Fox News viewership preferred.

Bonus pay if racism is unrecognized by the applicant.

No experience necessary. Apply within.”

If you saw an advertisement like the above posted in your local shop window, it really wouldn’t be so surprising. Would it?

Well maybe because of it’s bluntness. But it’s not really that different from campaign fliers for Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump vowing to “Make America Great Again!”

Throughout it’s history, when exactly was America great for black and brown people who have been denied equal rights? When was it great for women or LGBTs or a host of other non-cis/non-male/non-white people?

A pledge to make America great again is just a pledge to make America white again – or at least to propel male whiteness back to the center of normativity.

(In fact, much of what I’m going to say about racism here could also be said of all kinds of prejudice. But for the interest of clarity, I’ll try to contain myself to focusing on racism, though I acknowledge the high degree of intersectionality of the phenomena.)

Yep. A lot of folks are riled up because the flower of white male privilege is wilting, and they think too many are suggesting we let it die.

What can they do? White people’s only remaining claim on supremacy is based on a fleeting numerical majority that is fast coming to an end. Soon they’ll be outnumbered.

They’re so mad about even an incremental loss of white power, they’re willing to blind themselves to obvious injustices against people of color.

For instance, black people are killed by the police at twice the rate of white people. Unarmed black people are killed at five times the rate. Yet somehow it’s black folk’s own doggone fault.

What if he has a legal weapon, but it’s not anywhere in use? HIS FAULT.

What if he has no weapon? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s just a child? HIS FAULT.

What if it’s a woman mysteriously found hanged in her prison cell with no possible motive for suicide? HER FAULT.

What if he’s screaming in pain from an injury sustained in the police encounter? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s complaining on video that police are choking him and he dies as a result of those injuries? HIS FAULT.

I mean come on, people! How does a brotha’ got to die before white folks will admit to some culpability by police?
And that’s just one type of example. Consider: There are more black people in prison today than were slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. Black people get harsher prison sentences than whites for the exact same crimes. Black people are segregated into poor communities with underfunded schools. People with black-sounding names are less likely to get a job than white counterparts with the same experience.

And on-and-on-and-on.

Yet you’ll find white apologists everywhere who will see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of the racial caste system under which their black brothers and sisters are forced to live. They refuse to acknowledge it, get angry when you bring it up and will actively support it at the polls.

That’s racism, people.

It’s 2016. Legal slavery ended more than 150 years ago in this country. The civil rights movement ended more than 60 years ago. Why do we still have systematic racism baked into the fabric of America?

In 1963, the African American writer James Baldwin asked the same question. He said:

“The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people, and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger who they’ve maligned for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have the n****r in the first place. I am not a n****r. I am a man. But if you think I’m a n****r, it means you need it… You, the white people, invented him, and you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

Why do white people need racism?

Today we have an answer. The short version would be this: because it’s useful.

It serves a function in society.

When people conceptualize each other into these highly dubious and unjustifiable categories of black and white, it provides a valuable service to the status quo. In fact, we couldn’t have the status quo without it.

When historians look back at the ancient Spartan empire of 900 -192 BC, there is little confusion why their society was so highly militarized. Few historians wonder why such a small population organized themselves into a military state. They needed to control the vast network of slaves dispersed throughout their community. The conquerors were massively outnumbered by the conquered so they resorted to militarized fear to keep their social structure intact. They weren’t afraid of invaders from without. They were afraid of invaders from within.

Likewise, if humanity survives our current moment in time, historians of the future will undoubtedly be in agreement about the reasons for American racism. It’s the same reason found in ancient Sparta. We need it to keep our society together.
In America today, the top one percent own more than the bottom 90 percent. The richest 85 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the country. And it’s only getting worse.

A country with such vast wealth inequality cannot survive without a scapegoat – black people. The majority of the population would not let the top one percent gorge themselves on our riches unless they had distracted us with something.

Don’t pay any attention to the Wall Street bailout. Look at those welfare queens, which is code for black people sucking away our wealth.

