Tuesday afternoon I heard Amy Hunter from the St. Louis YWCA with Reena Hajat Carroll from Diversity Awareness Partnership on St. Louis on the Air. The show was about communicating about race in the aftermath of the recent protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Hunter made a thought provoking statement in a response to a question from a caller (you can hear it here at about minute 39). She said, "If Darren Wilson had seen Michael Brown as his own son, he would not have shot him."
A statement that on one hand may elicit a "duh". But on the other hand, is this not what we should want from our cops, from our teachers, from our doctors, from our firefighters, from our politicians? Do we not want the people who are in positions to protect, treat and educate, to feel so much empathy, even for people who are different than them, that they see them as they would see their family and that their first instinct is to protect them like family?
Sen. Claire McCaskill hugging Ferguson Protestor (photo credit: Christine Ingrasia)
As I finished listening to the program, Hunter's comments reminded me of a focus group I was part of a few months ago. The focus group was intended to discuss equity in the Saint Louis region. The conversation eventually turned to education. The last two questions the moderator asked that night were about school transfers. First he asked "Do you think kids in unaccredited districts should be allowed to transfer to another better performing district?" About half the crowd raised their hand and said yes. Next he asked "If you lived in an unaccredited district, would you send your child to another better performing district?" For the first time that night, all 15 people in the group agreed -- 100 percent said they would send their child to a better performing school.
The message both Hunter and my focus group were sending is: when we think of children as our own, we will treat them better than when we think of them as someone else's. Again, "duh", right? The problem is that it is not just parents who treat some kids like their own. No, the problem is we have systems (education, justice, health care, etc.) that treat some children like they are its own and some children like they are someone else's. Ferguson has shined a spotlight on this in a way that has not happened in my life time.
In the wake of a tragedy like this that opens all our country's closets to air our dirty laundry, the national instinct is to begin trying to talk, program and write our way back to good feelings and happy thoughts. I do not want to just do that this time.
The exposure of these broken these systems makes me want to do more than participate in another roundtable about race relations in Missouri. Another roundtable alone is not going to fix a system that treats a student in Kirkwood, where it is harder to get a teaching job than it is to get into Harvard, like its own, but treats a child in Hayti, Missouri like someone else's problem.
Knowing that the injustices in Ferguson are also playing out in mid-Missouri where low income and African-American children are far less likely to be proficient or advanced in reading and math than their middle income and white peers that keeps me from just being able to donate to a food pantry and then look the other way.
Watching as the Missouri State Board of Education perpetuates the inequity like we have seen highlighted on the streets in North Saint Louis county by abusing its power day after day to the determent of children in unaccredited districts has strengthened my resolve to not just post a blog about the 10 times my white privilege unexpectedly smacked me in the face after I put my foot in my mouth.
Of course, I will still participate in roundtable discussions about race because that is how we learn about our privilege and begin to feel empathy. But I am also going to battle a system that has been constructed to treat some children like its own while ignoring others.
Absolutely I will keep donating to food pantries, but I will also work for the next two months on a campaign to ensure the Missouri's teachers are held accountable, that they are supported, and that lay off decisions are made with the best interest of children in mind.
Maybe my next post will be about my white privilege, but first I am going to campaign opposite a teacher's union to which I once belonged because I believe giving local control of evaluation and contract decisions to the school board elected by the parents and taxpayers is an important step towards creating a system that will treat all kids like its own.
The problems the world is seeing in Ferguson are not new to those of us who have taught or who have worked in social justice. However, at least for a minute, the rest of the world is seeing it too which means this is the time to stop trying to just donate, program and write our way to better outcomes.