Category Archives: Politics

Fear and Ferguson

Fear is not professional. Teachers and police who fear members of their community should never have been hired. We damage the very people we are supposed to serve; we damage our professions and ourselves.

Officer Darren Wilson was probably raised to fear black men. I do not hold him entirely accountable for his fear because I was raised to look down on black people, to see them as different from me, which is a form of fear. As children, Darren and I didn’t know any better. American society is responsible for our fear.

But someonethe certification board, our supervisors, and ourselvesshould have screened us for fear before hiring us as professionals. I thought I’d screened myself. During the civil rights movement, I’d rebelled against my upbringing. Although I knew few black people, I was sure they all were good but had been treated unjustly. I applied to Trenton High to help their cause. I did not anticipate the visceral fear I’d feel when surrounded by black faces. And nothing in the certification process or interview revealed my fear. Here is the story, taken from my book, of how I slipped through.

It was almost Labor Day when the Trenton School District offered me a job based on my application alone. I had the choice of an elementary school position and one at the high school. I chose the high school and went for an interview with the special education supervisor, Mr. Lorenzo Dupont. Mr. Dupont, a robust, fatherly white man who wore a short-sleeved white shirt, gray slacks, and an enormous key ring at his belt, stood waiting. A dark-skinned man in his forties, dressed in a Hawaiian aloha shirt, sat at Mr. Dupont’s desk. He seemed tired and distracted. Mr. Dupont introduced him as Dr. Hopfield, the principal. Dr. Hopfield asked me one question: Had I ever had experience in an inner city school?

My mind raced back over my career. I had taught in one city. Among my 120 English students, I’d had the children of blue-collar workers and one girl who was black. They’d resisted literature. “Why do I need this? I’m going to be a butcher like my father.” I didn’t know if the school qualified as “inner” city, but it had been a challenge.

I looked into Dr. Hopfield’s weary eyes and told him I’d worked in Woburn, Massachusetts. Dr. Hopfield nodded, gave Mr. Dupont his consent to hire me, asked that I do my best for the students, and left the office. I’d had my interview with the principal. Mr. Dupont skipped his chance to interview me and led me to my classroom.

Dr. Hopfield must have suspected my fear, but he had a vacancy to fill. Was there such urgency when Darren Wilson was hired for the Ferguson police force, or is fear the norm in Ferguson? And if fear is the norm, would Officer Wilson have tried to conquer it?

I knew I was afraid. I discovered my fear the first time I encountered a throng of black students innocently returning from lunch. I struggled to hide it and thought I was succeeding until the following incident forced me to become a professional.

Even as I romanticized the problems of the inner city, the thought that I might be physically threatened never occurred to me. But one day that fall, I found myself trapped at the back of my classroom by a new student. Large, firm breasts were inches from my face. Dark eyes looked down mockingly, “Try and get past me,” they implied. I made a move toward the intercom by the door. She pressed in more boldly. She seemed to revel in her power over me. The other students, all young men, sat watching us. Embarrassed and desperate, I yelled for the teacher in the next room. She heard me and came in. The young woman took her seat, and I passed to my desk. Nothing more was said.

My vulnerability scared me. I wasn’t used to students being bigger than I was. Big and black . . . . No. Nojust big. What had started it? Why had I lost control? My failure as a teacher scared me more.

Maybe the incident hadn’t really been a threat, just a test. After all, the young woman hadn’t actually touched me. The other students hadn’t banded together to jump me. I’d been tested by students before, though never so openly, and I’d won. Surely, I could do it again.

But the memory of those defiant breasts wouldn’t go away. A woman’s breasts. So much bigger than mine. The confrontation had meant more than just testing the new teacher. A woman’s breasts . . . on a child. A child . . . . What if the child had been trying to find someone to respect and rely on? Someone stronger, so she could put down the responsibilities carried by the woman? If so, I had failed as an adult. My job was to protect that child from finding out that she was more powerful than an adult. She didn’t need to grow up that fast. Maybe she’d tested me because she’d already been made to grow up too fast. I vowed to embrace these children.

Once I embraced my adulthood, the fear was gone. I could then embrace my students. In my 23 years at Trenton High, I was rarely tested by one of my own students and never again lost control. If only Darren Wilson had recognized Michael Brown as the teenager that he was!

Of course, in the halls or auditorium, where students were protected by anonymity, I didn’t have the same control. Kids often spoke with disrespect when I urged them to go to class or sit quietly“You’re not our teacher, “ “Mind your own business,” or “Who do you think you are? Security?”but rarely the “F” word. Trenton High kids didn’t curse, and the “F” word was considered cursing.

