I used to help out at an after-school cooking program where the kids happened to be mostly students of color.
One week the regular instructor was off, and we had a sub. When I gathered my young charges at the beginning of class to take them to wash their hands, the sub turned to me and said, solemnly, “Keep an eye on them.”
I stared at him blankly.
“I don’t want them trying to escape.”
Escape? From a fun, completely optional class where they get to mix and measure and create and eat?
“Why would they try to escape?” I asked.
He ignored me. I moved on.
It’s possible, I thought, he approaches all children with a skeptical eye. It’s possible he views a grown-up’s role, first and foremost, as disciplinarian. Plenty of adults do.
But another part of me wondered if he looked at a room full of kids with skin that didn’t match his and thought: Trouble.
The rest of the class was tense. He was short-tempered. The kids were a little bewildered. We parted ways at the end of the hour, and I never saw him again.
But I think about him a lot.
I thought about him when I read about black students receiving disproportionate punishment at Oak Park River Forest High School. Principal Nathaniel Rouse called the discipline pattern a “huge issue” after the school’s board received a report showing black students made up 51 percent of all students disciplined by school officials during the fall semester, despite making up just 22 percent of the student body.
I thought about him when I read that a newly released government watchdog report found widespread racial bias in the way students are disciplined across the nation.
I thought about him when I read about Grandview Golf Club in Pennsylvania calling the police on a group of black women — all members of the club — for playing golf too slowly.
I thought about him when I read about the Rochester Hills, Mich., man shooting at 14-year-old Brennan Walker after Walker knocked on his front door seeking directions to school.
And I thought about him when I read the reactions to the Waffle House shooting in Nashville, Tenn.
“I just think he needed help and didn’t get it, just another one of those sad stories.” That’s how one woman from Travis Reinking’s hometown described the 29-year-old suspect in Sunday’s rampage, which left four people dead and four more wounded.
I happen to agree with her. I think he did need help. (I think that help should have included parents who stopped giving him guns, particularly after he was arrested by the U.S. Secret Service.)
But I also think her reaction speaks to America’s habit of separating white criminals from white people — a habit we forget to exercise for people of color.
My sons, my husband, my brother, my dad won’t be eyed with suspicion when they walk into crowded spaces this week, even though a guy with their skin color is the suspect in yet another mass shooting.
Good. I don’t want them to be unfairly associated with criminal activity they had no part in. I don’t want people to look at them and think: trouble.
But that shouldn’t be a privilege unique to people with white skin. Unfortunately, it very much is. Black women can’t even golf at their own pace without a white person deciding to call in law enforcement.
America needs anti-bias training. Maybe Starbucks could Facebook Live its May 29 program.
Or, even better, white people can take it upon ourselves to face — and fight — our biases.
We can acknowledge, without defensiveness, that our skin color protects us from suspicion. And when we witness someone being treated unfairly, warily, because of skin color, we can call it out.
We can stop treating perfectly innocent humans — men waiting at Starbucks, women playing golf — like would-be criminals.
We can heed the advice of singer John Legend.
“Please stop calling the police on black people who are just trying to live,” he tweeted Monday, in response to the Grandview Golf Club incident. “Please. Stop. Police shoot us for no (expletive) reason at all. Please. Stop.”
I received the following email from a reader last week, which I’d like to shout from a few rooftops:
“Political junkies generally know that Alan K. Simpson was a witty, three-term Republican senator from Wyoming. Most probably don’t know that Simpson’s teenage years were full of (to be charitable) juvenile delinquency. Among Simpson’s admitted transgressions were shooting up mailboxes, burning down an abandoned barn and being an accessory to shooting a cow dead. Now, because Simpson was white and his father was a prominent politician, Simpson got off pretty easy. Imagine if Simpson had been black. Instead of a three-term senator, he’d be an ex-felon scratching out a living if he were lucky.
“A lot of whites, like the lady who assumed the black teen who knocked on her door was a burglar, don’t even comprehend what white privilege is or how many African-Americans lack such privilege. And, alas, some of them don’t care.”
His note concluded:
“The same behavior written off as youthful stupidity for whites can get a black man imprisoned if not killed.”
That’s a terrible, tragic truth, and we need to face it, first, if we’re going to fix it.
A friend of mine once described engaging in difficult discussions about race thusly:
“You can’t clean your basement if you don’t turn the lights on and see where all the dirt is.”
There’s no shortage of incidents, week after week, reminding us that racial equality is not a reality in America. Our lights are on.
Let’s tackle our mess.