Don’t pay attention to the overt militarization of the police force. Look at those violent black criminals they have to deal with by pulling their service pistols and shooting them into submission.

Don’t pay attention to the inequitable distribution of education funding to your public schools. Look at how these black kids don’t pull up their pants, and if they manage to graduate, they’re given undeserved preference over more qualified white people through affirmative action.

Think about it. Why do we have a sizable black population in the first place?

Slavery. The very presence of a substantial black population is attributable to market forces. We needed a cheap workforce for our agricultural industry – especially tobacco and cotton. It was a labor intensive process and the only way to make a substantial profit at it was immoral thrift. And you can’t get much cheaper than forced, generational servitude.

Why weren’t black people treated equally after the Civil War?

We still needed that cheap workforce. The wealth of our nation depended on it. We needed legal ways to keep them subjugated. We needed to keep them on the farm or in prison so the economic engine of agriculture could continue unabated. If they all had the right to vote or could protest their conditions, that would hurt the bottom line. They’d gain freedom, but we’d lose money. Not gonna’ happen.

Why didn’t equality come after the civil rights movement?

Agricultural mechanization had decreased the need for cheap labor, but having an underclass is profitable for whoever can take advantage of them. The invisible hand of the market will preserve human subjugation for as long as it can and as long as it turns a profit.

Moreover, throughout the entire history of this country, the rich have needed something to keep white labor in check, too. Fair wages, overtime pay, child labor laws, vacation pay, workplace safety – all of these rights had to be fought for tooth and nail – usually by the most demonized of social institutions, the labor unions. We needed something to stop the rising tide of economic fairness. Giving white workers someone to kick around made them more satisfied with their own lot in life and less willing to fight for a larger share of the pie.

It went something like this: You may have to work in the factory all day, but at least you aren’t one of THEM. You might be bone tired while the bosses get rich off of your labor, but at least you can feel proud of your race.

What an amazing swindle! The rich have actually convinced many hard-working white people to feel proud of the pigmentation of their skin! No. Not their cultural heritage. Not the struggle of their moms and dads, their ties to a homeland across the sea, their religion or ethnicity. No. The color of their skins!

If intelligent aliens ever crossed light years of space and time to investigate the intellect of human beings, that one fact would have them rushing back home shaking their tentacles and multiple heads in disbelief!

Just look at how racism has been used to justify the actions of the wealthy throughout history!

Europeans discover a New World in 1492 full of riches to plunder and exploit. But how do you justify doing that when it’s already populated? How can you do that morally? After all, doesn’t our God command we love our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t murder and theft a… gulp… sin?

Well obviously the indigenous peoples don’t count. They’re not like us. They’re not Christians. They’re heathens.

But wait a minute! The church is forcing them to adopt our religion. This justification has a sell-by date. It won’t last long enough for us to suck every drop of wealth out of the Americas.

So we came up with a new way to dehumanize people – racism. It’s not just that they’re heathens. They’re subhuman, too. FWEW! Problem solved.

Then comes 1776. The American colonies revolt and write up some high minded language about all men being equal. If we actually believed that, it would necessitate a new social order. Much easier to find new justifications for the old one.

Well we already agreed the Native Americans are naturally inferior. These African slaves we stole are likewise beneath our high ideals. The same with women. And the poor. And immigrants. And homosexuals. And whoever else we need to subjugate. They just don’t count.

When idealism and capitalism have come into conflict, the rich have invariably chosen capitalism. And when the rest of us choose racism, prejudice, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, we’re doing them a favor. We’re backing up their interests.

Stop being such chumps, white people!

A racist is invariably a traitor to his own class. A sexist is a sycophant to the smart set. A xenophobe is a diversion to the hands buried in your pocket robbing you blind.
Your interests have much more in common with all those people you’ve been taught to hate. You could be coming together in common cause with all those black and brown people. You could be rising up and demanding your due. We could join together and demand a fair shake, an equitable piece of our gross national product.

But instead we are content to protect an ever shrinking share of our national wealth if we can just keep that ridiculous and childish pride in our lack of melanin.

