The American Tradition of Innocence Denied

Innocence: freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil; freedom from guile or cunning; lack of worldly experience or sophistication

We often speak of the innocence of children. We consider them to be unaware of the evils of our world. Their brains are growing quickly in sheer size but also in connective pathways. Childhood follows us into adulthood as we realize many of our mannerisms, ideas, and ideologies are formed while we are still growing. We imagine children as vessels to be filled, hopefully with happy memories of carefree days and footloose freedom.

If there is one thing that all children should have is the inalienable right to belong to a family, where adults love and protect them and children can be innocent. Where they can be children.

But we do not allow innocence for all children equally. As per usual, the good things about living are often only obtainable for whites. Google “innocence” images, and almost all of the first 20 photos are white children. White children who we fear have lost their innocence are grieved for; White children abducted are given wall-to-wall coverage of their disappearance, causing a national anxiety about their innocence. On the other side, news media likewise scour the earth to find innocence information about white teens who commit mass murder. They interview neighbors who recount tales of kindness and respect and lament that the parents of the killer have also now “lost a child.”

Black and brown children killed or removed from their families are rarely allowed to be innocent, even when they are clear victims. We need only remember the violent death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, and how the New York Times focused on how 18-year-old Michael was “no angel.” Our children attend schools where their guilt is predestined; they are treated like inmates with bars on the windows, metal detectors at the doors, and officers “patrolling” the hallways. School “resource” officers violently arrest black and brown children for doing the things that kids do.

Our President has recently claimed that unaccompanied migrant children, overwhelming brown, children already suffering from separation from their parents, are “not innocent.”  U.S. policy allows migrant children who arrived with their parents to sleep on a dirty floor, fenced in like animals. Brown children are being separated from their parents for the crime of fleeing violence, even though their family is the place in which they are most identified as being a child. Our government has literally “lost” almost 1,500 children that were in their care. Many of them may be being trafficked:

An AP investigation found in 2016 that more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay. At the time, many adult sponsors didn’t undergo thorough background checks, government officials rarely visited homes and in some cases had no idea that sponsors had taken in several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking.

Of course, as many, many, many, people on social media have pointed out, this habit of treating black and brown children as less than innocent is far from being an American aberration; it is an American tradition. During slavery, children were ripped from their mothers to toil in fields like adults and sold as commodities on an open market. During Jim Crow, young black boys were arrested and placed in chain gangs (for a beautiful historical fiction account, read this). Native families — and nations — were destroyed by a government policy of removing Native children from their homes and tribes and placing them in boarding homes where they were unable to retain their culture, including their language. In the 1970s, the National Association of Black Social Workers argued that removing black children from their families and placing them in white foster homes was too a form of cultural genocide.

Destroying families by denying childhood innocence has been a key part of the enduring power of white supremacy. White supremacy relies on the reproduction of the state-enforced inability of non-white people to behave as people. It denies to non-whites the most foundational experience of personhood: to birth and raise their children in community, and to allow children to be children.

#WhileBlack, The Talk, and Sheltered Black Boys

Two police officers stood in front of the school. They seemed to be doing something close to nothing, chatting with a parent. The parent seemed to know them, but the conversation also appeared…strained. I know this parent; her body language suggested discomfort, annoyance, and a little anger.

I was walking with my 12-year-old son and his friend, both black boys, as I passed by the officers and the mom. One of the officers briefly looked at me, but beyond that none of the three acknowledged me. The situation didn’t seem to warrant my intervention, although I was a bit concerned about why police officers were outside of this majority black private school. But I needed to go about my day, so I ignored them and continued to think about what I was going to buy at the supermarket to feed the six hungry children that I was taking home and caring for.

I was lost in my thoughts (“pizza? or maybe hotdogs and chicken? They’ll want chips and popsicles too . . .”) when I hear my son’s friend say, “… well if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t need to worry.” Then my son says, “Yeah . . . and you should look like you aren’t doing anything wrong.”

Their words immediately put my supermarket daydreams to an end. Wait…what? How did we get here? How did we get to the point where these two black boys living in Chicago — the same Chicago that killed Laquan MacDonald, the same Chicago where racial segregation is palpable — are parroting such myths as “the only people who should be worried about the police are criminals?”

