What happens in Minneapolis when a white high school student lynches a black doll in 2013?

I just saw the movie Lincoln. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s based (partly) on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about the political navigations and negotiations that resulted in the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution through the House of Representatives (having already passed the Senate), thus abolishing slavery and ending the Civil War.

So while this particular film was focused on the politics of it, which are fascinating in their own right, I found myself thinking a lot about two other things.

The first was curiosity about the eventual historic view of President Obama. There is absolutely no way to quantify that long view now. Maybe not even in my lifetime. But maybe so. I did some math. Suppose I live until I’m 80. That’s 45 years from now. 45 years ago, it was 1968, and hoo boy, a lot has happened since then. We can certainly see the historical effect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s work. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. So it is quite a fitting coincidence that I happened to see Lincoln on the day that the United States of America celebrates both the birthday of Dr. King and the second inauguration of our first black president.

The second thing, a recent incident at a local high school which I’ve been marinating on for a few days since I found out about it, was almost a distraction from the film. I live six blocks from Washburn High School in southwest Minneapolis. On Friday, January 11, a group of four white Washburn students saw fit to hang a dark-skinned doll by the neck from a piece of string in a school stairwell.




I almost cannot hold in my head, at the same time, the story of the film I just saw and this news, 148 years later.

So, some facts.

No actual institution that performs journalism has reported that the students who participated in this incident are white. I’m assuming that if the students were of color, that would be reported. It certainly changes the dynamic. But it’s also problematic that the (presumed) fact that they’re white is not seen fit to report in a story like this, as if white is the default and we should assume whiteness unless otherwise specified. It is, in fact, an important part of this story that the perpetrators are white.

The act was caught on a school security camera. Minneapolis Public Schools will not disclose the details of the students’ discipline for privacy reasons, but it appears that all four served at least a one-day suspension, one is still suspended, and at least one has been expelled.

What I’ve heard from my neighborhood’s Facebook group is that this act is highly incongruent with the atmosphere that exists and has been cultivated at the school. Parents and students are generally unhappy with the way the media has handled the story.

I’ve been asked several times over the last couple of days if I thought the act was intentional or just stupid. Let’s be clear that it was deliberate, and it was racial. Regardless of the intention, it is racist given the historical context of white people lynching black people in the United States. Regardless of the intention, there is harm done, and largely it is up to the victims to determine – and communicate – what that harm is to them.

For example, I suspect that nowhere in this process did any of those kids think about what neighbors who don’t have kids at the high school might have to do with anything. But as one such neighbor who is a person of color, I can’t help but feel a bit threatened by it. I thought about this some more as my morning run led me past the school’s property. I don’t know anything about those kids or their families, but I do know that they intentionally performed an act that is threatening to people like me. How can I not question just what kind of people are living in my neighborhood? I’m annoyed with myself for feeling (mildly) threatened, but I also don’t think I want to be numb to such threats.

Watching one news story, you hear students saying things like “his best friend is black” and “I don’t think it was racist, it was a practical joke that got taken the wrong way.” So while the act may not have been consciously racially motivated, one lesson that all of those students need to learn is that real harm is done when you use symbols or imagery with racial context. Context that high school students have already learned in school.

I’ve seen calls for the restorative justice process to be used. The principal has stated that a lot of dialogue has ensued and will be facilitated, and that school will create opportunities for the students involved to take responsibility via “restorative measures.” That is something that I did not expect to hear. I’m really glad to hear it.

The last question I have about all of this is about these students’ ability to really comprehend what just happened. I think back on a book I read for a class last summer. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life is a developmental psychology book by Robert Kegan. It discusses orders of thinking (higher orders are more complex ways of thinking), evolution from one order of thinking to the next, and how so many people are challenged by elements of daily life that require them to think more complexly than they are able to. The most accessible example in the book is that of teenagers (but the stuff about adults is great and you should read it). Adults and teenagers are so challenged by each other. Teenagers may make choices that are congruent with their parents’ demands of them, but their “way of knowing” about those demands is entirely different from their parents’. Teenagers just think differently – less complexly – about things. And if you want them to know about something the same way that you do as an adult, you need to lead them there.

