Thursday, March 22, 2012

Does Joey Look Suspicious Too?

We have a student at our school I'll call Joey. Joey is one of those good-natured, gentle kids that everyone is excited to see. He learned every teacher's name, even though he's only a ninth grader and doesn't have most of them as teachers in classes, and greets us all personally every day. He will walk right up to guests and introduce himself with a handshake. He'll wander into meetings and greet everyone before he is (gently) kicked out by whoever is running the meeting. He's funny and sweet and generally just great to be around.

He's also 14, almost six feet tall, built like a linebacker, and African-American.

So Joey has been on my mind quite a bit the past few days as I've read up on the Trayvon Martin story, the 17-year-old African American who was shot dead for, as far as I can tell, "looking suspicious." The neighborhood watch captain's claims that Martin fought with him seem to be falling apart. The situation looks more like someone motivated to kill out of racial paranoia rather than self-defense.

Jose Vilson has already written about the implications of this case for teachers. I don't want to do that here, only to say that it makes me think about a story a colleague told me about Joey. Joey came to him once and said he'd had a bad day because he'd been stopped and frisked on the way to school. Apparently this happens to Joey a couple of times a week, and maybe it's not hard to guess why. But it seems to happen in the same park, on his way to and from school. You'd think maybe the police would have learned by now that Joey is absolutely harmless; in fact, he's a totally lovely kid. What is the point in continuing to target him multiple times a week?

And if Joey goes into his local park, maybe after dark, cutting through there to pick up a few things at the grocery store or walk a friend home from the train station, and he's wearing a black hoodie, does Joey "look suspicious" too? Even if he's unarmed? Even if he's not breaking any law? Even if all he's doing is walking, wearing a hoodie, and, well, being African-American and male?

This is, unfortunately, part of reality for some of our students. I don't have an answer, either. But I think it's important that we as teachers know it's out there.
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