THE BLOG
12/08/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Death by Police, and the Racial Divide

As a teacher educator at Hofstra University I have had the good fortune to work with a number of outstanding teachers. In my last post, Lessons for White Teachers Who are Teaching about Ferguson, I wrote that 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 news in minority communities and has led to deep-seated suspicion of police and governmental authority. Because of these deaths, I plan to join the National March Against Police Brutality in Washington DC on Saturday December 13, 2014.

In response to my post on Ferguson, I received a number of replies from former students and colleagues online and directly by email. They show the tremendous upset over the failure of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island New York to indict police officers responsible for the deaths of Black men, but they also illustrate the deep racial divide in the United States. Jose teaches social studies at a high school in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Justin is an English teacher and administrator in the overwhelmingly Black and Latino Uniondale school district on Long Island. William was a second career teacher education student who chose to student teach in Uniondale. Jose was born in the United States but his family is from the Dominican Republic. Justin is Caribbean via Great Britain. William is White. I have great respect for all three of them. With their permission, a share their comments with readers.

Jose: A Latino Voice

As a Latino in a school comprised of African American and Latino students I found an urgent need to address the current civil unrest. As a second year teacher you do not know where to begin. When speaking to African American teachers in my school I realized they did not have much advice for me. The tips, the love, and the compassion they usually share turned into "This is what happens in America." One teacher stated, "How can I go to work and pretend that an education is the key when I'm our very city teenagers face the threats of police and gang violence." Teaching a Participation in Government class to 12th grade students gave me at least a canvas to start with. I showed video clips of protestors, riots, Jon Stewart, CNN, and President Obama's speech. We wrote compare and contrast essays on Rodney King, George Zimmerman, and Mike Brown. I introduced the racial make up of Ferguson and of Staten Island. Most importantly I provided students a space to share their feelings and emotions. Those that had not been watching the news could at the very least relate these events to racial injustice that has happened to them or someone else they knew. As difficult as it was for me to organize and teach these lessons, I know my students in Bushwick, students throughout the United States, need to discuss what is happening so it does not keep happening.

William Writes as a Parent and Teacher

Nowhere in the posting did Alan Singer mention that both of the deceased were guilty of breaking the law, and therefore behaving in an anti-social manner. This is not to say that the penalty for their behavior should be death, but their behavior was a direct contributor to the end result. The police in the Garner case were responding to complaints from the merchants on the street, and Michael Brown had shoplifted (I won't call it robbery) from a store, and threatened the owner. Certainly these activities are anti-social.

As a husband, a father, and a social studies teacher, I feel that teaching students to be "social" is every bit as important as teaching them to be "activists." I do not believe that either man would be deceased if they had been more cooperative with the police in question. We know that neither of them was ignorant about the ways of the penal system, and probably should have been more aware of the possible results of their actions, although certainly not to the level they reached.

I myself caught a fairly good beating from a "white" police officer in my youth. It served to reinforce a lesson that my father had previously taught me, "say yes sir, no sir, and we'll sort it out later." Being a smart ass at the wrong time cost me. I didn't deserve it, but I didn't avoid it either.

I believe we should be teaching students to behave in a socially responsible manner. The police are the authorities. Not following their instructions can result in death, even over trivial matters. This goes for Black, White, or any one else. Behaving in a socially responsible manner will serve our students better than being abusive or disrespectful to the police. The role of the police is to serve and protect the public, and in general that is what they do.

I fully understand that the United States of America has a checkered past when it comes to race relations, however, I find it much more disturbing that we have become so focused on these two deaths. At the same time that everyone has been focused on the non-charging of two police officers who may, or may not have been criminally responsible for the deaths of two men, eight men of color were murdered in a seven day period in a small city in New Jersey. No outrage. No marches. No protesting, or speeches by the so-called leaders of the Black community. What's wrong with this picture?

I will never know how it feels to be a "minority" in America. I have however been in a "minority" in Queens, as well as Nassau County. I have adjusted my behavior accordingly. That is what enables me to survive. Another understanding that allows me to get through life on a day-to-day basis is that "breaking the law may have serious consequences." We should be teaching our students this lesson. Yes it's fun to be an activist when you are a tenured college professor, but an arrest for stupidity at a protest that turns into a riot can have lifelong consequences. I would never want to be responsible for that.

I know almost everyone you mention in the article, and I appreciate their views as you posted them. I too am a parent, and constantly worry about my child as well. The first lessons she received from her mother and I was "right" and "wrong." If you do the right thing, you will be rewarded. If you do the wrong thing, there will be repercussions. I would love to say she has always done the right thing, but that would be a lie. The one thing I can tell you is, that if we found out she did the wrong thing, she received the prescribed punishment. Hopefully these actions will help her to be a good citizen and socially responsible member of our society. This in turn will hopefully keep her away from run-ins with the police that could go bad.

I cannot help but wonder if the protests in the "Sixties," and the denigration of the police in America are not at least partially responsible for the current situations. Painting all police officers as "PIGS," "FACISTS," racists and the like, has resulted in the loss of respect for the "badge." In truth, I feel that most law enforcement officers are excellent at their jobs. I can't even imagine how the officers of Ferguson not involved with the Brown tragedy are coping.

