Category Archives: Race

Overcoming Racism – Understanding Black People (The Fallacy)

In our attempt to overcome the racism we’ve been taught, many of us older white liberals try to “understand” black people. I know I did. I went to teach at Trenton High believing that all the black teachers and administrators would be like Martin Luther King, Jr. They’d be devoted to improving the lives of their students. Eager to think the best of—but totally unfamiliar with—black people, I chose a stellar example to define my “they.” And whenever my colleagues turned out not to be clones of Dr. King, I was confused and disappointed.

White people who remain racist have often chosen a negative stereotype to describe black people. A childhood acquaintance who still lives in Greenwich, where I grew up, employed a black woman to look after her own children. Yet, when I visited and told her that I worked with black people, she said, “Isn’t it awful the way they raise their kids!” I was shocked by this racist comment. She certainly didn’t know enough black people to generalize about how “they” raised their kids. I also wondered why she hadn’t chosen the nanny she’d trusted for years as her definition of “they.”

My acquaintance and I were both misguided. We wouldn’t have tried to understand or describe white people. Why try with black people? What I didn’t recognize at the time was that, although my acquaintance was certainly racist, I exercised a more subtle form of racism myself. I wished that those black mothers who didn’t raise their children well would realize they were giving black people a bad name. “Don’t you know what white people are thinking?” was my silent plea. “Don’t you know how many of us generalize from individuals to groups, from ‘you’ to ‘they’?”

Liberal white folk don’t want to think badly of black people and so don’t like to be reminded that some black individuals actually do bad things. After Ferguson, I heard white friends complain that Michael Brown should have gotten out of the street, shouldn’t have used the “f” word, shouldn’t have taken those cigarettes, should have backed off. I think they complain partly because better behavior might have saved Michael Brown’s life but perhaps partly because, even though they side with Michael Brown, they would have preferred to support a model black teenager. Michael Brown’s aggressiveness makes them uncomfortable. Yet, if Michael Brown were their son’s troubled white friend (their own son, of course, would never lock horns with a cop), wouldn’t they overlook his behavior and concentrate only on the outrageous over-reaction of the police?

Black professionals know that, because of America’s history of racism, they must be better than their white counterparts to achieve the same success. We white liberals acknowledge that this pressure is unfair. Yet we pressure a Michael Brown or a black welfare mother because we fear that their behavior will feed the racism of other white people—and perhaps our own. That pressure is racist because we don’t ask the same of the in-your-face white teenager or white welfare mother. Their behavior is no reflection on us—unless, of course, black people generalize from the individual to the race, as many white people do. Yet if I don’t want to be held responsible for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, I can’t expect a black person to be responsible for the behavior of other black people.

White people are good, bad, smart, dumb, beautiful and ugly, and so are black people. White people who’ve grown up in integrated communities know this from childhood. I didn’t. But, I was fortunate to work with a cross-section of black people. I learned it then.

Overcoming Racism – Responding to Groups

This is the first in a series of blogs on overcoming racism. Although I’m no expert, I believe that I’ve made progress in recognizing and overcoming my own racism. Perhaps some of my insights will be useful.

Some of my liberal white friends have recently confided that they are afraid of groups of black teenagers. Perhaps they’re revealing their secret now because the police brutality in Ferguson and New York has made them examine their own racism. Perhaps they tell me because they think that I, having worked at Trenton High, will be able to help them deal with their guilt. I’ll try.

Fear of a large group of young people seems to me a commonsense response in some circumstances. So my advice about deciding whether the fear is racist is to ask, “Would I feel the same if the group were of my own race?”

Plenty of black people are afraid of black gangs. A black friend from Princeton was passing out pamphlets in Washington, DC when a group of black teenagers approached. She and her daughter ran to their car, jumped in, and locked the doors. Our janitor at Trenton High, a black resident of Trenton, armed himself with a sawed off weed-whacker for his walk home. He needed it to ward off teenage muggers. An old lady was rolled by a bunch of black girls on crack just last week!

We wouldn’t call the janitor or my black friend racist. And if I crossed the street to avoid an unruly crowd of white kids, I wouldn’t be accused of racism.

A white friend of mine rode her bike to K-Mart but didn’t lock it because a group of black kids was standing near the bike rack. Locking it would show that she didn’t trust them, and that would be racist. The bike was stolen. I bet that, if the group of kids had been white, she would have locked the bike. I also bet that a black biker would have locked her bike regardless of the race of the kids. Sometimes, in our eagerness not to be seen as racist, we overlook common sense.

My black male friends are deeply hurt and offended when white people cross the street, tuck up their handbags, and show similar distrust of them. After all, white people don’t behave like that when passing other white people. Likewise, my black female friends resent being “helped” more than white shoppers when browsing in clothing stores.

Such differential treatment is racist and sometimes backfires. At a sporting goods store, a group of black teenagers came to exchange a pair of sneakers. They showed the cashier the sales slip, but, as they set off for the sneaker department, the code for “Watch out for shoplifters” came over the PA. Meanwhile a group of white teenagers, wearing trench coats and boots in spite of the warm June weather, had entered the store. While the store’s personnel followed the black kids, the white kids walked out with stashes of pilfered items under their coats.

