Overthinking a Single Word

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The word is “some.”

So I put together the morning announcements for our school. I have the students read out different bits of information that I cobble together with some graphics and upload to Youtube. Some of the things, like the lunch menu, are pretty easy — just reading off a calendar. Other things are based on some limited student input; for example, one student reads a whole list of “on this day in history” type events, and selects the one she thinks is most relevant or interesting to include in the announcements. Yet other things will be, I hope, more controlled by students, but at this stage in the school year it is still largely my doing. The kids are only in third grade, and it is still only September.

One thing we have started including is current events. I don’t get to do a lot of social studies activities in the technology lab, so including current events in the morning announcements scratches an itch for me. I think it’s just also good literacy practice for a third grader to read an article and summarize it for first and second graders to hear. We go to sites like Dogo News, Time for Kids, and Scholastic News, find a recent article, and pick out what we think are the most important details.

So on Tuesday morning we acknowledged the presidential debate, because even if people are uncomfortable talking about the candidates themselves at school, I figured we should acknowledge that it happened. I mean, it was the most-watched presidential debate in history, or so my recent Google search has informed me. So I was congratulating myself for getting it out there, so that teachers and students who watched the morning announcements would have an opening to start a conversation about it.

Then came Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday morning I saw this Newela article about the NBA response to protests relating to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It did not say “Black Lives Matter” anywhere in the article, but it’s not hard to figure out they’re referring to it.

MIAMI, Fla. — For more than a year, there have been protests across the United States. People are angry because police officers have shot and killed African-American men. The protestors think the men should not have been shot. They think they were shot because of their skin color. They are protesting for fair treatment by the police.

I thought this was important to include in the news, but I hesitated. Firstly, it’s a heavy topic for kids. Many second graders are still reacting to their September 11th lessons in unexpected ways, like searching for photos of “the Twin Towers burning” when making an “About Me” slide in computer lab. Secondly, it’s a sensitive topic. I’m friends with colleagues and school parents on social media, and I can tell you that their opinions run the gamut from totally on-board to totally opposed, and many things in between. Many make no remark, and I cannot assume their reasons for that, either. On the other hand, the article takes a positive angle in pulling in the perspective of an NBA coach, using sports as a more comfortable lens through which to view the topic.

But I wanted to include it. But, to play it somewhat safe, I wanted to stick with facts.

So where the text originally stated, “People are angry because police officers have shot and killed African-American men,” I altered it slightly. Just an adjective. A simple four-letter word to the beginning of the sentence.

Some.

I have been thinking about it all day.

I regret adding it.

My thought, when adding it, was this. “People are angry” sounds like everybody is angry. But not everybody is angry. Therefore, only some people are angry. I didn’t want students to become confused over hearing something like “everybody is angry” when adults they know might not be angry. They might be indifferent. Or, adults they know might not be angry about police brutality, but rather angry or uncomfortable that the topic is part of a national conversation.

But “some” is a word that makes things smaller. “Some people” sounds a lot smaller than just “people.” And I realize now that “people” might sound like everybody, but it is not a synonym.

I realize now that I should not have changed it. That if students experienced and expressed confusion, those would be teachable moments. I didn’t want to defend myself against dissent. I feel now I was not brave enough.

I was only some brave.

And I need to do better.

Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

Here comes another hot take nobody asked for.

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Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. At a recent preseason game, he declined to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Some time after, he explained:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick pays attention to issues of race (and other social issues) in the United States; even a casual glance at his Twitter reveals this about him. This is not new. But sitting during the national anthem is something that created shockwaves across social media platforms. I would wager that most reactions are angry, scandalized people who vehemently disagree with him. Some folks are a bit softer, reminding others that freedom of speech means that the government allows speech you don’t agree with, like whatever the opposite of patriotism is. A lot of the latter takes on the tone of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But there’s the rub, for me: I don’t disapprove what Kaepernick says, and I defend his right to say it. And I feel so strongly about not disapproving that I felt the need to break it down and discuss it with myself.

Firstly, the concept of respect and how we convey it and demonstrate it is not as universal as many seem to think. Yes, we are taught to stand during the national anthem (and men take off their hats). But I don’t think choosing to sit is inherently disrespectful. If he wanted to show outright disrespect, there are a number of rude gestures he could have employed. But choosing to sit seems more like… more like not showing “the proper amount” of respect, rather than actual disrespect. And “the proper amount” of anything is really up for debate, and varies largely across our population.

Secondly, I strongly feel there are so many ways to be a good American. Let me explain: sometimes my spouse is a good spouse because he does things for me. Sometimes he’s a good spouse because he supports me. And sometimes he’s a good spouse because he calls me on my nonsense when I’m being awful. Some people are good Americans because they sacrifice for this country; some people are good Americans because they support this country in less direct ways. And some people are good Americans because they remind us that our country falls short of its own ideals for many Americans, and they try to move us closer to those ideals. Reflexively we don’t like to be reminded of our imperfections, or imperfections in the things we love. But I would rather attend to a painful, true reminder from someone in that last group; then hear another hollow recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from anybody else. After all, if we all conform to the same uniform demonstrations of banal patriotism, who will challenge us to make positive changes?