I learned another lesson in professionalism: don’t expect respect; earn it by showing respect. Although it was easy to earn respectand compliancefrom my own students (many were overwhelmed that I’d bothered to learn their names), it was difficult in the halls. I learned to interpret disrespect as just a few teens showing off to their peers the power that anonymity bestows. My job was to remain respectful and keep on urging their best behavior.

It was all about anonymity. For a time, girls wore gold earrings the size of index cards with the name of the wearer stenciled in. They were a big help with discipline. “Tonya, it’s time to go to class.” Tonya would whip around, indignant, “How’d you know my name!” But Tonya would start moving to class. When Trenton High divided into small learning communities where teachers knew all the students, discipline problems in the halls vanished.

What did Darren Wilson really say when he found Michael Brown walking in the street? Even if Wilson was originally as polite as he testified, I can hardly believe that Michael Brown’s alleged “fuck what you have to say” was, as Wilson testified, “a very unusual and not expected response from (sic) a simple request” and thus one that drew his attention to Brown. Why was the response “unusual” when Wilson said that he himself later told Brown to “get the fuck back.” Professionals don’t use “fuck;” they don’t need to. But they are not surprised when others do, and they don’t respond to the disrespect. Wilson could have waited for the back-up he’d called for. Better yet, community policing, where officers try to get to know the residents, could have reduced the anonymity that allowed the confrontation.

We ask our doctors to be professional. We require years of education and trainingcut by cut, stitch by stitchunder the watchful eyes of a series of licensed practitioners until confidence replaces fear. Otherwise, doctors could kill us. Shouldn’t we require more trainingand under a variety of supervisorsfor our teachers, who can kill our spirit, and for our police, who carry guns?

When Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that the St. Louis grand jury had found that “no probable cause existed to file any charge against Officer Wilson,” he explained that “the law allows all people to use deadly force in certain situations.” The law needs revision. Those situations cannot include fear because someone doesn’t look like us, because someone doesn’t jump at our command. None of us should be excused. But keeping an illegal chokehold on someone already on the ground, pleading for breath, cannot be excused. When handcuffs, mace, a TASER, or even a gunshot to the leg would do the job, killing is not professional.

Society must demand higher standards. Unions must protect themselves by holding all members to those standards. And Officer Pantaleo of the NYPD must face criminal charges for what the medical examiner, a brave professional, called a homicide.

Fairness versus Family

It’s 10:00PM. The deadline is 11:59, but I still haven’t received from one of the candidates her responses to the League of Women Voters’ questionnaire that I sent fourteen days ago. I leave my lap top and head to bed, praying that she will make the deadline. Otherwise, I face a difficult decision.

I know the candidate’s child came down with a fever and stayed home from school today. Family first! I should give her a break…. But what about the League’s policy of fairness to all candidates: the same word limit, deadline, and time allowed for answering the questions? Out of fairness to all, when setting the deadline, I take into account weekends and the Jewish holidays, which always interrupt election season. And I know that the other candidates also have family health issues and constraints like moving. Couldn’t this candidate have started on the questionnaire earlier?

How to tell a sweet person, a loving mother that her responses will not be included in the Voters’ Guide because, in nursing her child, she missed a deadline? But, if I give her a break, am I not damaging the League’s reputation for impartiality? Isn’t what makes fairness fair allowing no excuses? I return to my laptop and whip off an appeal. “The hardest thing about League is that fairness to all candidates means I cannot give any one candidate any slack. So I hope you can email your written responses before the 11:59 deadline tonight.”

Family first, the mantra at Trenton High School. I was a misfit because I couldn’t understand why my mentor, during my first year of teaching, missed the first eight days of school. Unprofessional! Or why my aide missed class to get shoes dyed for her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps I didn’t understand because my family and I enjoyed good health, and I got my shoes dyed on a weekend. I retired with a year’s worth of unused sick days, and when I was hospitalized for a week, I demanded and got a substitute whom I trusted to make my kids work and wrote lesson plans from my bed.

Is it just me? Uptight? Maybe, but this summer I was the person who looked after a paralyzed friend because her family could not. They had jobs and nothing was going to get in the way of their going to work. They couldn’t afford to get fired or lose their pensions. I understand that. But what if there had been no one to look after my friend, trapped in bed, hungry, soiled, and at the mercy of fire? What if a sick child is crying while Mommy tries to compose responses to a League questionnaire? How to give a break to a misguided teenager without teaching him that he can depend on getting breaks? What about the unemployed father who steals bread to feed his family?

It’s morning. I approach my lap top with trepidation. I read a subject line, “Candidate Questionnaire Response.” The time recorded is 11:50PM. I’m saved! An accompanying email says, “Thanks for the tough love.”