How can they see the world this way in the same Chicago where the Obama-era Justice Department found that the Chicago Police Department “engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable” and unconstitutional; “does not investigate the majority of cases it is required by law to investigate;” “does not provide officers or supervisors with adequate training and does not encourage or facilitate adequate supervision of officers in the field”?

Tamir Rice
Tamir Rice, 12-years-old

How are they so unaware and detached from the fact that their very existence is threatening to so many, as most poignantly shown in the police murder of Tamir Rice, a little black 12-year-old just like them.

2017-02-21 11.09.37
My son, 12-years-old

What did I do wrong, a scholar and a lawyer that writes and teaches about race and racism and children every single day, what did I do wrong that I haven’t prepared my child for the reality, given the odds, he is soon to confront? Haven’t we had “The Talk“?

As common in Black families as the conversations about the “birds and the bees,” The Talk explains to black children the reality of being black. The Talk tells black children that people will treat them differently for the simple fact of the hue of their skin, the shape of their nose, and the texture of their hair. The Talk tells little black boys that even when they are innocent, they are guilty. Even when they are children, they are being perceived as adults. Even when they are “just playing,” they are being watched, judged, profiled. That even if they are doing nothing wrong, even if they look like they are doing nothing wrong, it may not matter.

Just a week ago in my seminar, I showed my students a video of police officers rolling up on a group of boys and pulling their gun. The boys were walking home from playing basketball. As the police car rolled up to them, the cops jumped out and immediately told the boys to get on the ground. One boys seems to be shocked, and doesn’t immediately get down. GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! SHOW ME YOUR HANDS! A boy starts to cry, wailing as his face presses against the concrete. The boys shout – What did we do?? What did we do? The crying boy’s brothers tells him to stop crying, it’s going to be okay. I don’t want to die. Unbelievably, the police officer, gun still drawn, softens his voice, telling the boys it’s going to be okay.

The video fast forwards to the children’s parents confronting the police. As the police attempt to justify their actions, saying they didn’t know if the boys with basketballs in their arms had guns, one mother yells and cries at her child. “THIS IS WHY I DON’T LET Y’ALL GO NOWHERE!” As the boy protests, says that he did nothing wrong, his mother: “IT DON’T MATTER! IT DON’T MATTER!”

I weep every time I watch that video, as I imagine my son on that ground, face pressed into the sidewalk, crying. But then I realize why even if we’ve had The Talk, he’s never quite heard The Talk, why it doesn’t feel real to him: I don’t allow him out of my sight.

These two boys are sheltered, for the exact reasons articulated by this mother: because it doesn’t matter that they are 12-years-old, that they still like Pokemon, that hide-and-seek and tag and infection and four square are still a part of their play repertoire. They go nowhere without us, their parents. Not to school, not walking around the block, not wandering in a store, not to the park. Because I don’t want them to be the victim of a hashtag: #GoingToSchoolWhileBlack. #WalkingAroundTheBlockWhileBlack. #GroceryShoppingWhileBlack. I don’t want anyone to be SayingTheirName.

But now I can’t have him not understanding the reality of his world. That so many little boys just like him are pulled to the side by the police for no reason other than living and being a kid #WhileBlack. That he needs to be overly compliant with police officers even when he’s done nothing wrong. That he needs to press his face into the concrete if they tell him to do so. That crying won’t help, that only doing exactly what they say might save his life.

I hesitated before saying those words. Because just for another 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes, I wanted him to remain that little boy, believing in the ultimate justness of the world, that men and women in blue are always only wanting to help him and not hurt him. I wanted him to remain my baby, the beautiful black boy that I loved before he was even born, now 12-years-old but still a boy. Not a man. A boy.

But I did it because it needed to be done. And afterwards, I cried.





On Dollars and Racial Sense

The two brothers who the city of Philadelphia’s Police Department arrested a few weeks back after a white Starbucks barista called the police for waiting and daring to use the bathroom while black settled their claims with the city of Philadelphia for $1 and a grant of $200,000 to a program for entrepreneurial high school students. They also settled with Starbucks, apparently for an undisclosed amount and the ability to complete their undergraduate degrees free of charge.

