The Great Divide: Race, Rights, and Real Change

Over the past few days, as I read my twitter and facebook feeds, I’ve been feeling deeply frustrated. There seem to be an enormous amount of alarming things happening in the world right now, and the response I’m seeing ranges from inspiring to appalling. I want to lend my voice in support, but it is a tricky business to weigh in on some of these issues without making an ass of myself, as I see so many people doing.

Today, the Supreme Court is voting on a landmark marriage equality case. I support marriage equality unequivocally, and I hope that they make what I feel is the right decision. I think that a few generations from now, we will look back at a time when same sex marriage was a contentious civil rights issue and be quite embarrassed.

Yesterday, a high school student in Washington brought a gun to school with the intention of hurting himself. Thankfully, he was tackled by a teacher before he was able to hurt himself or anyone else. Nevertheless, this event highlights to me the precarious nature of adolescence, and our outright failure to provide adequate mental healthcare, education (!!!), and gun safety practices such that these frightening and deadly occurrences persist as a hallmark of American culture. The answer isn’t simple or easily prescribed, but that doesn’t mean we should stop having the difficult conversations and working towards tangible solutions.

Earlier this week, an earthquake in Nepal caused massive loss of life and triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that left climbers stranded. I am following this story and sending my thoughts to all those affected by this natural disaster. I hope that the global response is generous and facilitates the healing of this beautiful and unique place.

This issue I really want to talk about, however, is not a natural disaster, but rather a very human one. Following the death of yet another young black man at the hands of law enforcement, there have been peaceful protests in the city of Baltimore, and riding on the tail of those peaceful protests, looting and violence. I emphasize the peaceful protests, and will continue to do so, because they should be our main focus, despite what the capital-m Media is presenting. As is often true with large-scale peaceful protests, especially in tense and racially or economically diverse cities, a combination of boiled-over frustration and opportunism have led to the ugliness of looting and unprovoked violence. Nevertheless, to focus our energy on the condemnation of this reactionary violence is to lose sight of the greater issues at play here in Baltimore, and previously in Ferguson, and even further back in the civil rights protests and conflicts of the 1960s. Indeed, when reading headlines this morning online, I found myself thinking, “what decade am I in?!” I feel discouraged, thinking of all the progress that I thought had been made, and seeing as I grow older how devastatingly wrong I was.

Yes, certainly, progress has been made since the 1960s. No, I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of the situation, which is why I’ve refrained from offering my comments before now. It has become clear, however, that my silence and the silence of my peers (my white, educated, middle to upper class peers specifically) is tantamount to condoning the continued devaluation of the lives of those who look, sound, and behave differently from me. I had the privilege of working in an inner city high school last year, and I was able to see firsthand the way our education system continues the segregation of students based on their level of ‘achievement.’ To make a complex issue brief, those who come from poorer families – a majority of whom are black or Hispanic here in Texas – are in remedial classes, while wealthier students (read: white kids) are in the advanced classes. Sit in on any class in Texas and you will see that segregation is alive and well in our great country. Clearly, this is an oversimplification, but the point stands. Again, I don’t have the ultimate solution to this problem, but I think having a frank conversation about it is a good first step, and I don’t see that happening.

To return to the immediate issue at hand – the death of Freddie Gray, and the protests in Baltimore – I think it is far past time for a change. Those of us who have stood by mutely, reading the news and declining to participate in the necessary conversation, are guilty in our complacence of having allowed the situation to escalate to its current state. There is clearly a problem with the way our law enforcement is being allowed to treat people of color in our country. The racial divide has grown so vast and full of prejudice that the band aids being applied currently will not be enough to change the culture of hate as it currently exists. I believe, some might say naively, that those who enter law enforcement careers genuinely want to protect and serve their communities. We must, therefore, provide them with the education and skills to protect and serve ALL members of their communities. Obviously, some important piece of the puzzle is missing.

I don’t know how to solve this problem, although I wish that I did. I grieve for Freddie Gray, and I dread the future for my students of color who are entering an adult world that is far more dangerous for them than it is for their white peers. I fear for the future of our country, which incarcerates almost ten times as many people of color as white people. I mourn the loss of potential and creativity we accept every time a student drops out of school and joins the ‘prison pipeline.’ I despise the apathetic approach to rehabilitation employed by much of our broken prison system (especially since we know that rehabilitation works). I renounce our cultural values that tell us that the only way to prevent crime is through imprisonment, and that those who mess up deserve to be stripped of their rights. When black men make up 60% of a prison’s population and less than 2% of the same city’s college enrollment, we have to acknowledge that our country is broken.

I am frustrated and angry and scared, and I know that my knowledge only permits me to have the broadest of opinions on this subject. I hope that, as we educate ourselves further, we can have the kind of intelligent, respectful, and vulnerable conversations we need to have to create lasting change. I welcome comments and criticism, although it scares me.

More links for consideration and to start conversations:

Prison: To Punish or Reform? -PBS
Baltimore and Black Lives Matter -Flavorwire
Punishment Fails. Rehabilitation Works. -NYTimes
Rehabilitate or Punish? -American Psychological Association

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Carrie says:

    Thank you for caring. We have to think that counts for something…..


    1. Kelshenka says:

      Caring definitely matters. Acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it! I’m working on a follow-up post outlining some possible actions we can take to put our caring to work in the real world.


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