Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Things that make me want to move to Ethiopia.

 Lately there has been a lot of bad news coming out of Africa. The tragic Ebola outbreak, the political instability in Egypt, ongoing wars in Sudan... There is a lot of bad news all over, it seems. But the news coming out of America is what is breaking my heart right now.

And making me pause a little bit longer on the "maybe we should just live in Ethiopia" thought than seems logical. Something I've thought about before.

It seems like America is pretty stuck. We're stuck in the blame the victim mode. Stuck in the 'War on Drugs'. Stuck on the "poor people deserve to be poor" mode. Stuck on the "guns protect us" mode. Stuck on the "black boys are dangerous" mode.

When we initiated our adoptions from Ethiopia, we went to lots of trainings. We read a lot. A LOT.  And a key part of the training was to prepare to have The Talk with our black son. Not the sex talk, the 'surviving as a black man in America' talk. How to keep out of trouble, deal with police at a traffic stop, not get into trouble at school.  How to be perceived as "safe" while black. I started having this talk with my son when he was 6 years old.  But now, I realize, there's really not much point these talks.

Because it seems like even if he was on his "best behavior", even if he was a good student, and stayed away from drugs or gangs or dangerous neighborhoods, he could be shot.

He could be trying to make a couple of bucks.

He could be in the toy section at Walmart.

He could be hanging out with friends.

He could be going to the store for an iced tea.

He could be killed because he is black, and therefore a threat no matter what he is doing.

selfie, age 5

And here's the thing: I think the police are stuck too. It seems that overly aggressive, brutal and violent policing methods specifically targeting African-Americans are rampant in many places across the country, including our home town. We moved into a mostly African-American neighborhood a year ago. I have lived or worked in 7 different neighborhoods in New York (middle class, working class, wealthy, immigrant, mixed up and in-between) and I never seen so many cops around. We pass a cop car, or 3 or 8, at least every day just driving home. I was pulled over for the first time in my life (for rolling through a newly installed stop sign) in this neighborhood.  I, as a white woman, am not in danger, but I tell you, it's very anxiety producing to see so many cops so often. And I don't think, for a minute, that there is more crime in this neighborhood.  Just more black people.  The police never seem to be doing anything, just hanging around waiting.

The theory is that if the police stop small crimes, big crimes won't have space to develop. Kind of like weeding. In practice, though, it means that cops hang around in "certain" neighborhoods.  They've got data to file and quotas to fill. The cops have a metaphorical gun trained to their heads about getting the numbers up or down in the correct columns.  They are looking for trouble, and wouldn't you know, they find it.  So we end up with neighborhoods like mine and like St. Louis filled with cops and neighbors and mistrust and fear.  Mistrust and fear leads to violence and senseless death.

Why is this? "All cops are racist" is too simple an answer and doesn't make much sense anyway. All people are racist, to varying degrees.  Racism is an inescapable part of our culture.

I think it's because we keep trying to solve the problem of inequality with the wrong methods. We try to solve inequality with education. As if learning to read better and early eliminates children's need for a loving, stable family, a safe home and nutritious food. We try to solve inequality by fighting a "War on Drugs".  Fighting against drug abuse with mass incarceration (three strikes, mandatory minimums, etc) is as futile as trying to carve the wind.  We try to solve inequality by "eliminating the welfare state". As if by magic, poor folks will be able to find jobs, affordable quality child care and affordable housing because we "cut the apron strings".

I worry about affordable, quality child care and I'm a tenured professional! 

We are throwing weapons at a problem, and all we are ending up with is a pile of weapons. A police state, jails filled up with black and brown folks, a fake "educational crisis", a society with a safety net made up of moldy lace.

The problem is that not everyone has the same amount of money. The problem is that it's the same folks who have all the money who also have all the political clout and control over the media. The problem is that most of the folks who have most of the money are white, and have been since we arrived here on three Spanish ships.

I'm praying for us to get unstuck. I'm praying we start trying to solve the actual problem we have: unequal access to resources and opportunity. I'm praying that cops realize that they have been pushed to use violence and aggression to solve a problem that is not their responsibility and perhaps, doesn't really exist.

Meaning, dear police officer, if you see my son 10 years from now, browsing the toy aisle and playing around with his friends, I pray, I pray fervently, that you will smile at him and keep walking, because you know,

he's not dangerous.

Playing impromptu coach to a group of 3 year olds. He wants to be a gym teacher when he grows up.

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