Friday, September 14, 2007

My personal journey to understand systemic racism

One of the things I'd like to write about here is to chronicle my personal journey to undertand systemic racism. Its clearly a process, so this might end up being a series as I have the opportunity to document new awarenesses.

But I'd like to start with an example from over 20 years ago. I was in graduate school in Pasadena and had never thought much about racial profiling. Like many white people, since it hadn't happened to me, I might have even gone so far as to be dismissive of its reality.

One of my good friends at the time was a Hawaiian student who physically looked Hispanic. He told a story one night at a gathering of friends at his house about walking across the courtyard of his apartment complex on his way home and being stopped by security. They questioned why he was there and escorted him home. As he told this story he made us laugh. He was like that - a great sense of humor. While we were laughing his wife remained serious. Then she said, "It was funny the first time - I don't laugh anymore."

So all of the sudden, I knew about racial profiling and was outraged at its reality. Since my eyes were opened, I hear more stories and learn more. Like a few months ago when one of the young black men I work with talked about being stopped by police 3 times in one week...never arrested.

Lately I've been learning about how young black men begin being "profiled" in the community at a very early age and headed for the criminal justice system. In our schools, in our libraries and in our community centers (at least in the urban area where I live) most adults in these systems are white. And they have learned to make a shift in how they see black boys around the time that they turn 10-12 years of age. Prior to that age, I think these white people see black children as worthy of empathy and compassion. Once they cross the threshold of about 12, they see them as threats...they begin to be afraid of them. And this fear is palpable.

Meanwhile, many of these young black men are learning their lessons well about how to survive in "da hood." Fasion in the urban areas (and other parts of the country) has adopted the gang style and any young person with awareness will know that this is how you need to dress to be accepted. They learn that in order to protect themselves, they must adopt an attitude, get tough, and join a group of other young men who will protect them. And whala!!! In the eyes of the white community, we have a gang - with all the criminality that term holds for us.

The result is that how these kids dress, who they hang out with and how they behave have all become "criminalized." Some of the middle schools in this city developed a policy a while ago that if you document three incidents where a student displays signs of gang involvement (through clothes, hand signs, etc), they can be EXPELLED. Two particular travesties of this policy are that they didn't need to document any behavior that was criminal or threatening. And secondly, they didn't require anyone to actually talk to the student or attempt any intervention.

This is all part of the system that leads to 1 in 3 black men being involved in some way with the criminal justice system. And it will only stop when we begin to see ALL children as worthy of our empathy and compassion. And get rid of the fear!

No comments:

Post a Comment