I don’t know who Mike Reed is, but a friend of mine shared this image of a post he made on Facebook:

qbYou have as much a right to free speech as Colin Kaepernick does, and you are well within your rights to answer his free speech with your own. But I urge you to think about what, exactly, you are trying to say, and how exactly you’re saying it.

Because Colin Kaepernick certainly did.

Edited to Add (8/31/16 7:23am): It occurs to me, too, now that many people who feel offended by Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem feel strongly about the symbols of our country. It’s possible that these symbols – the song, the flag – only represent the things that are good about the United States. And that’s not inherently wrong. But it is narrow-minded. Clearly the song and the flag do not mean the same things to Colin Kaepernick as they do to many vocal people on social media. And symbols can mean different things to different people. But I think there’s a big problem in assuming conformity – that the symbols do and should mean the same things to all people. Because that leaves no room for differing viewpoints to be voiced and heard, and without that, we live in an echo chamber. Without dissent, the right to free speech seems meaningless.

“Ghettoside” and Charles Kinsey: A White Teacher’s Developing Reflections on Race

Let me start by saying that no one needs my hot take on anything in current events. Not individually, anyway. On the other hand, need to add my voice to the conversation. Not because the conversation needs me, but because the conversation needs many.

Secondly, it’s a conversation I find difficult to enter. I am a white woman who is not directly, personally affected by racism. But it does affect me, like dominoes. My students and their families are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My friends are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My family members are affected by racism, and so it affects me. I struggled with finding a point of entry into the conversation without speaking over someone else, without co-opting someone else’s narrative, without making it about me. So up til now, I’ve mostly been sharing links and retweeting.

But now, two things: I have been reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I am not yet done with this book, but I do have a lot of reflections on it so far. I was waiting to write anything about it until after I finished it. Then, this morning, I checked Twitter to read that yet another unarmed black man has been shot by police. Charles Kinsey was not killed, but he was injured while assisting a client of his, an adult man with autism. He identified himself by his role and complied with all directions. As I commented to a friend on Facebook:

I watched this and wondered, if I were in the exact same position, what would have happened? I would have behaved the same way — complied while explaining. I would have spoken in the same volume and tone. I would have said the same words. Would I get the same wounds? No. What exactly is the difference between me and Charles Kinsey? I’m a white woman. He is a black man. And that difference puts a reticle on him where there isn’t one on me.

Charles Kinsey is just another black, male victim of a police shooting, and for me, the most relatable yet. And that’s a problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Again, I haven’t finished Ghettoside, but it’s already given me a lot to think about. The author’s intention is to focus on the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of “blue before black” L.A. homicide detective Wally Tennelle. But the entire first portion of the book attempts to give context. The author has, so far, discussed:

  • statistics and history on black-on-black crime, locally to Los Angeles, calling it a “plague of murders.”
  • the personalities and histories of individual detectives who work in the predominately black neighborhood where Tennelle was killed.
  • the overall culture of the police (and how the individual detectives may differ in their philosophies).
  • aspects of the culture of the community of the neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, and the things that shape it like stereotypes, and lack of media coverage for major crimes.
  • numerous stories of families affected by homicide investigations.

The author focuses on Los Angeles, but there were several ideas and facts that came up that made me feel like this was also relevant to other communities. To my community.

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The poster on the left was made in response to the death of Eric Garner, but could apply to any number of homicide victims mentioned in Ghettoside.

Okay, so, there’s a lot to sort through here. The first part of the book discusses “black on black” violence, admitting that it is statistically higher than with other demographics. But then it dives deep into the tangle of reasons that may be.

First, I want to express my emotional response to this book so far, as a teacher. The author works hard to delineate between “the police” and “a police officer” and so on. What I mean is, the institution and the individuals who make up the institution are different entities. When the detectives go out into the neighborhoods, they represent the institution rather than themselves as individuals. So when residents accuse them of racism by saying things like, “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” they don’t take it personally. They realize the person is referring to them as police and not individuals. Privately, they may even agree with this perspective.

As a teacher, I felt very affected by this. I am also a public servant who represents a larger institution. And there are definitely instances where my personal philosophy diverges from the one embodied by the institution I represent. I have been accused of racism before, and in the contexts where it has happened, it’s not necessarily wrong. I may, through my job, be asked to enforce an inherently unfair policy, one that was never intended to be racist, but in following it through, it is. One example on a large scale I can think of is standardized testing.

As a teacher, I also related to the description of the allocation of resources, and the workarounds the detectives use. The leader of the department asks for, and is repeatedly denied, things that would make the detectives’ lives easier and help ensure the safety of members of the community they serve. “His requests seemed pretty reasonable for a department that ran its own helicopter fleet,” the author writes on page 68, “Again and again he was turned down.” Resources are not distributed according to need.

I also related to the part where the author discusses some prevalent attitudes in policing policy on page 58 of the hardcover edition:

Cops were told they were supposed to “be proactive,” focus on “suppression,” or practice “crime control.” Showered in such nonsensical orders and jargon, they couldn’t really be blamed for struggling to find purpose in their work… It could feel quite pointless. It didn’t help that even as they were supposedly held to high standards and expected to display the skill and initiative of trained professionals, many so-called innovative policing strategies tended to reduce them to cogs.

