Lessons for White Teachers Who Are Teaching About Ferguson

The bottom line for me as a teacher, a teacher educator, as a social justice activist, as a white man, and as a human being is this. Is it possible to get whites, especially white teachers to understand or empathize with conditions faced by inner city blacks and Latinos, and if it is, how do we do it?
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New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently commented, "One thing the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., has sent back to the surface is just how difficult it is to have cross-racial discussions about crime and punishment in this country." This is because blacks and whites in the United States, at least according to Blow, "perceptually and experientially" live in "vastly different worlds." Blow cites a study by the Sentencing Project that found "white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality." But it is important to note that this is not all white people.

As a white teacher educator at a suburban university, I have grappled with how to help white student teachers and white teachers working in minority neighborhoods understand, at least on some level, anger in African American communities over the death by cop of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn housing project, and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. While these deaths have been in the news lately, the killing of unarmed black men and boys by police is not new to minority communities and has led to deep-seated suspicion of police and governmental authority. At this writing we await a decision by a Staten Island grand jury whether to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner.

In a televised address after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, President Barack Obama acknowledged the "deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color," but called on Americans to accept the decision, and denounced illegal protests that led to the destruction of property and violence. The President announced that he had "instructed Attorney General Holder to work with cities across the country to help build better relations between communities and law enforcement."

President Obama's is a very desirable goal, but it is not clear to me how this will be possible when black men, especially young black men, are always considered suspect, police officers are trained to shoot to kill, and police departments in minority communities are armed by the federal government as occupying armies. According to an August 2014 New York Times/CBS poll 45% of African Americans but only 7% of whites believed they had experienced a "specific instance when they felt discriminated against by the police because of your race or ethnic background." Added to this, the police department in Ferguson, Missouri is 94% white, while the community is two-thirds black. According to a 2007 survey by the federal Justice Department, this racial divergence between police and community is standard for the United States.

I do not endorse rioting, but what President Obama and most of the television commentators missed is that if it were not for people taking to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri and other United States cities, the entire episode would have been swept under the rug. I also do not recall President Obama making similar appeals to protesters who recently took to the streets and stood up to police violence in Egypt, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Myanmar.

No indictment was returned for the death of Michael Brown by Police Office Darren Wilson. Instead of presenting a case for prosecution to the grand jury, which is standard practice, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, told jurors to discount eyewitness testimony that questioned the actions of Officer Wilson. Essentially they were instructed to find Wilson not guilty based on his own uncross-examined testimony. McCulloch argued physical evidence did not warrant a guilty verdict, but the grand jury was not supposed to be deciding guilt or innocence, only whether there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.

The reality is that in the American judicial system police officers can always lie because their testimony, like Darren Wilson's testimony in Ferguson, is accepted as undeniable fact no matter what the physical evidence is. Even a vigilante like George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.

Over the years I have met white teachers committed to social justice and racial and ethnic equity. Interviews with some of them are included in the book Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach. Many of these white teachers found things in their own experience that have made it possible for them to identify with the problems faced by inner-city minority youth, although I think they would all agree that their experiences were not the same as those of their minority students. Some of these teachers witnessed or experienced injustice of some kind themselves. Some had deep personal experiences that left them with a sense of unfairness about the world. Others had a religious calling or developed a political point of view. For many of them, these experiences were all combined together. Originally I was going to discuss in this post a recent experience in traffic court that angered and frustrated me and contributed toward growing mistrust of police and legal authority. However, some of my colleagues felt it would detract from the main point of this piece so I am holding it for another blog.

Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, the Zinn Education Project, Teaching Tolerance, Teaching for Change, PBS, and The New York Times Learning Network each has material for teaching about Ferguson. Rethinking Schools had a special issue on teaching about race before the most recent events in Ferguson, but includes an article "Teaching the Ongoing Murders of black Men." I recommend these sites and their approaches, but I am not convinced what they offer is enough.

In the climatic scene at the end of the movie A Time to Kill (1996), Matthew McConaughey plays a white lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending a black defendant, Carl Lee Hailey, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Hailey is accused of killing two men who raped and nearly murdered his daughter. Brigance has the jury members close their eyes while he quietly recounts the events leading up to Hailey's actions. At the last minute Brigance asks the jury to imagine that the little girl who was raped and nearly murdered was white. For a moment, at least, the all-white jury seems to understand and Hailey is found not guilty.

