Friday, July 8, 2016

Unity: Why We Don't Have It

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, in a landmark decision, that segregation in schools and in society was unconstitutional. It would take another twenty years to integrate schools. In the meantime an entire Civil Rights movement occurred and even a Civil Rights Act, all with the intent that previously second class citizens could have equal rights and equal protection under the law. Did it do some good? Of course it did. But if you think true equality has been achieved, you haven’t been watching the news for the last year and a half. There are actually people who would tell you that racism died with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Those people would be white. Then there are some who will admit there is a problem and throw up their hands with the attitude that nothing can be done about this. It’s just what we do. Racism will always exist. It’s human nature. I say that’s bullshit. I’ve seen proof of it. Here’s the primary reason racism continues.

But first, we need to clarify something. Everyone has bias. It’s hard not to. I have a positive bias for the New Orleans Saints. I love my team. I have a favorite. I might also have a bit of disdain—a negative bias—for the Atlanta Falcons. That comes with the territory. I also have a bias for my own family. I’d generally make my own family a priority in most cases. Who wouldn’t? Everyone has bias. It’s not even out of the question to prefer to hang around people with similar ethnic, cultural, or religious particulars. Prejudice, however, is a strong negative bias against a group of people with some kind of commonality. It lumps everyone in that group together, regardless of a person’s individuality. Combined with unfair stereotypes and assumptions about everyone in that group, prejudice becomes a strong negative attitude that breeds hatred and can lead to discrimination, which is prejudice-based action against members of that group. It assumes the worst in people, rather than the best.

Racism, however, takes on a different social dynamic. Racism occurs under the social framework of the powerful and the powerless. This dynamic exists throughout society. Bosses and workers. Teachers and students. Parents and children. There are people or groups in power. They want to stay in power. So they do what they can to maintain the status quo and remain dominant. The wealthy want to preserve their wealth and influence. Politicians concern themselves with reelection. Teachers enact rules and consequences to maintain order in their classrooms. With racism, there is a dominant cultural, racial, social, or religious group who seeks to maintain that status quo. Muslims, in some countries, are intolerant of Jews or Christians. In South Africa, the minority white population has historically sought to restrict the rights of blacks. In the US, you could be a minority in a certain neighborhood and be singled out for racism; white in a black neighborhood, black in a Hispanic neighborhood, and so on. And of course, there are plenty of white Americans in our country who seek to restrict the rights of black, Hispanic, Muslim, and even Native American groups.

Whether we’re talking about prejudice, discrimination, or racism, there is one thing in common with all of it. It’s indoctrinated. It’s taught. What you learn about people of other groups depends on one’s environment. That doesn’t mean that a person brought up with prejudice can’t change their minds. That decision to evolve one’s viewpoint also is a product of environment. As an educator, I’ve taught in a variety of these environments. Personally, I was schooled in a small, all-white private school in a little south Louisiana town. I went to college with thirty thousand people of all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I have taught in 100% black schools in impoverished neighborhoods. I have taught in predominantly white suburban schools. But currently, I teach in a school situated in the most richly diverse neighborhoods you can imagine. Every day, I teach white, black, Latino, Muslim, Catholic, Mormon, Native American, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Buddhist, Bengali, Arab, German, British, Hmong, Laotian, Samoan, Tongan, gay, straight, transgender, and Jewish kids. And I’m just scraping the surface. Do you know what I don’t see a lot of in my school? Racism. Prejudice. Bullying. Discrimination. These kids all grow up together. They see each other as people, and only people. No one is vying for dominance as a group. There is no us or them. No status quo. Everyone gets to be unique, and everyone gets along despite the differences in view, culture, language, and creed.

This has taught me that de facto segregation in our country is one of the primary culprits in perpetuating hate and prejudice. When legal segregation ended, and schools were beginning to integrate, the white population responded by founding all-white private schools. People uprooted their families and moved further out into what became the suburbs. They could afford it. Black and Latino families couldn’t. These white families took with them their superior consumer buying power and their businesses. Job opportunities and tax dollars left these minority families and ensured that these low income slums became more desperate. Desperation breeds crime. Suddenly dads start going to jail, leaving single-parent households with less income. People sell drugs to get extra cash because the Quickie Mart doesn’t pay worth a shit, and so addiction rises. Prostitution becomes rampant, and then so do STDs. Without an adequate tax base, there is no money to properly staff and furnish schools. Thus begins the cycle.

Neighborhoods are now often segregated by race and ethnicity. They develop their own culture. People grow up with different states of mind and different values. In poor, minority neighborhoods, survival takes priority. These are people that have never seen education better a person’s life. They have never seen a school or a teacher who truly cares about their students. You have to do what you have to do to survive. That’s life. In the suburbs, kids are raised with relative privilege. Good schools, a path to college, a new cell phone for their birthday, and access to healthcare. Wealthy kids are raised with yet another set of conditions and values. With these values come attitudes about the world, about life, and about people outside of their own communities. One person might be raised in an all-white area and taught to view black people as lazy, ignorant, thieving, welfare leaches. He or she might be taught to call these people all kinds of horrible things. They tell racist jokes rife with stereotypes. They avoid black people in the supermarket. They avoid any unnecessary contact. Another person might be raised in an all-black neighborhood across town. The grandparents still remember the days of open racism. They remember the fire hoses and segregation. They remember being specifically targeted by outright racist police officers. They remember what people called them to their faces. They teach their kids, and their kids teach their kids. They teach that those white people across town don’t care about you. The cops don’t care about you, and will even target you over anyone else. No one will ever lift a finger for your well-being. YOUR LIFE DOESN’T MATTER. Sometimes they’re right. But that’s not the real problem.

