Equity & Diversity Opinion

Police, Racism, and Violence: What It Means for Us

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 07, 2014 5 min read
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The past few weeks have focused the nation’s attention on Ferguson, Missouri. The names of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have become inimically connected. Two men who didn’t know each other prior to an encounter on a street have their lives forever changed: the young black man’s life was lost and the white officer who fired the shot that took it away. In those few disputable moments, both men lost their futures. The Grand Jury verdict has not settled the cloud of racism around the incident that spread across the country and attracted the POTUS to announce his plan for police to wear cameras. Then, another Grand Jury, this time in New York’s Staten Island, decided not to charge another white police officer whose chokehold around Eric Garner contributed to his death. That Mr. Garner was unarmed and, in this case, there was a cell phone video of the encounter. Again, too soon after the Brown decision, the justice system is called into question.

So, Is It Racism At Work?
Is it racism within the white police forces and/or among those who sit on Grand Juries and prosecutors who present evidence to them? Those questions will be answered...maybe by the Justice Department and hopefully by each of us who hope for a society in which all lives are valued. We have also been following a story from St. Louis about a Bosnian immigrant, Zemir Begic, who was beaten to death by a group of black and Latino teenagers in the last few days. In that instance, the Bosnian community rallied around the call “Bosnian lives matter too.” Well, the fact is all lives matter.

We are a nation of different races and ethnicities. It has been our proud identity as a nation that all who came were welcome, at least that was our illusion. Certainly, each group helped build the fabric of our society and the strength of our economy. Yet, right now we find ourselves debating how to handle illegal immigrants and dealing with violence among races and ethnicities playing out on our streets. So, who have we become?

That Brings Us to Schools, Especially Public Schools
It is in the classroom, the hallway and the playground where young people often encounter otherness for the first time. Within families, and churches and communities, there are bonds of the familiar. But, in school, everyone comes. Into our hands falls the formation of the child’s identity in relation to others and to his or her nation. Educators extend welcome and raise the children up to become fully participating members of the society or we witness the fall to the sideline. The issue is too complex to attribute blame or even responsibility anywhere but we do play a part. We have written before about the role of educators in easing or perpetuating racism and other prejudices. The vigilant self-knowing that is being demanded from police is also one demanded of us.

We hear fear in all these stories. Darren Wilson was afraid for his life. Michael Brown probably was also. In New York, we are sure the cigarette selling father of six, Eric Garner was afraid as he found himself unable to breathe. And, we guess, the Bosnian man was afraid as he encountered the hammer wielding group of teens. If we are afraid of each other, how can we come together? Where do we learn our basic human connections and where do we learn to trust them? Only by interacting with otherness can that happen. In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer wrote that violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering. As we become more and more a society of haves and have nots, this need to consider one another’s suffering is of paramount importance. It can begin as simply as listening to one another’s stories.

Decades ago, when completing student teaching in an inner city high school a cooperating teacher required that dinner be shared for several nights in the homes of the students. Sitting around a family table with those who are different from you is another kind of live encounter. The love present is the same even if the food and the language are not. Respect grows, fear subsides. Those encounters impacted classroom interactions and the rest of life as well. That teacher knew and taught his student teachers that to teach successfully, students must trust you. They must feel respect exchanged in order to be willing to take risks to succeed and to try again when success is hard to come by.

It was such a simple thing but it might be helpful if all rookie police and all student teachers had the same experience. Spend a few days and nights walking in someone else’s shoes and you discover a lot about them and yourself. And wouldn’t it be a surprise in many communities if that were to happen. And yes, educational leaders could model it. Do parents always have to come to us? When was our last home visit?

There are other actions leaders can take as well. The December issue of HR Magazine has a timely article entitled “Bringing Bias into the Light”. The author includes a list from Ernst and Young LLP for avoiding biased behaviors that is relevant for us. This list includes:

  • Increase purposeful mentoring and coaching. Sponsor people who are not like you.
  • Be proactive about recognizing people’s different capacities and prepare them to take on challenging assignments
  • Consider who might consistently feel like an outsider and take steps to actively address the situation
  • Establish clearly defined, measurable interview criteria against which all candidates are evaluated
  • Attend professional affinity group meetings and inclusiveness events to enrich you r understanding of diversity
  • Evaluate your own actions daily
  • Seek out regular feedback on your own actions and behaviors

In a 2009 interview with Krista Tippit, Palmer commented that...

...violence is done when we demean, marginalize, dismiss, rendering other people irrelevant to our lives or even less than human. Violence is done when we simply don’t care or don’t look hard enough to evoke our caring for another.

Here is the lesson for the police and for us. We are public servants. We must care about that piece of the public we serve and of the whole of it. Without that, violence and racism will follow us all our days.

Palmer, Parker (2011). Healing the Heart of Democracy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Wilkie, Dana, December 2014 “Bringing Bias into the Light” HR Magazine, Vol 59 no. 12 p. 24

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Ann and Jill will be presenting at The Learning Forward Conference in Nashville on Tuesday December 9th.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.