White teachers, imagine how angry and frustrated you feel when you are mistreated, or think you are being mistreated, by people in authority. Imagine how you would feel if people with guns, people with no connection to you or your community, made life or death decisions for you, your friends, your family - all of the time. Imagine how you would feel if those people with guns shot and killed young men who you knew. Imagine if you were worried for your brother or son. I think then white teachers will start to have some sense of what it means to be black in America in the Age of Ferguson.

Maybe we all need to close our eyes and listen.

The bottom line for me as a teacher, a teacher educator, as a social justice activist, as a white man, and as a human being is this. Is it possible to get whites, especially white teachers to understand or empathize with conditions faced by inner city blacks and Latinos, and if it is, how do we do it? Charles Blow, who is a black man, thinks the "conversation is hard because we are yelling across a canyon," but he believes we can fill the canyon and bridge the gap. I am not sure.

I posed the question to some of my friends and colleagues who are most committed to dealing with the educational and social problems faced by inner city minority youth. They all feel compelled to do something, but are also unsure what to do. These are their replies without any responses by me. I hope many readers comment on this post and I will try to answer as best as I can.

Pablo is a Puerto Rican male who teaches high school in the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional District in the United States. According to Pablo, "Every white teacher I have spoken to appears to be silent on the issue and the black teachers seem confused on what to do. It is even difficult to get privileged blacks or immigrants to understand the plight of poor blacks in America. I thought I understood the plight of immigrants until I visited the DR, Jamaica, México, and India. After a few days at these places I came to the conclusion that I have truly understated their struggles. Obama is asking for the impossible without any real plan in place. This is a cultural and economic problem that has been ingrained into the American culture. I fear that there is no way to bridge the gap unless people want it bridged and they feel a need for it to be bridged. If white people become too sympathetic to the situation faced by black kids it would be dangerous to the system. I also think that the media has done an amazing job at painting Michael Brown as a thief, Trayvon Martin as a thug, Ramarley Graham from the Bronx as a drug dealer, and Eric Garner as a bootlegger of cigarettes. However, I think the part about imagining yourself a poor minority is very powerful."

Felicia, a white woman, is a former high school principal who still works in an overwhelmingly minority school. She felt my traffic court experience "pales compared to the tremendous indignities black people face on a daily basis. You had a taste and they get the whole meal. And as educators we need to figure out ways of engaging teachers in discussions about their roles in pushing each other and their students in working toward social justice in their classrooms and schools and the society in which we all live."

April is an African American woman teaching minority students in a suburban school district. When April first heard the decision she was numb. She felt defeated and nervous for her own six-foot three-inch teenage son. According to April, "I found it hard to verbalize my feelings. But I had to find a way to address the topic with my middle school students - a mixture of Latino and Caribbean, and very few African American. Most of them had not watched the evening or morning news that day. The majority had only heard about the events in Ferguson because of a current events project I did with them in September. In taking time out to discuss the grand jury's decision, I found that many Latino students had no opinion on it, until I drew a correlation with the immigration issue. We focused on the essential question, "Is violence a justifiable means for change?" We also watched and discussed a CNN.com clip about the grand jury decision, read and listened to an excerpt from J. Cole's song "Be Free," about Ferguson, and discussed a quote attributed to W.E.B. Dubois - 'a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect'." At the beginning of the discussion I was saddened to see how disconnected my students were, yet, after our discussion I was happy I took the day to engage them and give them food for thought about how they can be the change and the voice we need for a more equal future.

Mike is a white male high school teacher in a school where almost all of the students are African American. For Mike, who organized a debate in his class on the failure to indict Wilson, "This is a tough case -- even some blacks are disinclined to sympathize with Michael Brown. However there have always been whites who fought against white supremacy. The issue is not one's skin color. I think the overall points you are making are good, but question comparing receipt of a ticket with a shooting death."

Justin is a black male of Caribbean ancestry who is an administrator in a suburban minority school. He wrote back "Your experience with an unrighteous traffic ticket, unfortunate as it is, should not be used as a comparison to the police brutality and generally hostile environment I and others must confront on a daily basis outside my home in this country. Geographically speaking, your ticket is Brooklyn, my experience every day is America. The collective experience of dark skinned men is the universe, full of encounters that can take our freedom or our lives."

Jonathan, an African American male, is a Hofstra colleague. He would like to see more college courses and classes in Schools of Education on "teaching and leading for social justice." He believes it should be at the core of the curriculum, not an elective, and "taught by someone who knows how to teach about 'race' and racism." Jonathan rejects the idea of "colorblindness" and thinks its proponents "perpetuate the status quo of inequality and disproportionality."

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