During the same interview, Baldwin was asked if he thought there was any hope America would change it’s ways. He said:

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”

I agree.

It’s all up to us, white people.

Racism doesn’t serve us. It subjugates us just like it does everyone else.

They throw us a bone and we jealously guard it like its a prime cut of steak.

When are we going to wake up? When are we going to put away hate and choose love?

When are we going to join our brothers and sisters in the struggle and demand what’s ours?

The rich may need racists, but we don’t.

Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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As a public school teacher, few things give me as much anxiety as getting my student rosters for the first time.

I look over the list of names for my incoming children and cringe.

How do I pronounce that?

Every year it never fails – there’s always at least four or five names I’ve never seen before – or at least never spelled quite like THAT!

As a white teacher in a district with a majority of black students but very few black teachers, there’s not really many people to turn to for guidance.

And if I don’t figure it out soon, I’ll be making a pretty terrible first impression. No one likes to have their name butchered, especially children, especially if an adult is doing it, especially if that adult is white.

The only solution I’ve found is to soldier on with the first day’s attendance and just try my best:

Me: Shah-NEE-Qwa?

Child: Shah-NAY-Qwa.

Me: JAY-Marcus?

Child: JAH-Marcus.

It’s uncomfortable, but I get through it and eventually learn.

However, one thing I’ve stopped doing is going to other white people for help. That’s a recipe for disaster.

It almost always turns into an exercise in subtle racism and white supremacy. No matter who the person is, no matter how kind, caring or empathetic, the reaction to unique black names is most often derision.

White people snicker and use the situation as the impetus for telling stories about other black names that they thought were even more outrageous.

It’s not that we’re trying to be hateful. I don’t think we even recognize it as racist, but it is.

We use the situation as an opportunity for bonding. THOSE people who are not like you and me – THEY name their children things like THIS! Not like you and me who name our children more respectably.

Make no mistake. This is racist behavior. We are emphasizing the otherness of an entire group of people to put ourselves over and above them.

It’s bigoted, discriminatory, prejudicial and just plain dumb.

What’s wrong with black names anyway? What about them is so unacceptable?

We act as if only European and Anglicized names are reasonable. But I don’t have to go far down my rosters to find white kids with names like Braelyn, Declyn, Jaydon, Jaxon, Gunner or Hunter. I’ve never heard white folks yucking it up over those names.

I can’t imagine why white people even expect people of color to have the same sorts of names as we do. When you pick the label by which your child will be known, you often resort to a shared cultural history. My great-great-grandfather was David, so I’ll honor his memory by calling my firstborn son the same. Jennifer is a name that’s been in my family for generations so I’ll reconnect with that history by calling my daughter by the same name.

Few black people in America share this same culture with white people. If a black man’s great-great-grandfather’s name was David, that might not be the name he was born with – it may have been chosen for him – forced upon him – by his slave master. It should be obvious why African Americans may be uncomfortable reconnecting with that history.

Many modern black names are, in fact, an attempt to reconnect with the history that was stolen from them. Names like Ashanti, Imani and Kenya have African origins. Others are religious. Names like Aaliyah, Tanisha and Aisha are traditionally Muslim. Some come from other languages such as Monique, Chantal, and Andre come from French. I can’t understand why any of that is seen as worthy of ridicule.

Still other names don’t attempt to reconnect with a lost past – they try to forge ahead and create a new future. The creativity and invention of black names is seldom recognized by White America. We pretend that creating names anew shows a lack of imagination when in reality, it shows just the opposite!

Creating something new can be as simple as taking an Anglicized name and spelling it in inventive ways. Punctuation marks also can be utilized in unusual positions to add even more distinctiveness such as in the names Mo’nique and D’Andre.

At other times, they follow a cultural pattern to signify as uniquely African American using prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn.

And for the ultimate in creativity, try mixing and matching various influences and techniques. For instance, LaKeisha has elements from both French and African roots. Other names like LaTanisha, DeShawn, JaMarcus, DeAndre, and Shaniqua were created in the same way.

