Monday, August 18, 2014

Fear and Ferguson

Many, many years from now, toward the end of this century, three days will slip quietly past on the calendar. They will be the days that Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride might have died. After all, they were citizens of a country where most people live to be old. They weren't meant to die before age 20.

They weren't meant to die of other people's fear.

We need to talk about the fear that killed them.

We need to talk about it so we can stop nurturing it.

Each of these young Americans was shot and killed by an adult who had bought into a narrative that says that black teenagers are dangerous. Each of these teenagers was deemed a threat by an armed adult despite being unarmed themselves. We haven't heard from the killer of Michael Brown yet, but when and if we do, I won't be surprised if we hear, in one form or another, that he was scared. It's what we heard from the killers of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. In one case, a jury rejected this nonsense. In another, it apparently found it plausible.


Because nearly everything in our popular culture and nearly everything in our news media presents African-Americans as "scary." And when one person or a small number of people are doing something out-of-line, if they're white it's spoken of as the act of individuals but if they're black it's often widely perceived and tacitly presented as an example of what "they" do. There's been a lot of this dichotomy in the discussion of what's going on in Ferguson.

For example, take a look at this brief and understated article in the Washington Post. Notice how the neighbors seem afraid of "thugs" (their word, not mine) invading their neighborhood, but absolutely unafraid of ...well, their own neighbor. The guy that shot Michael Brown. Six times.

Look at the news. Notice how those in authority, bizarrely, have focused on the people of Ferguson as if they were a problem to be solved, rather than focusing on-- or, at least, publicly saying anything about-- the investigation into the death of Michael Brown.

And, of course, in this case as in the others, there's been the business of pointing out flaws in the victim... in comparison, I suppose, to the stellar perfection of all other teenagers.

And the showering of the perpetrator with monetary gifts.

All of these are different expressions of fear, a societal fear that is killing black teenagers.

We bookish people tend to feel that the answer to this problem lies in better books, but we're only partly right. Books are such a small portion of the cultural message that most people consume. The answer lies in insisting on more sensitive, nuanced discussion across all media. The news media needs to talk about racism as if we were grownups. It needs to use the same language to talk about the actions of black people as it uses to talk about those of white people. (I could say a lot more about this!) Television and movies need to stop using blackness as a visual code for badness.

Some years ago I had a curious conversation in a remote village on the Bering Sea coast. I was in the office I shared with another teacher, a local woman. I forget what we were talking about, but she made the surprising remark that she had never met a black person.

"And I'm worried that when I do, I might react wrongly," she said. "I might act as though I expect them to be violent and angry. Because that's what I always see on tv. And I know they probably aren't really like that."

Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to deconstruct the media message as my friend was. Many people don't demand this level of thinking from themselves. So we need to change the message.

This problem can be solved. This is America, and we've solved lots of problems. Many things that were commonplace a generation ago are unthinkable now. We can make this lethal fear of black teenagers unthinkable, as well. 
We can insist that our media and popular culture stop feeding it.

Let's do it now. Lives depend on it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Rule of Law

It's five days since a Ferguson, Missouri police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, and we don't know who that officer was. This is pretty strange in the information age. Usually, when someone stands accused of killing someone, we know their name. In fact, usually the police are the ones to reveal it.

Now in this case we don't have a name, apparently because of concerns about repercussions against the officer and his family. That almost sounds logical till you poke at it a little.

We live in a society that enjoys the Rule of Law. And the essence of the Rule of Law is that it prevents repercussions by ensuring justice. It's safe to name the accused in our society because instead of an ancient system of blood feud, we have criminal charges and courts and juries.

The Rule of Law, like magic, only works if we believe in it. And thus far events in Missouri have given us very little reason to believe in it. By not revealing the name of the accused, the authorities in Ferguson, Missouri are giving us a strong indication that they don't believe in it.

A police force that doesn't believe in the Rule of Law is a frightening thing. It's a police force that might do anything.

In fact, it's a police force that already has. Last Saturday.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Middle Grade: Time to Lose the C-word

In the past two months, I've been blasted out of five (5) recent children's books by the C-word.

There I was, reading along, having a grand time, when all of a sudden...BAM. C-word. I'm knocked out of the story and cast adrift, the words on the page sifting meaninglessly past a brain now completely preoccupied with wondering why the author –with whom I'd been getting along swimmingly up till then-- suddenly decided to descend into hate speech.

But don't picture me reading these books. Picture a child in a wheelchair. A little boy with a leg-brace. A girl on crutches. Picture them reading the books. All of a sudden they're smacked right in the eyes with a line something like this:

He was a cripple.

I hadn't known she was crippled.

Why would anyone hurt a cripple?

Why indeed? But the child reader has been called this name on the school playground. And yes, of course it hurt.

(By the way, the above-- and below-- are not direct quotes from the books. I'm not naming and shaming. Just hoping for change.)

Does it matter how the word is presented? Whether it's in quotes or not? Marginally. Only marginally. Remember, the target readers are children, with a child's level of discernment.

Anyway, in four of the five books, the word occurred at least once without quotes.

In two of them, it was used in the authorial voice to describe a person with a physical disability.

In two, it was used to describe hypothetical people, "cripples" in the abstract.

In three, it was used as a figure of speech.

A crippling blow.
The ship was crippled.

(If you're thinking that adds up to seven: Yeah. Three of the five books used the word repeatedly.)

I think most people would probably be okay with the figurative use. I'm not. For those people to whom a word has fangs, it has fangs even when it's used figuratively. If you think about other hate speech in this context, you'll see what I mean.

It would also probably be okay with most people (including me) if the word was discussed, if the fact that it's hateful and hurtful, and/or how a character is affected by the word, was the author's point.

It's never discussed.

We didn't use the C-word for years, because we understood that it was insulting and hateful. Now apparently we think it's edgy.

The C-word, by the way, does not have fangs for all people with mobility-related disabilities. Those who react most negatively to it, I think, are those who were already physically disabled in elementary school.

But these are middle grade books. They're for people in elementary school.

So please, can we stop calling them names?

update 8/12/14: Two days I've read the word in six (6) recent middle grade books.