There is a community meeting scheduled at the high school later this week, which I will attend. I initially didn’t think it was worth attending because I thought I already knew what everyone would have to say on the various sides of the issue. But I am curious to hear directly from the administration. As more comes out about the story, I’m heartened by the school’s and the district’s response. An institutional, holistic response to a situation that was enabled by institutionalized racism is appropriate and necessary. I don’t have an answer to the question of whether the schools have failed these children. But if you go with the notion that our education system is simply a reflection of the dynamics (and hence institutionalized discrimination) entrenched in our society, it can’t really be surprising that something like this might still happen. Even though I’m still surprised by it.

I hope lessons are learned.

11 thoughts on “What happens in Minneapolis when a white high school student lynches a black doll in 2013?”

  1. Unless this was a specific threat or intimidation tactic against one of their classmates, I don’t see why anyone should feel threatened. It’s stupid teenagers doing stupid things to get attention.

    And if by restorative justice, you mean money restorations to African Americans, then restorations are also owed to Native Americans and all women. Personally, as a woman, I find the idea of money settlements to subjugated classes repugnant and patronizing as well as ridiculously impractical.

    1. If only there were some way — such as, by bothering to follow the hyperlinked text — that you could find out what “restorative justice” means.

      1. Following the hyperlinked text, Vance, third sentence from the top, to the far right. Let me know if you have trouble finding it. Thanks.

    2. My point is that: 1) A noose is a tool that was used to perpetuate racially-motivated violence upon people, and 2) it was (and is) also used to imply a similar threat. Therefore 3) I do not feel like I am in danger of being lynched but what I worry about is the household that produces a kid that uses threatening imagery, and whether I need to be otherwise concerned about other acts (less violent, but no less discriminatory) against me or people like me from this household located in close proximity to mine.

      This concern about overt or perceived covert threats is something I live with as a person of color and as a gay person, since those groups have been historically discriminated against in the United States (and still are discriminated against). I have personally experienced acts of aggression because someone did not like something about my sexual orientation.

      I did link to the wikipedia article on Restorative Justice. I think what you’re referring to is reparations. Those are not the same thing.

      1. I’ve also been discriminated against or threatened due to my gender and orientation, and when I have been actually threatened–the key being ‘actually’–then that’s a legitimate infringement of my personal rights, and there are actions that I can take to be made whole by the party who wronged me.

        However, if I personally haven’t been threatened or discriminated against, I don’t feel I should expect an apology or reparations from anyone. Even if these kids are totally racist, or sexist, or homophobic or what have you, I can’t expect them to be punished for their ideologies if they haven’t performed a threatening or discriminatory action.

        And I disagree with you on the definition of restorative justice, since reparations have always been included within that definition as far as I know. In fact, the wiki article you link to begins with this (which I’m pasting without modification): “Restorative justice (also sometimes called reparative justice[1]) is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service”.[2] “

        1. “if I personally haven’t been threatened or discriminated against, I don’t feel I should expect an apology or reparations from anyone”

          If that’s how you feel, then okay. You’re absolutely entitled to that. I’m not saying that I personally expect anything from this particular incident, nor will I actively pursue it. The fact remains that the harm caused by this particular incident and those like it extend beyond just the particular persons involved, to other individuals and to the community. That’s the difference between individual acts of prejudice, and acts of oppression supported by societal power structures.

          The whole notion of the restorative justice concept is that an act against an individual also constitutes an act against the community, and the offender, the victim, AND the community have a say in what happens next.

          Let me correct what I said about reparations: There’s a difference between 1) the general notion of reparations as part of a restorative justice process for a particular crime or incident, and 2) the historic notion of reparations owed to African-Americans for slavery or to Native American people for the injustices they’ve suffered at the hands of the United States government. The former may pertain to this particular incident; you started out referring to the latter.

          1. That’s my point–who was harmed? You say in your response that you didn’t feel in danger at all, but just found their imagery threatening and uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of derogatory imagery as it pertains to women in the world today; but that doesn’t mean I’m being threatened in a way that entitles me to have the disseminators of that imagery punished.

            Is any person of color or homosexual orientation owed reparations if, for instance, a white supremacist group is exercising their right to assemble in a public space? Because you are not actually threatened but find their imagery threatening? Where would the line ever be drawn? What constitutes a threat when the only criterion we have is that someone feels uncomfortable? If these boys hold a racist dogma–even if most people find it repulsive–are they any less entitled to express that than someone who speaks in support of gay rights?

            I’m not defending these boys’ beliefs, and I don’t know the details of this story, but from what I’ve read, the school got this right–punishing the boys for causing a disturbance in school and reiterating that the government institution (the school) in no way supports discrimination or the opinion of these students. If there was no specific threat against a particular person, that should be the end. These boys may be the biggest racists in the state, but they don’t owe you, me, or the community anything for holding that opinion.