This is something all cultures do. They evolve to meet the needs of people in a given time and place. Yet when it comes to people of color, we, white folks, whoop and guffaw at it. Heck! When we can’t find black names far enough out of our mainstream, we even make them up!

Don’t believe me? Have you heard of La-a? The story goes that a black girl was given that name and a white person asked how it was pronounced. The black woman said her name was La-DASH-ah. This is often followed by a punchline of black vernacular.

Har! Har! Har!

But it’s not even true! According to Snopes, this is a made up story. It’s the American version of a Polish joke and demonstrates how far white people will go to laugh at black culture.

The great comedy duo Key and Peele tried to call attention to this in their outstanding substitute teacher sketches. In a series of short routines, an almost exclusively white classroom gets a black substitute teacher from the inner city schools. Mr. Garvey is expecting black names, so he pronounces the students’ middle class white names as if they were African American.

Almost everyone loves this sketch. It gets universal laughs, but wait until it’s over. Too many white folks try to continue the giggles by then talking about crazy black names they’ve encountered. But that’s not at all the point Key and Peel were trying to make! They were trying to show how cultural context shapes our expectations of proper names. Mr. Garvey is worthy of our laughter because his expectations are out-of-sync with his surroundings. When we expect all African Americans to have European or Anglicized names, we’re just as out of touch as Mr. Garvey. But like Dave Chapelle’s comedy, sometimes the person laughing the loudest is getting something the comedian didn’t intend at all.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if black names just generated snickers. However, white culture actually selects against people with black sounding names.

Countless studies have shown how much more difficult it is for someone with a black sounding name to get a job, a loan or an apartment than it is for someone with a white sounding name. It’s one of the most obvious features of white supremacy. You may not like black names, personally, but do these people deserve to suffer for embracing their own culture?

Moreover, having a European or Anglicized name is no guarantee of fair treatment. It certainly didn’t help Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.

If we’re really going to treat people equitably, an easy place to begin is with black names. White people, stop the laughter and giggles. I used to do it, myself, until I thought about it. Yes, I’m guilty of the same thing. But I stopped. You can, too.

It’s not the biggest thing in the world. It’s not even the most pressing thing. It’s not a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of fairness.

Because when the final role is taken of all America’s racists and bigots, do you really want your name to be on it?


NOTE: This article also was published on Everyday Feminism and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

A Lesson in Resistance – The Baltimore Uprising Comes to my Classroom

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There was anger in the air.

You could almost taste it.

The children filing into the classroom were mumbling to each other, gesticulating violently, pointing fingers.

And out of all that jumbled noise – like a TV showing a scrambled channel – only one word came through clearly.

Baltimore.

The bell rang its muffled cry – just another dissonant note lost in the chatter.

I held up my hands and began to quiet them.

But then stopped.

Exercises about vocabulary, analogies, sentence construction and figurative language waited patiently on the board. They’d have to wait until tomorrow.

There was something going on here more than just teenage drama. My middle school kids were shaken and upset. As a white teacher who presides over classes of mostly minority students, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the events in Baltimore would weigh heavily on their minds. They were on mine, too.

So I quieted my 8th graders with a question: “Are you talking about Baltimore?”

A collective shout of various disconnected assents.

“Who can tell me what’s happening there?” I asked.

They quieted and raised their hands.

We were back in school again.

They told me what they knew, which was surprisingly little. They knew people of color were rioting in Baltimore. They thought a black man had been shot.

I said, “He wasn’t shot. Does anyone know his name?”

No one did.

“Has anyone heard of Freddie Gray?” I asked.

None of them had. So I told them.

I told them that Gray was a 26-year-old black man in Baltimore who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. I told them he was arrested because he met an officer’s eye, got scared and ran. The police arrested him and found a knife on him.

I told them there was a cell phone video of Gray being arrested. He was being dragged to the police car screaming in pain. After about 30-45 minutes he was taken to the hospital. His spine was 80% severed from his neck. He had a bruised larynx and broken vertebrae. He eventually died from his injuries.