Some, including what seems to be most white people (of the white people who have shared their thoughts) praise these men for their willingness to reconcile, seemingly transcending anger and disappointment for a more “productive” resolution. Black people did too; on Twitter, acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay, commenting on the news of the settlement, hailed these men as “heroes.”

While I do not dare to dictate to these men who experienced the humiliation of a racist arrest, I wonder why we, black people living under the veil of white supremacy and racism, are constantly expected to forgive.

Are white people are so incapable of taking full and absolute responsibility that when we, as black people, are harmed, we must show them what a sensible, humanistic response looks like?  

I wrote a few years back, in response to the black victims of the Charleston, SC church shooting by a white supremacist, that constantly forgiving white racism allows White Supremacy to have an equal seat at God’s table.  I argued that we need to stop forgiving White Supremacy as if we forgive someone who accidentally hurt us and who promises not to do it again. But White Supremacy will always do it again. Always. Forgiving it makes us like women suffering from brutal abuse at the hands of someone who claims to love us. White Supremacy does not love us.

This battering, always doing it again, that is the nature of the beast. Systemic racism pervades all of our institutions, from the police to schools to our local, state, and federal government. Our president is the very embodiment of white supremacist systemic racism as a man who has zero political experience and who trafficked and reveled in white supremacy, whose “base” were not afraid of economic losses but rather the loss of white privilege.

Despite the evidence of systemic White Supremacy, its most genius manifestation is convincing us that it exists only in hearts and minds. That there are something called Racist People out there who harbor hate in their hearts and that as soon as those people die out we will become an ideally post-racial society where opportunity is equal. Even liberals embrace a version of this argument, pointing to implicit bias as the science of White Supremacy. Thus we praise places like Starbucks, who will close its stores for one day this month to engage in anti-racist bias training, for taking a seemingly systemic look at its policies, even though it is widely known that these trainings often have no effect or can be actually detrimental.

Michelle Obama famously implored us, as progressive minded folks against racism and bigotry and hate, to “go high” when they “go low.” Perhaps she is right, but we need to reevaluate what “low” is. At the time of the 2016 election, “low” actually had a pretty low bar: folks openly deriding President Obama with vile, racist language, calling on the other candidate to be locked up and championing draconian measures to keep America white. It was easy to go high there.

But low is more than overt racism and racists. Low is systemic, pervasive, White Supremacy that will not correct itself by us going high. Low is where a white woman can claim fear and use the most coercive power of the state to do her White Supremacist bidding. We do not owe White Supremacy anything, nor should we continually rise above it as it continually inflicts its everyday pain and oppression. We are worth more than $1. We cannot go high with White Supremacy around our necks, or we’ll strangle ourselves.

What’s Next? On the Academic Writing Process

I’ve finally made it to what I’ve been working toward for the last 11 years. I will be a tenure-track professor. Studying what I want. In the place I want to be. Around colleagues I like and that I can learn from.

But What’s Next?

Publish or perish. If you ask someone with a more than cursory knowledge of the profession what one must do to be successful in the profession, they may tell you this: publish or perish. The idea is that if you want to thrive (i.e., not perish) you must find a way to get your work published. Ideas are not actually ideas worth contemplating unless they are on paper and other people are reading it. The perish part is easy, straightforward.

Avoid perish by writing, submitting, publishing. Repeat. The more the better.

But not really “publish or perish.”  Before you submit and publish, you must write. Really “write AND publish, or perish.” Anyone who says that to be a writer all you need to do is write is wrong.

Writing starts with an idea. For the last paper, I had a big idea. What’s Next? Do you have anything interesting to write about? Is it interesting to people other than yourself? Can you articulate both why it’s interesting and why other people should care? “Come up with a topic AND write AND publish, or perish.”

I have an idea, an idea I’ve been thinking about for months, a topic really. Because it’s born out of events happening around the country, I know the topic is important. The topic, when I bring it up, shocks some, makes others shake their heads. They say, oh wow, that’s fascinating.

