A rally was held on July 8th on the steps of Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education, calling for an investigation of Minerva Zanka, the principal of Pan American International High School in Queens, who allegedly referred to African American teachers she was firing as “big lipped,” “nappy haired” and “gorillas.” Given the DOE’s double standard of protecting principals who do wrong while hounding teachers over relatively minor transgressions, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the principal get off with no more than a slap on the wrist. I am not shocked that racist attitudes are still so visible.
The idea that, with the election of Obama we are entering a post-racial society, looks far from reality. We are ingrained with racial stereotypes from our earliest years. Black male teens and young men are often the target of these attitudes. I was in Philadelphia about ten years ago for a conference and went to dinner with a friend who had just gotten her MBA at Wharton, one of the top schools in the nation. I walked her back to her apartment which was in an “iffy” neighborhood with lots of people hanging out on a hot June night. On the corner, there was a group of black men who looked to be in their twenties and older, drinking from beer cans and having a good time. My antenna went up, though my friend seemed unconcerned. As we came to the corner, she ran up and hugged one of the guys, congratulating all of them on their graduation from Wharton with their MBAs. Big lesson learned about my own racial assumptions.
I was reminded of this event during the recent debates on Stop and Frisk. What assumptions do police make, admittedly in a somewhat different situation, when they see a group of black males, especially teens, hanging out?
Having taught elementary school, I had little experience with high school students. But in the late 80s - early 90s, I spent some time with a group of kids of color who played basketball on a high school team where one of my former students was a star player. I was involved in trying to find the right school for him, but being a poor academic student, he ended up at one of the tough neighborhood high schools, which was in the process of being closed and reopened under a new name. During his freshman year there were only seniors left in the school. (The school has since been closed once again).
For his four years in the school I went to most of their games and kept their stats. I often gave them lifts. We went to basketball tournaments and Knick games. A few times, I drove some of them out to my house to enjoy the beach or play computer basketball games on my computer. While at times rambunctious, like any teens, I found them to be a delightful group of kids, though some did get into trouble. Living in some of the poorest neighborhoods, they seemed to have experienced Stop and Frisk activities from police, which they accepted as an expected occurrence. I wondered how it would feel from the perspective of white kids and how their parents would react?
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went into the city in the late afternoon when the subway cars were loaded with kids coming home from school. We got seats in the midst of a group of noisy and rambunctious young teens who were horsing around. Being on the trains at that time quite often, I was wary but not uncomfortable. My wife seemed a bit more concerned, at first. Until one kid, running by bumped into me. He stopped, turned around and apologized. While being aware, as one must be, ingrained assumptions can be dangerous. Just ask George Zimmerman.
Norm blogs at ednotesonline.org.