The picture above was the focus of a snarky Tweet yesterday
during the #BlackFair event, hosted by #BlackLivesMatter, at the Minnesota State Fair. (Update: Via Denise VB, this is a picture of Dorian Johnson, the young man with Michael Brown in Ferguson last year.)
It’s easy enough to get caught up in the bitter back and forth that happens on social media around this topic, especially when people like Deray McKesson and Shaun King are the visible leaders of the movement. And the anger that comes with news of the assassination of a Texas Sheriff Deputy (in the county I spent my first 10 formative years, no less) for no apparent reason is understandable. I felt it. Police are indispensable to a civilized nation. They don’t deserve to be targeted and killed in the streets for their chosen profession, which is noble. And the purpose of #BLM does not seem to be to address the plight of young black people at risk on the streets of their own neighborhoods. It seems rather to be the disruption of society as a whole for the sake of electoral politics.
A gentleman in the neighborhood in which the killer of the deputy lived had this to say in a local interview:
When emotion is running that high, logic runs low.
And this, too, made me think…well, let me just unwind my thoughts for you. You may not agree, but I think it’s important that we talk instead of react.
I’ve taught what used to be called remedial English for several years at a local community college. Now they call it Skills Advancement. These are classes in reading and writing for students who either didn’t get the level of instruction needed in high school to prepare them for college-level academic work, or because their own life circumstances prohibited them from engaging sufficiently to acquire these skills.
My classrooms are diverse without exception. They are a metropolitan mix of black, white, Hispanic, mixed-race, young, old, and immigrant students. At least 95% of them come from or are currently in a lower socioeconomic class. In a classroom like mine, cultural differences stand out to a startling degree. Surprisingly, socioeconomic status is not the most visually pronounced among these differences. Almost everyone has a smart phone and at least one piece of jewelry.
Yet young people tend to have more tattoos, while older people and immigrants are generally more appropriately dressed for the academic setting. White students with the common Anglo-Midwestern accent come early and prepared for class, regardless of gender. White young men who have adapted to the racial diversity of their neighborhoods, who dress and talk like young black men, sit at the front of the class and tend to be loud and gregarious; their black counterparts generally sit at the back and hunker down in their chairs, sullen and reluctant to engage. The young black men who sit at the front of my classroom and answer my general questions to the class are, almost to the person, raised by grandmothers instead of mothers. These observations might lead one to make certain judgments, but then essay assignments come due, and the view changes.
The immigrant students often write about their journey to America, or the dire circumstances in their own countries that compelled them to pursue a passage to safety. The young black women in my class write narratives about the tattoos they have that mark the lives of two, five, or ten people they’ve known who have died, their grief over these deaths so profound they felt a permanent marker on their bodies was necessary. The children raised by grandparents will write an ode to that grandparent or grandparents, where relief and gratitude for the lives they’ve led are etched into descriptive techniques I teach them. Without fail, a young white girl will tell me she doesn’t have anything to write about, because nothing has happened to her yet.
Older students will write about how much of their lives they sacrificed to give a proper home to their children, or how that sacrifice did not prevent the consequences of a life of poverty. Prison narratives are common, as are arrest narratives, but they differ. Prison narrative are told where the significance of accountability is almost always pronounced. With arrest narratives, the significance tends to be the surprise that comes with having fun disrupted by the presence of police, and even though a confession of wrong-doing may be made in the essay, accountability is rare. Race is not a factor in the presentation of these essays, but it usually is in the likelihood of topic choice.
America means something different to each of these groups of students. The opinions and heart-felt beliefs they express are of a staggering magnitude. They are often in conflict with each other.
It’s the narratives of these diverse students and the pictures like the one at the top of this post that make me rethink my own harsh critique the Black Lives Matter movement. With #BLM, it’s not the topic choice I oppose; it’s the presentation. I know from personal experience, both from having lived a life of poverty as a child, and as a teacher now to students who, like me once upon a time, are seeking a way out, that poverty and police intersect frequently. I know that young people die on the streets of America’s poor neighborhoods, both as collateral to rampant crime and as a police reaction to that crime. I also know that as a country, we do have an ethic of human worth and dignity, but that ethic gets lost somewhere on the way to Cabrini Green, or Lincoln Park, or 42nd & Post, to use my own city as example. It’s not that the ethic doesn’t trickle down; it’s that it increases as a result of having something to lose.
The young man in the picture has pain; it is evident in the scrunch of his face and the earnest, pleading look in his eye. A few months ago his expression was likely one of anger, but the Black Lives Matter movement has managed to unlock the grief in his heart that informed that anger. They have done that by front-paging the deaths of many young black people, some (not all) of whom made choices that contributed to their own deaths. (Yes, that will anger some people who agree with #BLM, but it is nonetheless true.) But they have also done this through a callous organizing by activists who were trained to pull at the heartache of disadvantaged people and to provoke them with highly emotional incidents and subsequent gatherings that heighten that emotional state.
In this emotional state, logic abilities are not as accessible. The truth of the matter is that the young man’s anger and grief are not likely the result of his daily interactions with white America—they are likely the result of his daily interactions with black America. If statistics are any indication, he is likely not from an intact family. His extended family is likely vast and fractured. His educational experience has not prepared him for success in our culture. His economic experience is likely fraught with desperation. His lack of opportunity, likely born of choices his elders made, is the source of his frustration. These dynamics may have driven him to take chances you or I would never consider, let alone take. And yet it is not the elders or the people in his community who have failed him that he blames; it is you or me, or the police officers in his neighborhood who are just trying to make a living and drew his neighborhood as the luck of their draw.
This is where my own harsh critique of #BLM comes into play. And maybe it’s not my own critique that has changed, but my presentation of it. I’ve been angry, but it occurs to me that anger is not a helpful response.
I’m stuck in the middle. I’m a white American—previously poor, now of lower middle class. I’m not the target audience for either side. I’m watching this back and forth like a backgammon game, and my own thoughts and emotions are also being slowly ratcheted up. I’m of certain demographic classes—whether that be classified by gender, race, or socioeconomic class—that will certainly suffer as the war that both sides now openly talk about heats up. My life intersects with other demographic classes far more than the factions on either side of this war.
My jobs (I have two) as an educator and social worker are to 1) teach diverse Americans in a community college setting, and to 2) police the fractured family structures that must be dragged before the family courts in the name of child safety. This puts me in a perilous position, and I admit, I am very afraid.
I see firsthand day in and day out the complete dysfunction inherent in isolated, segregated communities. These communities are not segregated by race, but by socioeconomic status–almost the opposite of my experience in the classroom. It is within these socioeconomically segregated communities that people self-segregate by race or life-style. They keep to their own and in doing so, reinforce negative habits and poor choices.
Everyday I come face-to-face with what could have been my own fate if I had not had one critical person who was able to put their own needs and wants aside to address the needs and wants of my childhood. That’s all it takes—one person. So many of the people I encounter don’t have that one person. They may be loved by the people in their lives, but love is not enough. Sacrifice is also required. A socio-political movement cannot be a substitute for that one person.
That’s the truth I know, and that’s what leads to me where I am today. I’m not angry today. I am afraid today and I am sad. We’re not moving in a direction where change is likely to happen. We’re just mad at each other all the time, and blaming, without accountability for ourselves and our actions. We shoot off at the mouth or the gun and we just keep making things worse. Not you in particular, but all of us, or most of us. We need to be able to address these issues calmly, but the leading parties are only interested in disruption or reaction. There is no room for logic in that cycle. We can’t even have a dialogue in a state of crisis like this.