Finally, by introducing the percentages of officers that are Black or White in and of itself is racist. The idea that because officers are White results in racism is itself racist. I would then have to surmise that if a White man lived in, or visited an area that had mostly Black officers, he would be a victim of racism in his dealings with them. This is illogical at best. Unless of course you presuppose that White people are innately more racist than people of color, although I'm fairly certain that's about as racist as it gets.

Justin Worries about the Future for his Students and his Children

Every so often in my 34 years of living in America, 24 as a naturalized citizen, I have been reminded that there is no United States of America. Not yet. The events surrounding Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, in our cities across the country, as well as on social media, have made this abundantly clear. I very badly wish this were not so. I wish I didn't feel compelled to write this. I really, really wish none of this were true. But it is. All of it.

According to dictionary.com, a citizen is 1. a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection 2. An inhabitant of a city or town, especially one entitled to its privileges or franchises. In both definitions there is the word "entitled," a term meaning "to give (a person or thing) a title, right, or claim to something."

Now, it seems to me that there is great disagreement among the American citizenry as to what, precisely, Mike Brown and Eric Garner were "entitled." A great many seem to feel that these brothers were entitled to have the events surrounding their untimely deaths heard in a court of law. Many others seem to feel that Brown and Garner were entitled to the bullets of former officer and recent millionaire, Darren Wilson, as well as the illegal choke hold of soon-to-be former officer Daniel Pantaleo.

A citizen "...owes allegiance to [his or her] government and is entitled to its protection." What a lot of American citizens fail to accept or don't care to accept is that there are millions of people, much of them young people, who are living in America right now and feel little, if any allegiance to the American flag. None of the public middle or high schools in which I have worked over the last 17 years (with students representing every major racial and ethnic group America has to offer) had a lot of students who stood up every morning to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Ask your child, especially your teenaged child, if he/she does so every day.

How many U.S. corporations are allegiant to the American people and our flag? Is the U.S. government allegiant to the bulk of its people?

I can't bring myself to say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore either, though when I hear it, I stand at attention (sometimes) with my hands behind my back and say, at the end, "some day." Much of the purpose of public education is to produce an adult citizenry with a collective sense of self, otherwise known as nationalism. When reading the invective we are spewing at each other across cyberspace over the last two weeks, does it seem as though we are accomplishing this mission? Do we have a national collective sense of self? Have we ever? Is this even an obtainable goal in a country purporting itself as a nation of immigrants?

What did Mike Brown and Eric Garner learn in school while growing up that made them feel a sense of allegiance to the flag? What is your average poor or working class "white" kid (of whom there are millions) learning in school that makes him/her feel proud to be an American? Where is this goal within the Common Core Standards? What are our public schools preparing our young people to feel about their country? As a professional educator paying close attention to public school curriculum in New York for 17 years, the answer is unclear at best.

How does a nation of immigrants pay homage to its various points of origin while also conveying the understanding that we are greater together than we ever could be apart? How do we learn to love our differences while acknowledging that we are one nation? How do we continue to ignore the fact that it is poverty and misery that makes millions upon millions of people come to this country, legally or illegally, to seek a better tomorrow? Plenty of those with European ancestry have grand parents, or great, great grandparents, who came here similarly and under similar conditions. Most people proudly share tales of ancestors arriving on American shores with nothing but the clothes on their backs to eventually make something of themselves, sometimes legally, many times illegally. We must tell the truth.

How often do you feel proud to be an American? I mean consciously proud? I felt this way for a brief moment last week. Feeling so disgusted at the polarizing reactions online regarding the Ferguson and Staten Island cases, I was compelled to YouTube Whitney Houston's quite famous rendition of our national anthem, performed moments before the Super Bowl kickoff in 1991. I get emotional every single time I watch it, which I've done many, many times over the past decade.

The emotions are a multi-layered, complicated cacophony. I'm awed and inspired by her performance. Like a California breeze, it's huge while gentle. It's vast and beautiful like the Grand Canyon. Like our Great Plains, it's colorful and expansive. It's powerful, effortless, like Niagara Falls. During this brilliant moment in her career, Whitney simmers like a 50 million year old Sun, warm enough to bring us ever-lasting pride, but not too harsh as to burn. Her voice is blinding, melting. It lingers through eternity, reflective of a great and wondrous nation that changed the course of the world with its might and splendor.

Every time I listen and watch her in this moment of magnificence, I am also overwhelmed with the very painful and unacceptable reality that the words she sings don't seem to be intended for her. Or for me.

Dictionary.com also presents the term "nation" as a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own. "Sufficiently conscious of its unity." Are we?

Like millions of American immigrants, I love the promise that is America. I love the idea of America. But I don't feel very American at the moment. And I'm questioning if I ever was. For the first time in my life, I understand why my intellectual hero, W.E.B. DuBois, left America for good. Like Josephine Baker. Like James Baldwin. Like Tina Turner. Now I understand.