Our reaction to groups of another race is often used as a litmus test for racism, but I question the validity of the test. Isn’t it natural, even atavistic, to distrust groups in general? Compare, for example, our inborn reaction to meeting a pack of dogs versus meeting just one dog. Groups do differ from individuals. Wariness of a “gang” of teenagers may be especially justified. The teenage brain is not fully developed. There’s peer pressure. Someone makes a dare. The group provides anonymity and support.

So, to my liberal white friends, I say, “Don’t worry about groups.” Instead, catch yourself whenever you think or speak about black people as if all were alike – a “they.” Give individuals who are black the same respect you give whites. And, while examining your own racism, notice the institutional racism that’s all around us. That racism is far more insidious and deserves our attention.

The Manger Test

This past Christmas, while thinking about my next blog, I envisioned an experiment that I call “the manger test.” Imagine that you’re walking around town enjoying the colorful Christmas lights and brightly decorated store windows. You pass a church whose life-size nativity scene invites you to approach the statues of Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. You lean in to see Jesus and find a perfectly proportioned black doll, his curly hair adorned with a halo.

Your first reaction, whether you’re black or white, is probably surprise. Although paintings of a black Madonna and child exist, we’re accustomed to a white baby Jesus in our public nativity scenes. You might then question the historical accuracy of a black baby Jesus. But, since we also know that the historical Jesus wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed white baby of many nativity scenes, why consider historical accuracy at all? The manger test asks how you feel about a black Jesus. If you’re Christian, can you accept this black baby as God’s gift to man, as His son and your savior?

I find my manger test disturbing and enlightening. For me, all babies are beautiful, pure, and full of promise. A black baby Jesus is unusual, but I think I could accept Him. However, little boys grow up into men. I realize that I cannot imagine a black adult male on the cross. Why not? Perhaps because I’ve seen so many crucifixions of a dark-haired, brown-eyed Jesus with either ghostly white or olive complexion, but never a black one. Why is it that historical accuracy weighs more heavily with the crucifixion than the nativity? After all, I accept that in numerous paintings of the Madonna and child Jesus is a blond.

It’s more pertinent to ask whether I could accept an ebony Jesus on the cross. I confess it would take work. But why should race or ethnicity matter? Christians worship a once-living person whose physical appearance was never described. Do we have to make him look like us?

The manger test reveals traces of a deeply rooted racism that I thought I’d conquered, and it challenges me to weed them out. But, if the historical Jesus really had been a black man, imagine how that would have affected perceptions of race today!

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.

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.

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.

I Hate My Skin

Trish made the following comment on my post “Asians Are Smarter,” which I’m publishing with her permission. “I so disliked the title of this post that I almost didn’t read it. But, now I am glad I did. Your blog is certainly touching some nerves with me. My husband and I are Caucasian. We live in Trenton. We are the parents of a six year old African American boy. Before we adopted him, six years ago, I feel like I had considered every aspect of raising a child here. Each day, tiny little things happen to remind me that I cannot ignore race. Our son is reminding us too. His questions and comments sometimes take me by surprise. “I hate my skin!” he has said! That is just one of many things that really make me stop and think hard about raising our child. Just recently, a friend told me she purposely uses the words Caucasian and African American with her children. I have started doing the same. I am so thankful that I have many African American friends I can talk to and a few excellent books I can consult. Their advice has been invaluable.”

If reading “I hate my skin!” is painful for me, hearing it must be devastating for Trish and her husband. No child that young should have learned to hate anything about himself. But how to repair damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?

An image from the PBS Newshour sticks in my mind: Gwen Ifill interviewing John Kerry. I was struck by the balance: two intelligent, attractive people—a black woman and a white man—equally knowledgeable. Margaret Warner or Judy Woodruff interviewing President Obama offers the same balance. But could a six-year-old appreciate what I see as ideal relationships, where gender and skin color are lovely variations and intelligence trumps all?

I wonder if Trish’s son can explain why he hates his skin. Wanting to look like an adopting mom and dad is less ominous than experiencing playground taunts or being told that skin color implies certain characteristics. Or is it possible that a six-year-old is making such associations on his own?

At Trenton High, I was surrounded by such a variety of black people that it was impossible to link color to behavior. In fact, the one assumption I brought—that all black staff members would work tirelessly for the success of their black students—was shattered. But recently I’ve been trying to help a black friend in crisis. Her children can spare neither time nor money. Instead of pulling together as a team, they scream accusations at one another while their mother lies helpless. Fearful and frustrated myself, I find myself suddenly seeing black—linking color to this selfish, dysfunctional behavior. I know better. I hate myself. But when the hostile, irresponsible, loud faces around me are all black, I make an association.

I need to restore balance, to schedule lunch with my other black friends. It hasn’t helped that I was raised on stereotypes, that I live in a mostly white community, nor that I’m writing a blog about race. Thankfully, I continue to have long chats by phone with my friend who’s in crisis—who, though physically incapacitated, remains strong, capable, and loving. But I shouldn’t need such reassurance. Skin color, character, and behavior are not correlated. I know that. But if I make false connections, might a six-year-old?