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.