They wanted to see the video. At first I refused because I clung to some optimistic hope we might get back to my lesson plans. But one look at their eager faces and I gave in.

I have never heard them so silent. Never. They watched the video and an accompanying news report as if they were the about life and death. I guess they were.

Then we went around the room discussing what we’d seen and what it meant.

More than anything, I just let my kids talk.

You’d be amazed at what they had to say. Some highlights:

  • It’s really hard to be a black person in America. Black people – especially boys – are being murdered by the police. They assume if you’re sagging your pants, you have a gun on you.

 

  • White people can put their hair in cornrows and dress “ghetto” but when they change their hair back and put on different clothes, they’re still white. I can’t change my face. The police still look at me like I’m an animal and a criminal.

 

  • Lot of boys I know sell drugs so they can support their mommas. It’s not for them. They want their mommas to have it easier. They do it out of respect for all their mommas have sacrificed to bring them up and feed them.

 

  • There’s no such thing as race. It’s just a color. We’re all the same.

 

When it came to the riots, the class was sharply divided – and not on racial lines.

Some kids said that people rioting in Baltimore are being “trashy” and “ghetto.” They’re making black people look bad. “How does stealing the new Jordan’s help Freddie Gray?”

Others thought the violence was completely justified.

In fact, some of my girls were so angry they wanted to go to Baltimore and join the tumult. They were so mad, they wanted to ditch school and riot right here in Pennsylvania.

“This didn’t start with riots,” I told them. “It started with protests. Can someone tell me the difference?”

They calmed again and tried to answer the question.

We started to define both terms. We decide that a riot was chaos, unorganized and had no purpose. A protest was just the opposite – organized and purposeful.

The anger resurfaced.

“I don’t care, Mr. Singer!” a big girl in the back shouted. “They always be out to get us, and when it goes to court no one does nothing!”

I pointed in her direction and nodded. We talked about it. Many felt the same way. If you can’t trust the police and the courts, who can you trust?

I moved forward into the middle of the room.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Does anyone know what that means?”

We decoded it. We decided it meant that it might take a long time, but justice usually wins in the end.

I nodded. 

I asked them if Dr. King ever rioted. They said no. I asked them if Dr. King ever protested. They smiled and said yes.

We talked about the Civil Rights movement. We talked about how organized, peaceful protests won us many of the rights we have today. We talked about Mahatma Gandhi and how passive resistance won the country of India.

And then the talk changed.

No more talk of riots.

We talked about protests – what they looked like today and how they worked.

“I’m going to go down Main Street and protest this Sunday,” another girl said with tears in her eyes. “I have the right to think my thoughts and no one can stop me thinking them.”

Others mumbled agreement and said they’d go with her.

I asked her what she’d do – just march back and forth. She didn’t know. I told her about die-ins – how people would just drop to the ground and stay there to represent the people being murdered.

The class took it from there. They planned to do a die-in. They’d do it at the exact time Freddie Gray died. They’d bring signs that said “Black Lives Matter.”

I asked the girl who originated the idea if she went to church. She said she did. I told her she might want to tell them what she was planning. She should tell her parents. Maybe they’d join her.

She beamed. Her grandfather is a retired police officer and she thought he’d come along. She said she’d talk with her pastor Saturday.

All this in the space of 45 minutes. 

By the time the bell rang again, they were literally marching and singing “Protest!” as they walked off to lunch.

We never got to the planned lesson, but I’m not sure that matters.

Did I overstep my bounds as teacher?

I don’t think so. Something had to be done. These kids were hot. They wanted to tear something apart. But after our discussion they had an outlet, a plan.

Will they go through with it? I don’t know.

Frankly, that wasn’t the point. In the classroom, I’m not an organizer. I’m a teacher.

I’ve lost too many kids to the streets. Drugs, violence, neglect, juvenile detention.

“Promise me something,” I said in the middle of our discussion.

“Mr. Singer, it looks like your going to start crying,” one of them said awed and frightened.

“Please. Whatever you do, be safe,” I said.

“If a cop asks you to do something, you do it. Don’t run. Don’t yell and scream.”