Back to Blogging

I said I’d be away a few weeks, but it’s been two months. Vacation, family visits, and voter service have intervened. And what can I say after Ferguson? Such fear and force. What worth have my words when Shias, Sunnis, Syria, ISIS, climate change and Ebola dominate the news?
Can I believe that if more than 6% of the eligible African-American voters in Ferguson had voted in the last election – if an appropriate candidate had put his or her name on the ballot – a black man would not have been killed? Sadly, no. Our history of racism, the current economic depression, and a fascination with tanks instead of TASERs complicate the issue. But the vote is a powerful weapon. And since I hate settling conflicts with guns, I will be taking the next few weeks off from blogging to continue working for the League of Women Voters.
And if any readers have the courage to run for office but don’t know how, here’s a link: http://www.njwow2014.com/ Many institutions offer free workshops on running and winning. It’s certainly harder to gain power by winning an election than by buying a gun, but it’s so much more civil.

With Liberty and Justice for All

As we celebrate Independence Day, I think about the state of our country. I remember one of my black colleagues reciting the Pledge of Allegiance along with the class. At the phrase “with liberty and justice for all,” her lips would tighten into a grim line. She would not affirm what, for her, was a lie.

The United States has not yet recovered from its racist history, but another injustice looms, threatening white and black people alike. Billions of dollars in the hands of a few wealthy men and corporations have the power to undermine our democracy, skew elections, and influence elected officials. Voting rights have recently come under attack—lest the majority rule?

On this July 4th, it’s time for Americans to come together to fight for independence from the 1%.

Ban the Box

Cornell William Brooks, Esq., recently selected to be President and CEO of the NAACP, and currently President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, spoke at a League of Women Voters’ meeting on the topic “The Beloved Community Behind Bars: A Dream Deferred.” Much of his focus was on the “Ban the Box” movement.  Because having a criminal record, for even the smallest offense, severely impacts the chances for employment, Mr. Brooks supports banning the “box,” the question on job applications that asks “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”

To help his audience gain perspective about criminal records, Mr. Brooks asked us to picture two old, sepia mugshots—one of an eager, self-possessed young black man, the other of an older, dignified black woman—each with a number stamped under the photo. The mugshots had been found in a dusty file cabinet in Montgomery, Alabama. I think most of us guessed correctly: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks, American icons with criminal records that few of us knew about. But, Mr. Brooks pointed out, in today’s world, criminal records are digital, are saved on disk, and can be sent anywhere.

One out of three young people in America is arrested, and 65 million Americans have criminal records, often as a result of arrests after being stopped and frisked or for mischief (the kinds of risky things even League members might have done in their sorority days). Joel, a high school senior driving to an interview at Yale, accidentally bumped into a parked car. He was late and didn’t stop to leave his name and insurance information. A day after his Yale interview, he was picked up for hit-and-run. Fortunately, the owner of the dented car was a teacher and, hearing Joel’s story, refused to press charges because she knew a criminal record might jeopardize his acceptance at Yale.

Another example of the absurdity behind some criminal records is the story Mr. Brooks told about a sixty-year-old construction worker who came to the Institute for Social Justice for help. Forty years before, he’d been convicted of possessing five Valium pills that had not been prescribed for him. (Mr. Brooks asked whether League members had ever borrowed medicine from a family member, then quickly added, to laughter, “Don’t raise your hands.”) The resulting criminal record meant either that the construction worker would be fired or that his employer would lose a contract with the state. The only solution was a pardon. The Institute gathered testimony from experts that the worker, after all these years, did not pose a threat, and Governor Chistie pardoned him. To cap his argument, Mr. Brooks pointed out that Barak Obama had admitted in his autobiography to using marijuana, and George W. Bush, in his autobiography, to driving under the influence—yet the American people elected them to the presidency.

A record of incarceration deprives an individual of about $100,000 in income during his prime years. Having 2.4 million people behind bars exerts a $65 billion drag on the economy each year. Besides these economic impacts, are the moral challenges as well: self-esteem, the ability to provide child support, etc. There are also racial implications: for a white male, having a criminal record reduces his chances of being employed by 50%—for a black male, the reduction is 67%. (And even a white male with a record has a better chance at employment than a black male without one.)

For Mr. Brooks, the solution is the Opportunity to Compete Act, which takes the same position regarding hiring as does the U.S. Government and Walmart, the nation’s biggest employer. Under the act, employers would first make an offer and then run a background check for a criminal record. If a record is found and the offer is withdrawn, the prospective employee would have ten days to dispute the record or provide additional information for consideration, such as evidence of rehabilitation. The employer would not have to hire the person but would, if the position has not already been filled, have to explain in writing to the person why the offer is still withdrawn.