I defy any public school teacher to read that and not see yourself and your colleagues in it.

These details did not constitute the bulk of the first part of the book, merely part of it. There are narratives of specific homicides and their investigations. The author discusses some major barriers to homicide investigations in neighborhoods where “the shadow system” of law is more pervasive than the formal system. Witness intimidation. Distrust of police. The author discusses how programs and policies meant to address these issues, well-intended as they may be, fall short.

On reflection, it feels very easy to blame black people for their own circumstances. “When your business dealings are illegal, you have no legal recourse,” the author writes on page 79. “Violence substituted for contract litigation.” But on the very next page the author describes how gangs, “pointlessly self-destructive” as they may be, form. Banding together for mutual protection is a normal human response to the vacuum of legitimate legal authority. “Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.”

But Ms. D! you say. There are police in these neighborhoods! People just don’t respect them! Ah, well. The police department, as an authority, undermines itself when it hyper-focuses on small infractions and fails to follow through on the appropriate response to serious, community-destroying crimes such as homicide. “Street hustlers would make it clear that they would rather have formal justice if given the choice: they’d call 911,” the author states on page 83. “Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and were answering to another authority — shadow law.”

And the author discusses the struggle between what you experience in your job and what you want to believe in your heart. From page 65:

No one in the wider world wanted to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, seemed more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.

Many cops fell back on a rhetoric of “choice,” that some individuals choose violence. That way they didn’t have to make uncomfortable generalizations of black people as a group. But if people choose violence, then they also can be blamed for violence. “And since blame also served as a satisfying distancing mechanism, officers ended by blaming not just suspects but victims.” And when many cops carry that attitude, it becomes easy to distrust all cops, because you can’t tell just by looking at someone what they think of you and how they’re likely to behave. As reported by Psychology Today:

The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly… In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

And that’s also why it’s problematic that I see Charles Kinsey as a “more relatable” victim. The author writes on page 33 how a particular detective learned to view all homicide victims.

“She ain’t a whore no more,” he said. “She’s some daddy’s baby.” Wally Tennelle loved that philosophy. Whatever the wider world’s response, the homicide detective’s call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel. The murdered were inviolate. They all deserved the same justice.

Many words are devoted to describing attitudes towards the black residents of Watts; conveying that “gang member” is the new “n” word when diminishing the value of a black male’s life, for instance. How some police officers felt that “the whole culture of the black community is crime;” “they love selling drugs;” they “could better their lives, but they don’t.” “I like to think it is a choice,” says one gang detective on page 65. “Even in this environment, you have a choice!” A different detective, one set up by the author as a protagonist, has a different perspective described on page 88:

Skaggs had concluded that many residents connected to Watts murder cases were ordinary people, trapped by conditions of lawlessness. Coercion and intimidation lay behind much of their apparent “acceptance” of violence, he thought… Skaggs also saw that many victims had no role in provoking the attacks that killed them. His colleagues insisted that Watts had no real victims.

It’s important to point out that the focus of Ghettoside is not police brutality or the misconduct of police officers. It’s focus is the fact that there is a “plague of murders” affecting a community that the media largely turns a blind eye to. Jill Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, wrote the book with the knowledge that her employer was only covering about ten percent of all homicides in the city. But it does shed light on attitudes and on policy, both in policing and in society at large, that could stand to be scrutinized and reformed. #BlackLivesMatter not only in terms of police interactions, but in terms of media coverage and our prevailing attitude towards black on black crime.

My thoughts: when we call on the black community to address these problems, we overlook and diminish the ways in which they already are addressing these problems. And we, as white people wearing the blinders of privilege, make it harder for the black community to make positive differences. Our attitudes change at our convenience, not upon real conversion. We derail discussions when we respond by saying, “All Lives Matter!” And while we may follow through as far as arguing that point on social media, we fall short of demonstrating that all lives matter to us when we fail to challenge policies that maintain inequalities and preserve discrimination. If all lives truly matter, than we need to act like we matter to each other.

So, white community, what if we use our white privilege for good? Acknowledge the goodness within individual police officers while addressing problems with policing, such as resource allocation and training — problems that also plague public education. Ask our government to study gun violence as a public health concern. Acknowledge that these issues are complicated and part of larger issues of prejudice that can’t be solved with hashtags alone. Listen to the points made by those most directly affected. Educate ourselves before joining the conversation. Understand that examining our own prejudices may be individually painful in the short term, but will be beneficial to our communities in the long run; it’s worth doing. When I choose to help dismantle institutional discrimination that benefits me directly, I’m actually being selfish, because I know I will reap benefits later on when my students and their families begin to experience the positive effects in their lives.

Update 7/23/16: According to NPR, the officer who shot Kinsey had actually meant to shoot Kinsey’s client.

What does the U.S. Constitution actually say? Show Notes

Show Notes for What does the U.S. Constitution actually say?

Research sources:

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Image: U.S. Supreme Court, under construction by David Lat at FreeImages.com