The real problem is that people are indoctrinated without any way to challenge that upbringing. Segregation limits who you grow up around. It limits contact with people that are different from yourself. You grow up with stereotypes for other groups, and all it takes is even the occasional example of truth in them to confirm what you have always been taught. A person needs long-lasting exposure to people of different groups to undo the prejudice and hatred that is often learned from birth. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it work. I’ve experienced this myself. I am one of those people. My mind has changed gradually over the years. The more people of diverse backgrounds I talk to and come to understand, the more clearly I see. The longer we segregate ourselves and shy away from diversity, the longer our problems persist. Look beyond your biases and your cultural indoctrination. People are people, and yes there are bad ones. But if we are to defeat the division and achieve unity—black, white, cop, civilian—we must cast aside all notions of us and them. Come to know your brothers and sisters. Spend time with people of differing backgrounds and viewpoints. Converse with people who disagree with you. Open your mind to someone else’s perspective. Start today. Please…hurry up.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Choosing Sides: Choose Justice

Seems simple, right? Choose justice. A murderer goes to prison. A thief, a rapist, arsonist, whatever. Why should that change given the color of someone’s skin or the type of occupation the person holds? Our society is rife with contradiction. We hold ideals of democracy, yet allow corporations and wealthy people to buy candidates through their donations. People claim to hold Christian values and then complain about poor, food insecure people being on assistance. We hold the Constitution as our compass, and then then talk about banning Muslims. We idealize freedom and then want to limit gay and lesbian couples from getting married. All men are created equal, unless you’re black, Hispanic, non-Christian, gay, transgender, or homeless. Why don’t we get back to basics? Disregard a person’s race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, political party, or occupation. What’s right is right.

I’m sick of the immediate, blind choosing of sides any time some kind of outrage emerges in the media. A black man gets shot by a police officer, and like clockwork, the NAACP calls for the mayor to resign. People start raising hell, assuming that all cops are racist, and then Jesse Jackson shows up to organize a protest. At the same time, others go on the immediate defensive. Backing the Blue! No matter what. These are public servants, they put their lives on the line, any traffic stop can turn fatal, etc. And these groups just yell at each other for a few days until we find something else to distract us or something new to be outraged about. How about this? Sometimes the perp deserves it…and…sometimes the cop fucks up. There is no automatic either/or. Why don’t we hold off on the verdict until we have all the facts in place?

I understand Black Lives Matters. I understand why that phrase holds significance apart from “all lives matter”. Of course all lives matter. What Black Lives Matter should have been called is Black Lives Matter, Too. It’s not a stretch for a person to recognize that murder, addiction, crime, and poverty in poor, black neighborhoods is downplayed in the media and taken as a given by people who don’t grow up in that environment. In fact many people end up just attributing those kinds of problems to the people—that’s what those people do; that’s how they are. They… Those people… Disregard. Get my latte. Binge watch Fuller House on Netflix. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s what Black Lives Matter is about. When a black man or woman is murdered in the slums, we don’t give a shit. When they suffer excessive force, profiling, or are shot while unarmed by either a police officer or unofficial neighborhood watchman, we don’t give a shit. We side with the officer. We side with the white guy. Two teenage boys in two different neighborhoods get caught with weed. Guess which one goes to jail and guess which one gets dropped off to his parents for some in-home discipline. There is a real problem. There is such a thing as a racist cop. There is such a thing as police brutality and abuse of power.

But…this doesn’t excuse you from committing crime. Commit crime, and get arrested. Resist arrest, and get your ass whipped. That’s common sense. If you pull a gun on a cop or try to grab his weapon, you might get shot, and the officer is going to be in the right. They have the right to defend their lives and the lives of others. In fact, that’s their duty. Serve and protect. We cannot automatically assume that a black man killed by a white cop is racially motivated. We cannot assume immediately that this is an injustice. Sometimes, the guy deserves it. Sometimes (actually most of the time), the actions of the officer are warranted and justified. When we start making the cop the bad guy, it erodes public faith in our law enforcement. We can’t have that. These officers and their agencies must maintain integrity and authority in the community.

That being said, the officers, have to conduct themselves with integrity to maintain public trust. Respect isn’t a given. It’s earned. Law enforcement agencies must be cognizant of the actions of the people within their employ. Every business in the world fires people who either can’t cut it, mistreat others, or otherwise cause a negative view of that business. Shouldn’t police departments? Misuse of power should not be tolerated. If you’re bad at being a cop, you should go. That includes killing another citizen who is unarmed. Sometimes, when a cop screws up at their job, innocent people lose their lives. That’s not something to take lightly. These are people. Their lives do matter. They have a right to due process before losing life or liberty. Police departments cannot allow corruption, needless brutality, and committing criminal acts. Hold your officers accountable. Show that you strive to make your agency fair and honorable. Show that you are on the side of justice. The vast majority of American police officers are normal people. Law-abiding, decent, people with honorable intentions and values. But it’s ridiculous to automatically assume that about all officers. There are bound to be some bad apples.

My point is this:  we cannot assume that a police officer is always right any more than we can assume that the perpetrator is always in the wrong. When a new story or new video of a black man getting shot by a cop hits Facebook, CNN, and Vice, don’t just automatically choose a side. The victim might be in the wrong. The cop might be wrong. It might even be more complicated than that. Throw aside your bias. If you’re going to pick a side, pick the side of justice, wherever that may fall.