I’m with Mr. Brooks, and I hope my readers are too. We need to show the New Jersey Legislature that we support this act. As Mr. Brooks’s examples show, it’s not hard to get a criminal record, especially if you’re black. How many of us hold our jobs because we’re lucky not to have been caught or are privileged enough to afford a lawyer to get us off? Banning the box doesn’t guarantee employment, but it increases the chances that people will be seen for who they are now, not for how their history has marked them.

Voting Rights and Politics

      Why, in New Jersey, is the right to vote denied to people with felony convictions while they are on parole or probation? It’s politics, right? The ACLU notes, “New Jersey is home to some 80,000 citizens – most of them African American or Latino – who live and work in our state but cannot vote because they are on parole or probation.” So, I reason, since minorities tend to vote Democratic, it must be Republicans who’ve put this law on the books.

      I decided to look at the history, certain that the law was recentsay sometime around the War on Drugs. I found a thorough, overwhelmingly footnoted, 2004 article by George Brooks in the Fordham Urban Law Journal.  To my astonishment, I learned that felon disenfranchisement was written into New Jersey’s constitution in1844 and rested on John Locke’s concept, “that those who break the social contract should not be allowed to participate in the process of making society’s rules.”

     The law had not been designed to suppress the black vote. Blacks didn’t have the vote in1844. This law appears in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, where the states cannot abridge the right to vote except for participation in rebellion, or other crime. Brooks notes that “despite facing judicial scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s and 70s, felon disenfranchisement laws were almost always found to be constitutional.” (Brooks, 110)

       Even though, during the War on Drugs, disproportionately more blacks than whites have been stopped, arrested, and convicted for drug-related crimes, this has nothing to do with the disenfranchisement law. Any discrimination is the responsibility of the criminal justice system, not the law. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow points out, it is the intent to discriminate that must be proven in court. Statistical evidence means nothing.

       How can I convince my state legislators to pass a bill allowing parolees and probationers to vote, as they can in Pennsylvania? My own legislators, all Republicans, would have more to lose than to gain. Yet I cannot argue that the law is based on politics.

Maybe I should point out that the effect of changing the law will be minimal. After all, only half of Americans who can vote, do.

I could just admit that I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I am excusing 80,000 citizens—most of them African American or Latino—who shouldn’t have broken the social contract in the first place. Or is there an excuse? Although I find John Locke’s premise compelling in the abstract (good is good and bad is bad; obey the rules), “the social contract” is troubling. The CEO of McDonald’s will find it easier to obey “Thou shalt not steal” than his employee, who must support a family on minimum wage. The social contract allows the already rich and powerful to determine who gets the profits—and, especially after Citizens United, even to determine who writes the contract. Maybe that’s a reason to consider restoring voting rights not only to parolees and probationers but also to those felons still in prison.

The Power of Voting

“I don’t know who to vote for.”

“I don’t like any of the candidates.”

“My vote won’t count.”

These excuses were familiar to me, but, whenever I staged mock elections in November at Trenton High, I heard another one. “I don’t vote. I don’t want to give up my power.”

That voting meant giving up one’s power made no sense to me. Wasn’t America founded on the power of the vote? For years, when at least one student invariably gave this excuse, I struggled to understand. Occasionally, a small voice asked, “Do you think there will ever be a black president?” Finally, I developed a theory: some black people are so resentful of our racist history that they boycott the white man’s system of government.

The first time I heard “I don’t want to give up my power,” I consulted a black colleague. She was surprisedand angry. She came to my class and lectured the student about the sacrifices of black Americans who’d struggled for the right to vote. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. given his life in vain?

When our problem child remained adamant, my colleague and I worked out a skit to illustrate that issues important to black people were being decided without their voice. I played the bad white guy, voting for “laws” that repressed black folk. She used her vote to counter mine. Still, the child balked. Issues meant nothing. Finally, we resorted to a basketball analogy: to vote is to shoot for a basket. You might not make it, but it’s worth a try. If you don’t shoot, the other team’s sure to win. The student would give in to shut us up, but we knew he wasn’t convinced. That’s why I was thrilled when Obama was elected. A black president might help mend the wounded egos and restore faith in the system.

As a member of the League of Women Voters, I believe in voting. Votes do count. Perhaps my candidate won’t win, but he or she has a better chance with my vote than without it. Even a shoo-in candidate can lose if supporters don’t bother to vote. To those who don’t know whom to vote for, I offer the League’s voters’ guides and debates and suggest checking the voting records of incumbents and the platforms of all. Voting is our responsibilityeven if it’s choosing the lesser of two evils.