But topics are not papers. The Next Idea must be bigger than the topic. It needs to involve fundamental problems with law, social structure, stratification, and inequality. Okay. “Come up with a topic AND an idea AND write AND publish, or perish.”

But if the problems are fundamental, haven’t others already written about them?Novelty. You cannot publish something that isn’t new. So What’s Next?

Now you need to read everything that’s ever been written on said topic. Have others addressed the topic? Who are these others? What about the idea? Have they identified the same fundamental issues you have? How have they treated those issues? What about their solutions (if any)? “Come up with a topic AND an idea AND make sure no one else has written this AND write AND publish, or perish.”

Inevitably, I’ll come across the Cursed Article that seems to be saying EXACTLY what I want to say. I throw the books to the side. Cry. Drink. Obviously I’m not supposed to be doing this work.

(to be continued)

On White Fears and Black Freedoms

starbucksThe story is old. A white woman’s fear costs a black man his freedom.

The story is old. White woman sees black man where she does not want him to be and tells him to leave. You don’t belong here. Used to be a sidewalk. Now it’s a coffee house. Implicit bias? Overt bias? It really doesn’t matter.

They say no, we’re waiting for someone, we aren’t ready to order. Well, you need to buy something. Why? We’re waiting for someone. Their voices deep, powerful. But not aggressive. Who are we bothering? She gets mad, as their refusal triggers — fear? anger? resentment? Again, it doesn’t matter.

Well, if you don’t leave I’m calling the police. Bluffing? Maybe. The thought of the police should be enough for a black man to go scurrying. But they say, I am not your Negro. Call them. We aren’t doing anything wrong. Not that it matters.

The story is old. She saves face. Used to be she would call her daddy who calls the lynch mob. You’ll learn your lesson.

The story is old. The police arrive. Full uniform. Including handcuffs, badges. Guns. What’s the problem, the cops ask the men. Why are you asking us? Ask her. I asked you. But we didn’t call you. She did.

Three times, the cops say later, three times we asked you to leave. Get out of this place where you don’t belong, where they don’t want you. See the sign? “We have the right to refuse service to anyone.” We, say the cops, are doing nothing wrong, just acting professionally. Remember, we could have arrested you from the very beginning. We don’t really want to arrest you. You should just allow us to let the white woman’s emotions determine where you should be.

Ain’t this some shit? But even the white man who you were waiting to meet can’t get the officers to back down. Nor the white patrons. All they can do is be a witness, tell the story afterwards. Show the video. Because the police have to save face too. They’ll say you refused to obey an order. The story is old. You didn’t jump off the sidewalk quickly enough.

“It’s Not Fair:” A Working-Class Mama with Middle-Class Kids

“It’s not fair.” The first words out of my seven-year old’s mouth after leaving a birthday party turned barbecue at the home of one of her classmates. She had a great time, and her brother too as he tagged along for the party. I sort of knew what she meant when she said those words, but I wanted to be sure. “What’s not fair?”

Although she sat in the backseat as I was driving out of the house’s circular rocky driveway, I could practically feel her eyes as they narrowed in annoyance. “You know, this house.” “Well, what about the house?” “It’s so big. It’s not fair.”

Can’t argue with her first assessment. The house was big — 9,000 square feet big. Sitting on a large lot of approximately two acres, the house stands at the edge of our pricey suburb. While the median home price in the area is a crazy $2.4 million dollars, this house was easily worth $9 million, and Zillow says $11 million. To me and my kids, the house was a mansion. None of us had ever been in anything like it.

The backyard was enormous. The birthday party was a nerf-gun battle, and there was more than enough room for the 15+ eight- and nine-year-olds to run around, dodging darts. There was a trampoline, which is my daughter’s dream contraption. Inside was a beautiful gourmet kitchen, and upstairs were eight bedrooms bedrooms and seven (!) bathrooms. The deck sported several gas grills, and the adult conversation over dinner included vacation plans to Europe and South America.

We were in the middle of a world we could only dream about.