“But, Mr. Singer!”

“Honey,” I interrupted, “I’m not saying to give up fighting for your rights. But you have to live long enough to tell your story. Freddie Gray isn’t around to have his day in court. Neither is Trayvon, Michael or Eric. You know what I mean?”

They nodded.

Teachers can’t make anyone to do anything.

The only thing they can do is get you to think.

I did that. I just hope it’s enough.


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org, ConversationED, the Badass Teachers Association blog and I talked about it at length during an interview on the Rick Smith Show.

 

 


 

If One More White Person Asks Me to Condemn the Baltimore Riots…

many-children-among-crowd-at-Freddie-Gray-protest

It started as soon as I got to work.

“Bet you’re glad the history club isn’t going to Baltimore this year!”

A comment between two social studies teachers. Nudge. Nudge.

I moved on to my morning duty and a science teacher asked me, “How about all that looting and rioting in Baltimore?”

Smirk. Chuckle. Conspiratorial tone.

Then at lunch, they were talking about a “hilarious” video where a black mother was yelling and hitting her son for being part of the riots.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Am I the only white person who doesn’t need reassured?

Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re asking for confirmation, comfort, soothing.

It’s not white people’s fault. It’s those uppity… uh… black people.

Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died under mysterious circumstances two weeks ago in Baltimore police custody.

His spine was allegedly “80% severed” at his neck. He had three fractured vertebrae, and his larynx was injured.

Police say he was arrested without any violence. Bystanders say he was beaten with batons. A cell phone video shows him being dragged into custody while in visible agony.

And what did he do to attract police attention? He met an officer’s eyes and then ran. After tackling him to the ground, the police found a knife on him.

And now he’s dead.

It doesn’t take much to see why people are upset – especially people of color.

Yet another police encounter that leaves an African American dead with no provocation.

Peaceful protests took place on Saturday and no one paid much attention. Some protestors turned violent by Sunday and the story suddenly became those crazy black folks are destroying their own communities again.

And every white face I see wants me to join in the condemnation.

It’s the black people’s fault. They keep acting out.

What does this solve? What does it prove?

PLEASE! Do not assume that a lack of melanin in my cheeks means a lack of common sense.

Freddie Gray’s death is not an “excuse” to riot. No one sits around all day checking the headlines for a reason to go wild and set cars on fire. That kind of violence doesn’t just turn on at the flip of a switch.

It’s a slow burn in the pit of your belly, quietly consuming your insides until there’s no recourse left that makes sense. All you can do is scream and go crazy for a while.

Everyone’s done it. After a particularly bad day, the garbage disposal won’t open, so you kick it. You get some terrible news and scream at the neighbor’s dog.

You get it out. You take it out – usually on someone or something that doesn’t deserve it. Often hilariously so. The garbage disposal had nothing to do with my bad day. The neighbor’s dog didn’t cause my bad news.

It’s called being human. Looting and rioting are a more extreme version of the same thing. They don’t solve anything. But how dare you say you don’t understand!

Black people – especially men – are being murdered, and our justice system seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Maybe there’s some strange extenuating circumstance that exonerates police in Gray’s death. But I doubt it. Even if they had nothing to do with his injuries, they certainly should have gotten him medical attention immediately after the arrest.

They are culpable. They were wrong.

Why can’t white people admit it?

We’re so afraid if we acknowledge white folks have done any wrong to black folks, it will start some kind of moral accountancy. Once we start, we’ll have to go through the racial debt point-by-point.

Freddie Gray will lead to Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. That will lead to unfair incarceration rates and sentencing. That will lead to Jim Crow laws. And before you know it, we’ll be talking about S-L-A-V-E-R-Y.

Can’t have that! It might make white people feel bad.

Some of us already feel bad. We feel bad that our black brothers and sisters have to keep putting up with defensive, frightened white people.

I am not afraid of black people. They are my friends, my neighbors, my students.

I am not afraid of exposing grievances. The truth deserves to be told.

I love black people. I love justice. And I want it for all of us.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.