The Bigger Picture—
June 11, 2015
The story of black teenagers, specifically a teenage girl in a bikini being brutalized by a white male officer during a high school graduation pool party celebration in McKinney, Texas outraged a lot of people. It was just another wake up call that our progress may not be as great as we would like to believe. But the outrage continued to grow as people weighed in on the incident – one high school principal in Miami saying that he thought the cop was right to aggressively tackle a young woman who was clearly not armed because the officer “feared for his life.” A fourth grade teacher in another school district in TX said “the blacks” were causing the race problem and thought it would be better if we returned to segregation so blacks can “hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone.” I guess white people are synonymous with innocent in her lexicon? Thanks to social media seeming more like a kitchen table at your best friend’s house than a public forum, many people and their discriminatory views are being outed – at least the ones who are closeted.
Other stories brought other societal matters into view. One headline focused on four black parole officers who were stopped by white police officers and held at gun point because of a call that came in reporting that they were wearing bullet proof vests. The parole officers were on official duty and are now suing the local police for racial profiling. In another story, another Texas middle school teacher (Texas seems like a great state, huh?) created the “Ghetto Awards” for students in special education classes. The teacher defended her words by saying she was joking and didn’t intend the word ghetto to be derogatory. In Berkley, California, a high school’s yearbook talked about the school’s minority students being the future blue collar workforce.
Amidst all of the news surrounding these racial infractions was the story about Kalief Browder, a young black man who was arrested at 16 for a crime he didn’t commit, spent three years in jail without ever receiving a trial, faced abuse from prisoners and officers and ultimately took his own life. His story underscored the unjust and often inhumane ways that people are treated within the criminal justice system. Bringing home the point were the stories of a maximum security prison in Louisiana where, as one article claimed, modern day slavery still exists and the ordered release of Albert Woodfox, one of the ‘Angola 3’ who served nearly 40 years in solitary confinement at that same prison. Despite numerous issues and racial discrimination being identified in his trials, the state Attorney General has contested the rulings and plans to appeal this latest order.
Bias is something we all have. Those biases often play out in different ways and the narratives surrounding different types of people lead us to make varying judgements about them. But when you are in the group that has historically made all the rules and those rules have always benefitted other members of your group, those biases play out in a very different way. The result is a system of inequality for anyone who is outside of the group in power.
When we talk about systems of inequality, they can all be found in the current events from this week. The criminal justice system which has more black people in custody than were enslaved 10 years before the civil war has a crippling effect on the black community. Not only are crimes committed by blacks given tougher sentences, but there are many times when someone is innocent but because of the bias against them, they are presumed guilty. Every interaction a person of color has with the criminal justice system is likely to be met with unfair disparities. The same can be said for education. When teachers have bias against the students they teach, they are likely to grade more harshly, report the student more for smaller disciplinary infractions or ignore the student altogether.
In the fight for social justice, we have to keep things in perspective and see the bigger picture. When we have small wins, like McKinney Corporal Casebolt resigning or the teacher who believed segregation was the answer being fired, we have to remember, that is not ultimate victory – not even close. The systems that exist are part of a larger and much more powerful structure that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, create inequalities in our community. If we spend our time and energy focused on the small events and wins, we fail to see how these things are not only interconnected, but part of a plan that will continue to diminish the potential of our community as a whole.