I’ve written before about how I grew up in a black working-class neighborhood. While defining class is a preoccupation of sociology, I typically think about it as occupations that don’t require a college degree, where people are generally paid hourly, and don’t have a great amount of savings or other income-producing capital. People may own their homes, but in a place like Philadelphia, the average home price is only $117, 000 — 2.5% of the average home price where we live now. We were not poor — there was always food on our table, clothes on our backs and heat in our house. Our neighborhood was full of working class people like us — day care providers, police officers, EMTs, etc. My brother and I each had our own rooms, along with televisions and stereo systems. My parents believed that having good shoes on your feet was a necessity, so we always had name-brand sneakers, even if they were the bottom of the line. I worked afterschool during high school to have the nicer things I wanted, like clothes and shoes. Because everyone around us were also working-class, I never had the sense that I had a lot less than other people. Furthermore, I went to the best public school in the state, and were surrounded by other very smart working class kids. I didn’t know how to drive, so I took the bus and subway every where. So, I thought that how I lived was pretty representative of how most everyone else lived. I had what I needed. Of course, I was naive.

When I got to Penn, I was shocked. I got a 95% scholarship to go to Penn, and was only required to pay $5,000 a year, which was our expected family contribution. We didn’t have all of that, so I was required to do a work-study job. I did both a work-study job and a retail job to make everything work.

But I learned that many people were paying full tuition, or something close to it. There were folks who didn’t need to work while also doing school, who actually went places for Spring Break. (I’d never been on a plane until the summer right before college started.) They had cars on campus, and I didn’t know how to drive. They wore expensive clothes and carried nice handbags. I worked at The Gap, so I could at least dress nice. And, being the teenager I was, I got totally caught up in the credit card hoax so many college students get caught in. But I didn’t have parents that could pay those bills.

Nevertheless, I worked hard and …long story short, here I am now. A law degree and doctorate from one of the best schools in the world. But still struggling financially.

We live in a small two-bedroom town house. It’s beautiful, and we have two pools and a community center and a gym, all made possible though my husband’s employment with the University. But it’s a crazy amount of rent (rents in the area are around $3600/month), and we are five people squeezed into 1100 square feet. My three kids share a bedroom and every month, we are barely breaking even. We truly live paycheck to paycheck.

So when my daughter expressed how she thought it was unfair for people to live in such a big house, I could sympathize with her. It does seem unfair that we are all humans, but some folks have more than they need, while other folks have less then what they need. But I explained to them that one day, we’d have what we needed. That I and their father work really hard to provide for our family, and that while things are tight right now, I’m sure that things are going to get better soon. And they will. I’m at a junction with my career goal to be a professor, taking on lower-paying employment now to set me up for much higher paying employment in a few years. We may never have a mansion, but we will be okay. Furthermore, right now, while what we have is not ideal, it’s also not too shabby. We are doing better than most folks. Just maybe not better than most folks around here.

But I also want them to dream and have expectations. I want them to feel entitled to having a good life, which many black kids don’t feel. And I need them to dream for me. Because while I know things are going to get better, I honestly can’t see if for myself. My whole life has been paycheck to paycheck, and I simply cannot imagine what it will feel like to go on vacation to another country, let alone another continent. I have an internal acceptance of what is, and it’s hard for me to feel entitled to what I don’t presently have. I can’t imagine having money for my kids to play whatever sport they’d like, or to be able to send them to camps that cost $300 + a week per kid to attend. I can hardly imagine having two cars!

So I asked them what they would want in a house. My son started, “I want four bedrooms. So each kid can have their own bedroom.” My daughter said, “I want a yard big enough for a trampoline.” My son: “I don’t really need a big yard. I just want my own bedroom.” Anything else? My son: “Two bean bag chairs.” My daughter: “No, you don’t need two bean bag chairs. If someone comes over, you just give them yours.”

Sensing the argument, I interceded: “So if you have those things, will it be fair?” My daughter: “Yes, because we’ll have what we need.”

Even after being surrounded by opulence, they still just wanted simple things.

A bedroom.

A bean bag chair.

I think we’ll be able to swing that.

Orange Stands Out
“Orange Stands Out” by Doug via Flickr