Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson: It's Not the Same Mile

What place does a post on the turmoil in Ferguson have on an education blog? Hmm, I think the right question would be, "Why wasn't a post about Ferguson on here sooner?" Last night, the prosecuting attorney released the grand jury decision. As expected, it exonerated the officer in the shooting of Michael Brown. Since then, there have been peaceful protests, violence, vandalism and looting. The news outlets have done a good job covering the most extreme parts of the protest while also calling for "peace" and "healing".

I am no defender of violence, vandalism or cruelty. I think those looting, burning and damaging property in Ferguson and around St. Louis should be arrested and charged. But let's not conflate the issues here. Anytime there is a large protest, there is going to be violence; we are a violent culture. Hell, even when a city wins a sports championship, there are riots in the city. Look at the Giants' World Series win and the aftermath in San Francisco. There is legitimate cause for protest here in Ferguson, violence notwithstanding.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...Until you c limb into his skin and walk around in it." I know that the mile I've walked in this life is vastly different from the miles walked by most of the Ferguson protesters. 

I am a white guy who grew up with all of the advantages of being a white guy. When I am driving and am stopped by police, the only thing I worry about is if I will get a ticket. I don't worry that I'll be harassed or harmed. I don't worry that I'll be stopped simply because I'm white and have three white friends in the car. This is not an anti-police point; it is simply a fact of life for many young black men. Many of my white acquaintances would say, "Well, if they were stopped, they must have been doing something wrong." Why? See, the presumption is that if the person has a black face, there must be some wrongdoing on their part. How did we come to these assumptions? I, a white guy, would not be presumed guilty. A 15 year old black kid is. When we close our eyes and think of what a criminal looks like, what does the face look like? I would bet that most people see a black male's face. Why? Why do we think this? The Ferguson matter is forcing us think of all of these issues.

We all need to change our perceptions of each other. We cannot exist in a world of "us" and "them". There can only be "us", all of us! Things must change so that the advantages that I have as a white male are enjoyed by every person regardless of race or gender. We cannot have a two-track system. We cannot be okay with demanding that a group of people make up a permanent underclass in our society. When a group of people, on a daily basis, is shown that their lives don't matter as much as others, that their opinions are shrugged off as a "special interest", that their dreams are disregarded, I can understand the rage. Sometimes that rage manifests itself in ways that we don't like.

What are the weapons that this community can use against the structure of racism that we have in our society? They do not have tanks, body armor or tear gas. They can work within the system but many feel that the system is rigged against them in the first place. What are the options? Human nature dictates that when you are pushed into a corner and see no other option, you lash out. That is what we're seeing in Ferguson. People are enraged about losing their children in what seem to be preventable situations. Would white parents in Clayton and Ladue be expected to stand down and just accept that their children are being shot to death? No, of course not. Why on earth would we expect black parents from Ferguson and St. Louis to do it?

The lessons of Ferguson are that we must look inside and confront any racist thoughts that we have, and we all do have them. We must strive to see every person that we see as our brother, sister, child or parent. When we change the paradigm and consider others as "our" people instead of "those" people, we will make progress. We must deconstruct and unlearn systemic racism because it exists in our public policy and the way that policy is carried out. We must not get defensive about what we have learned over the course of our lives. Instead, we must think about what we've learned and realize that it is more myth than fact. We must give people the benefit of the doubt and not jump to pernicious conclusions because people are different from us.

These are the lessons that I try to teach my students, both through my words and actions, every day in my classroom. As a public school teacher, I have had the pleasure of teaching kids from every background imaginable. At the beginning of the year, my paradigm changes and I begin to consider each of those kids my own children. I do not accept anything but the best for every one of my kids. There is no "me" and "them", there is only "us". When we, as a society, can similarly change the paradigm, then we will be making progress toward solving our problems and minimizing our differences.

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