          2. Erica, thanks for posting this. I’m really disappointed to hear about this happening in my home town.

            As a white lesbian with a black wife, together for nearly 14 years, if I lived in that neighborhood, I would feel threatened, too, and I would be particularly worried about the personal safety of my wife in that area. The threat of violence against people like us is real. I have the privilege of being white and looking “straight,” so my personal safety is not as much at risk in general. But because of my sexual orientation and because my wife is black and butch, I know what it feels like to be truly terrified, for my own safety, and even more for the safety of the person I love most in this world.

            Regardless of the fact that no one was hurt or specifically threatened, that was a symbolic act of violent aggression with weighty historical significance. Giving the benefit of the doubt to those kids and chalking it up to their youth, I bet they don’t have a clear understanding about why what they did is so horrible. Perhaps they didn’t know that the intention of acts like this are to threaten and intimidate, to terrify. And once kids get in trouble for something like that, their bound to get defensive, say it was intended as a joke, that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, etc, etc. Whatever the reason for it, they should NOT, absolutely not be let off the hook.

            That kind of symbolic act of aggression is truly disturbing. Yes, those kids should be punished. More importantly, they should be educated because clearly they missed something in their history, civics, and social science classes. It is incumbent upon the adults in the community to see that they are taught why, and not in a punitive way, what they did is unacceptable.

            And those who have responded so far are conflating reparitive justice with reparations, as Erica has pointed out already. I’m not as familiar with reparative justice, but I imagine that its objective is not about vengeance, or compensation, but rather about healing and making amends.

          3. Either you’re not understanding what I’ve already said about the harm I’ve experienced, in which case I’m not going to keep repeating it, or you just disagree with my definitions of harm and threat, which I think is actually the case and in which case we’ll have to agree to disagree.

            “Harm” and “threat” are strong words. There is nuance and degrees to which those are experienced. Maybe we’re just operating on different ends of that spectrum.

            I am not getting any benefit out of defending a victimhood that I feel, but not significantly enough to pursue. I do not want to hang out in that mental space any further. I’ll say one last time that I think damage has been done to the community, and as a community member, I feel that.

            Those students are free to do what they did. Anyone else around them is free to have a reaction to it and to express that. The students are not free of the CONSEQUENCES of their actions.

            What I have gotten out of this exchange is that it has made me dig deeper into the restorative justice process. That is new learning for me and I’m fascinated by that. I urge you to read further. If you did read that whole wikipedia article, you’d know that the purpose of restorative justice is to address the needs of the victims and the community, not so much the legalities of an incident. The “amends” part is more important than reparations. Amends can be made without reparations, and reparations can be non-monetary.

          4. I do disagree with your apparent definition of harm and threat, since what you describe doesn’t come close to the definition of either of those two words. You’re describing a general discomfort and suspicion of the racist ideologies the boys’ are evidencing. That’s not a threat.

            You may not see it this way, but personally, I find the idea of any sort of codification of this ‘restorative justice’ you want horrifying. We already have a system of laws, which fortunately generally say that you can express you thoughts provided you don’t couple that expression with an illegal action. As you and the other commenters freely acknowledge, there was no illegal threat. So your calls for justice baffle me.

            Answering to ‘the community’ for non-illegal expression of my free thoughts is sickening and you don’t seem to see how–taken out to its logical extremes–it’s the mirror image of answering to ‘the community’ for being gay or any other marginalized class or thought.

            Personally, if I were these kids and the school (government power structure, as you say) in any way attempt to publicly shame me for being racist or force me to apologize or, even worse, participate in ‘restorative justice’ because of my beliefs, I would sue the school district, and under the current precepts of constitutional law, I would win–easily. Hopefully, we’ll never get to the point where ‘the community’ exercises mob justice over people who express ideas counter to what ‘the community’ finds acceptable.

  2. And if you want them to know about something the same way that you do as an adult, you need to lead them there.”

    that’s the thing, I feel, like there is this lack of responsibility among adults that high schools no longer need guidance. I feel like a lot of folks lose sight that they are still teenagers and that they do still need someone to model the way for them.

    Even if it was teenagers being stupid, they still need to know the connotations of their actions. Also, I’m with you, I would feel threatened or at least unwelcomed in my community if this incident happened close by, because of the history of it, the implications of that action, and the hate and intolerance it symbolizes.

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