Robin Bernstein, the author of the book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood From Slavery to Civil Rights recently published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just Be Kids” that really tugged at my heartstrings. It opens with the example of George Zimmerman thinking Trayvon Martin was “a little bit younger” than him, meanwhile the boy was 17 while the man was nearly 30. Bernstein reviews numerous examples besides Trayvon Martin—and unfortunately there are too many to count—Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, the list goes on—where this faulty assumption of African American children being guilty of adult-like crimes, that they likely could not even fathom for themselves– has cost them their lives. Yet we must remember that these tragic cases are only the tip of the iceberg of what one of Joe Feagin’s interviewees has identified as the “daily murders” of racism and white privilege happening to children of color across our society, every minute the clock ticks.
Even when they are not shot to death mistakenly by police, people of color are routinely assumed to be untrustworthy and up to no good. Not just by police, but by everyday stakeholders making decisions that could affect the rest of their lives. Medical doctors, social workers, and teachers, just to name a few, make decisions on a daily basis that negatively impact people of color as compared to their white peers. These decisions are often made by people who see themselves as “colorblind” and unbiased. The Sadkers’ research, and other more recent studies looking at the intersection of gender and racial bias, are poignant in that, when teachers are presented with video/observation evidence of themselves doing these things, they can tend to even shock themselves. There is a boatload of denial surrounding the everyday racism and sexism that permeates our society.
When I read Bernstein’s piece, I immediately thought of my own son’s struggles in school. Both my son and my daughter have, unfortunately, come to expect now that when a group of kids in school are caught talking too loudly or doing something needing reprimanding, it is their names that will be called and singled out when a mostly white group is doing all that and more. They both are striking in appearance, taller and bigger than most of the kids their age, and also not white. My daughter’s coping strategy has been, when she is counted out, she works even harder to prove folks wrong, and very often does. Her grades are stellar (all A’s) and her confidence is too. But while my son is smart as a whip, with a memory like a steel trap—he’s still in elementary school with one teacher all day, so how his teacher perceives him—-I am learning—-will make or break how he ends up performing academically all year long. And this past year, his teacher perceived him as up to no good, not working up to his potential.
Determined not to be a hovercraft parent, or one of those annoying parents who believes their kid’s “stuff don’t ever stink,” I tried to hang back and not over-interfere—even as I watched his confidence tank and told myself the “tough love” approach would be good for him later. All year I heard story after story of him being reprimanded for things other kids were doing too. It touched me so much when a guidance counselor asked my son to go into the bathroom and intervene in a situation with some younger boys, and he came home saying proudly, “I know Mrs. XXX trusts me”—and he was beaming from ear to ear. Because this is the kind of “trust” he did not get from his classroom teacher—that benefit of the doubt, that confidence in him to be a good citizen and do the right thing. While none of the almost exclusively white middle class female staff of this school would ever see themselves as making any decisions that have anything to do with race, when I read Bernstein’s essay, and when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I am reminded of how much our (white) society writ large expects grown-up maturity out of our children of color, and reserves the space to “let kids be kids” almost exclusively for whites. This daily injustice is what spawns all the coping strategies of being “twice as good,” and the unfairness of mediocre, average whites making it to the top and beyond each and every day—because they were allowed to mess up, fail, and come back from it.
The students in my college classrooms are heavily military, so in discussing racism in the military, we recently came across this new study, showing that black service members face more disciplinary actions than their white counterparts, in every branch of service. This criminalization of nonwhite mistakes is a pattern that those studying the school-to-prison pipeline know well. As with criminal justice system racial disparities, we know that some of these African Americans may have indeed committed these crimes, and some may not have done anything at all. But in either case, the whites who make the same mistakes are not being punished with the same gusto. I am here to tell you my kids mess up sometimes, as do I. But my son’s mistakes cost him a whole year of not being on the honor roll when he should have been, a whole year of assaults to his confidence that did not have to go down that way. He is just a child that wants to goof off and be silly sometimes. And I wish he could be able to do that just as often, and with just as much gusto, as his white counterparts. I want to live in that kind of society.
We must remember that the local decision makers and stakeholders carrying out white privilege in everyday Americans’ lives usually are not the ones who created this notion of white “virtue” to begin with. The lower-middle class female entry-level teacher or social worker or police officer just feeding her family, carrying out someone else’s policies that she did not created, and hoping she doesn’t get fired due to budget cuts, is not ultimately to blame for the fate our children face. As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey argue in their new book Elite Men Ruling:
From the distant past to the present, much of the effort to create and maintain this dominant white racial frame has come from powerful white men. This is not surprising, for they are central to the frame—especially its accent on virtue. . . [T]he word virtue is derived from the Latin vir, which means man or hero. Early on, in the development of the North American colonies, white men were supposed to exhibit the supposed manly virtues of courage, strength, and piety. Most white men, then as now, have implicitly or explicitly accented certain masculine virtues. They have often exuded an arrogance about what is human virtue and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there is virtue. Not surprisingly, the dominant white frame has been replete with anti-black and other anti-others subframes—that is, subframes targeting “those people” as generally unvirtuous.
To reshape our society, we cannot settle for pointing fingers at “implicit bias” in only the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. If it were only individual biases among certain (white) officers and teachers to blame, and our highest courts of law and lawmakers were truly practicing justice, then such biases would be fairly punished and ferreted out, unable to systematically take root in institutional practice at large. Media, cultural, political practices all work to reinforce the white-virtue subframe such that a time rarely comes for us to be challenged about it. It becomes the air we breathe, whether we are white, Latino, black, male, female, or anywhere in between.
Bernstein rightly points out that, in trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools (Audre Lorde) by striving to prove that nonwhite kids are “just as innocent,” we reify this white racially framed dichotomy of (white) innocence/virtue versus (nonwhite) evil, which is a bit out of touch with reality. After all, whites’ mistakes are routinely overlooked, dismissed, forgiven, pardoned—-their conflicts with police are somehow “deescalated” without killing anyone. Whites, and white children, are hardly ever 100% “innocent”—our mostly white-controlled society just permits them to learn and grow and be full human beings more readily than it permits the rest.
I’m dreaming for the day when all those with the power to shape our kids’ future remember what it was like to be a kid—having fun, being loud, messing up, and getting back up again– and see that common humanity in all kids, not just those who “look like them.”