On November 17, 1999, a Michigan jury found, then-13 year-old Nathaniel Abraham guilty of second-degree murder for a killing committed when Abraham was 11. At the time, the young African-American boy was believed to be the youngest American ever charged and convicted of murder as an adult. Abraham’s story reflects the heightening, yet longstanding, public spectacle of viewing Black bodies through prisms of racial and developmental bias – lenses through which Black innocence evaporate into the (il)logics of prejudice.
Such prejudice is often masked socially in a painful ritual of rhetorical charades. For example, many media accounts used sensational turns of phrase such as “adult crime equals adult time” to justify the erasure of Black innocence in Abraham’s case. In the more recent cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, some media outlets have used descriptors such as “petty criminal” and “dangerous thug” to justify the murders of these young men.
By now, it is common knowledge that, over the course of two days, two Black men lost their lives to police terror. One was Sterling, a father and family man gunned down by police in Baton Rouge, LA. There is graphic video of two police officers pinning down the 37-year old Sterling before shooting him as he lies on the ground. The other is Castile, who while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter, was gunned downed by a police officer after being asked for his identification.
With tragic events of police killings of Black people happening almost daily across our country, we are reminded of how powerfully perceptions play out in the real world. Thus, there is no longer room to deny the power of perceptions and the dangers of ignorance in maintaining racial biases that cost us daily innocent life. In the context of unchecked bias, skin color argues as convincingly as words for some, where in the American imagination race can condition one’s perceptions of innocence and guilt.
For example, a recent report from the Human Rights Watch found that, in the state of Florida, 12,000 children – a disproportionate number of whom are Black – have been moved from the juvenile to adult court system in the past five years. While they make up 27 percent of those who enter Florida’s juvenile justice system, Black boys account for more than half of all transfers to the adult system. Florida isn’t alone in this tragic neutering of Black innocence.
In Cook County, Illinois, Black boys are much more likely to be tried as adults in criminal court as well. The Juvenile Justice Initiative reports that, although only 44 percent of the children in Cook County are Black, 83 percent of its juveniles tried as adults were Black. Given such instances, it comes as little surprise to many when innocent Black teens such as Trayvon Martin are gunned down by armed and hostile vigilantes, such as George Zimmerman. In contexts of over-policing and hyper-punishment of the Black body, perceptions of Black innocence would likely disappear beneath the erasure of a public gaze, distorted by silent systems of prejudice prevalent in the American mainstream.
It is meaningful, then, that Trayvon Martin, like Nathaniel Abraham, was merely a boy when he perished. The same meaning holds for twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who while wielding a toy gun, was murdered by a Cleveland police officer who saw Rice as older and less innocence than he actually was. Not unlike Zimmerman or the Cleveland officer who gunned down Rice, a significant population of Americans, including a vast number of White Americans, fail to recognize the innocence and humanity of their fellow Black citizens. The language ascribed to Black people tends to frame them as, in the cases of Sterling and Castile, hostile and criminal, and, in the case of Martin and Rice (and a litany of others), vicious and less innocent.
In our quest to achieve greater equity in society, we must better contextualize humanity beyond race and in spite of (and to interrupt) systems of disparity that are likely reinforced through racial stereotypes.
In so doing, I have been wondering about the role of schooling in shaping better people. For example, I’ve been asking questions such as how does one finish school still holding discriminatory perceptions of people? Are we not doing our jobs as educators?
Just as we wouldn’t allow students to finish school unable to read, write or calculate, why must we let them finish school unable to love and accept others? What if we made being human, like being literate, a prerequisite to graduation? What if our school systems made it an absolute priority to ensure that each student leaves more human and more respectful of life than when they entered?
These are important questions that we must ask in this time of national reflection – questions that deal with fostering fully humanized citizens sensitive to other humans. In asking and daring to answer such questions, we demand more of our schools and also of ourselves. Perhaps equally important, we position education as a site of hope to eradicate all forms of ignorance and nurture people who are fully responsive to how we can best share our world.
In order to redress the consequences of racial bias – which, I believe, are at the root of the murders of Sterling, Castile, Martin, Rice, and many others – we must promote a counter-campaign for ideological justice, where we renew the importance of heightening our humanity through formal systems of education. With this, it is important that we begin to demand that formal education endorses standards (such as Common Core Human Standards) and curricula (such as anti-bias curricula) that challenge longstanding racial biases and logics associated with discrimination (and each of their consequences including racism, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, colonialism, and so on).
But the use of education to eradicate racial bias cannot be limited to communities concentrated with people of color because the origins of racial bias are rooted in indifference and White privilege. Privilege is when you don’t think something is a problem because it’s not your problem. While it has become vogue to teach about race, social justice, and equity to students of color, students who attend schools that are overwhelmingly White may need this kind of education the most. Exposing such students to new standards, curricula and pedagogies that center a love and respect for all humanity will broaden their worldviews.
What I am proposing is a paradigm shift in education, transferring the focus of instruction from skills, content, and capacities to relationships, from disparity and discrimination to a focus on our needs and capacities as human beings to bridge empathic, cooperative, and social gaps that hinder learning, development, and societal harmony. This is an education for greater compassion because it affirms all students equally, whereby challenging us to commit ourselves to the hard work of interrupting biases and dismantling systems of historic violence against our nation’s (and our world’s) most vulnerable citizens. Left unchecked, such systems promise to play out in patterns of death and destruction rehearsed repeatedly each day (as we are now seeing).
Then let us commit space and time in formal education to reconciling that the true value of learning is in greater compassion and saved lives. Though histories and institutions of inequity and oppression are deep and resilient, our courage and resolve cannot only match the depths of this particular kind of despair, they can exceed them. However, change will start in classrooms with teachers seeing, treating and listening to all students so that no one graduates our school systems unable to trust, respect and understand people who do not look like they do.
We will need an education first, but in the end love will win.
- This article first appeared on July 17, 2016 in NY Slant as an op-ed. The article can also be found here: http://nyslant.com/article/opinion/in-the-end,-love-will-win,-but-we-will-need-an-education-first.html.
David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.