To be young, male and black in America means not being allowed to make mistakes. Forgetting this, as we’ve seen so many times, can be fatal.So begins When youthful mistakes turn deadly, a powerful column in the Washington Post that went on line last evening.
Michael Brown made at least one mistake - walking in the middle of the road. That he controlled. But of course that is not a capital offense.
It is well-written piece which you should read, although I would quibble with Robinson that Brown "took" the cigars since (a) we now have the full video, and know that when he realized he did not have enough to pay for all only took those he paid for; (b) the lawyer for the store has said that no one from the store called the police to notify them of the incident; and, most importantly, (c) even the Ferguson police chief has now acknowledged that Officer Wilson had no knowledge of the incident when he shot Brown.
Here is another brief example of Robinson's cogent writing:
When Officer Darren Wilson stopped him, did Brown respond with puffed-up attitude? For a young black man, thatWhen I was growing up in the 50s. at the time of the beginnings of the Civil Rights era, a period extending far longer than it should have been necessary, the term used was not "puffed-up attitude" but "uppity" mean that "N***er" did not "know his place" and the result could often be fatal - ask Emmett Till.
I have few more excerpts to offer and a few more observations of my own to share. If you simply go read the entire Robinson piece, I will be happy, although I would also be honored if you keep reading what I have to offer.
First from me -
imagine a pattern of one group in a country using force to brutalize and intimidate another. Perhaps that division is by religion, perhaps by ethnicity (although in the case of those of color too often those of white Northern European background assert superiority by demeaning those divisions as "tribes") - would we not be complaining about violations of human rights (unless perhaps it was "Christians" suppressing Muslims)? Might not a consistent pattern of this, whether directly under the color of law or by acquiescence on the part of legal authorities in the actions of civilians not at least be described as terroristic in its intent? There is after all internal terrorism within a nation's borders. We should know. After all, the Ku Klux Klan operated with impunity for decades, and not just in the states of the Old Confederacy, or border states like Maryland (which still has Klan activity in Frederick and perhaps on the Eastern Shore as well) - the nation's largest chapter in the 1920s was in Indiana.
As a teacher I wonder how many of my fellows will be willing to use this incident to honestly discuss both the history of racism and racial violence in this nation as well as the still unhealed wounds in American society?
Robinson discusses extensively the disparate treatment of whites and blacks for similar offenses, both in arrests and in sentencing. He acknowledges that it can be, as it seems in Ferguson, the results of a police force very mismatched with the demographics of the community, yet note the problem exists even with more demographically balanced law enforcement. He then writes
I believe the central problem is that a young black man who encounters a police officer is assumed to have done something wrong and to be capable of violence. These assumptions make the officer more prepared than he otherwise might be to use force — even deadly force.I think back to the high school where I taught for 13 years. It was majority black, although not as heavily black as the school system as a whole, because we had magnet programs that drew from a larger community, and several of these, most notably our admission-by-exam Science and Technology program, were far more white (and Asian) than the school as a whole. There was too often a disparate treatment for similar infractions between white science and tech students and regular kids of color - whether being in the hall without a pass, or even how closely passes were scrutinized. Even in a school with an almost completely black administrative structure one could question if students might not have felt a sense of inequity, one that in the larger world could have much more serious consequences that one to three days in in-school suspension.
These leads to what I think is the key paragraph in Robinson's column, the penultimate, which reads
The real tragedy is that racist assumptions are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. If young black men are treated unfairly by the justice system, they are indeed more likely to have arrest records — and, perhaps, to harbor resentment against police authority. They may indeed feel they have nothing to lose by exhibiting defiance. In some circumstances — and these may include the streets of Ferguson — they may feel that standing up to the police is a matter of self-respect.standing up to the police is a matter of self-respect - perhaps, but one that far too often can have tragic, even fatal, consequences. Particularly if the police are militarized, no appropriately trained, and harbor racist attitudes. All three of those conditions were apparent in Ferguson, and in the St. Louis County police force as well.
With yet another tragic result.
Pete Seeger wrote a song derived from a novel by an award-winning Soviet author, Mikhail Sholokhov. The novel was titled in English And Quiet Flows the Don, the song was an anti-war song titled "Where have all the flowers gone?" and it had the tag line
"Oh, when will they ever learn?"
Is not that a question, now almost 400 years since a Dutch ship with what were officially black indentured servants began the period of slavery in Virginia, just short of 150 years since ratification of the 13th Amendment officially abolishing slavery, 50 years since signing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, that we should ask of ourselves as a nation and a society?
When will WE ever learn? that racial discrimination, racial fear are not acceptable, and certainly not in the enforcement of our laws?
How is this NOT a violation of the principle established in the 14th Amendment in 1870 of Equal Protection of the Law?
So again I ask, When will WE ever learn?"
As I begin another school year, about to see my students official beginning the tomorrow, I hope that I can model that it does not have to be that way.
What about you?