Teaching Lessons

I sat at the computer last night with my Ferguson twitter list open and my live feed running and talked to my daughter about the justice system and how it works. I explained the reason for trials (“Because it’s not always easy to tell if someone is guilty or not.”) and the idea of Innocent until proven Guilty. I explained that in a normal situation where there is gray area surrounding a murder, where it seems like there might be conflicting information regarding a crime, the case is tried in a court and lawyers are tasked with proving guilt (or innocence) and that a jury must feel like the person is guilty BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT before they convict.

“But this situation is very different. Because this situation involved a white police officer and a young black man.”

We talked a little about Black History as a general timeline that leads us to this point. We talked about people getting judged for things they can’t control, like skin color. I related it to bullying of gay kids at school because – while she has no family members who are African American – she does have gay family. We talked about Affirmative Action and the story recently who submitted his resume to dozens of places with his name “Jose” on it and got no calls, but when the resume said “Joe” they couldn’t call him fast enough. SAME RESUME. DIFFERENT NAME. We talked about what Moms have to teach their young black sons about the danger of wearing hoodies and having their hands in their pockets.

“That’s not fair. All boys wear hoodies and put their hands in their pockets.”

And then we talked about privilege. And how that – right there – is our privilege. Because of our skin color, I won’t have to talk to Wesley about where to keep is driver’s license so that no police officer would have reason to believe he was going for a weapon if he got pulled over.

When her sons were old enough to drive, she admonished them to keep their driver’s license and insurance card on the seat beside them, just in case they were ever stopped by police. When Griffin spoke earlier, she said she had told her son the same thing.

I talked about how her brother could grow up and have a bad attitude and be disrespectful and rowdy and be out WAY too late and be up to NO GOOD AT ALL and yet – YET – there will not be a GIANT part of me terrified he might not live to make it home. Of course I’ll be fearful for him, but if he’s a trouble maker I’ll worry more about an arrest, or a suspension from school. But the same kind of behavior in a different body could lead to dangerous situations resulting in rash decisions being made by someone with a gun. Decisions made based on a skin color they can not control.

And this was all before 8pm.

As it got closer to 8pm we discussed Grand Juries and how in most situations a Grand Jury leads to an indictment because a case needs to be tried in a court system and how a lot of people in the legal world HATE the Grand Jury system because:

‘If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,’ said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. ‘It just doesn’t happen.’ Source.

But – I reminded her that this case is different. Because it’s a white police officer and a young black male victim – everything is different. And the “why” is very complicated.

IMG_3136I explained to her that BECAUSE there have been many cases where the African American community VERY RIGHTFULLY feels like they were abandoned or jilted by the justice system, a decision not to indict is going to feel very unjust. EVEN IF – legally speaking – the Grand Jury in Ferguson made the “right” decision based on the evidence…it’s still going to upset people because people of color simply can not trust the justice system.

And then they announced the decision. And she and I spent 4 1/2 minutes in silence, just watching the Ferguson Feed scroll by.

And then we talked some more.

“But we wanted them to indict him, right?”

And man…THAT is the crux of it all, isn’t it?

I sighed and did my best.

“Well. In a perfectly world we trust the legal system and we would walk away trusting that the prosecutor ONLY took the case to the Grand Jury because he wanted a conviction.”

Which we can’t trust because,

Ordinarily, prosecutors only bring a case if they think they can get an indictment. But in high-profile cases such as police shootings, they may feel public pressure to bring charges even if they think they have a weak case Source.

“So it’s not that we would ‘want’ an indictment, it’s that we ‘want’ justice to be served by the system we trust as a U.S. citizen. And this crime had eye-witness accounts that conflicted from the shooter’s, and Medical Examiner’s reports that seemed to give conflicting messages…so the only way for ALL of the evidence to be brought forward in a properly-managed manner would be in a criminal court.”

“If this was a White Cop and a White Victim, we we see the ‘no indictment’ news as a way of saying, ‘There is no where near enough evidence of a crime to even entertain a court case.’ But our justice system does not seem to represent people of color equally as their white counterparts so it’s really hard to see a lack of indictment as a sign of innocence in this case. History has jaded this community.”

It’s a tough thing to teach her. I dug up this statistic:

Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes. The Sentencing Project reports that African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison. Source.

I used that as a way of showing why the African American community does not look at our court system as a “just”.

I tried my best to explain everything with numbers and facts because it was so obvious my emotions were at play and I worried she wouldn’t trust my words.

I combed through twitter for people who were doing a better job of concisely expressing the situation than I was.

And then…regarding the riots that followed I’ll point out that locals have said things like this:

But that – in general – these words sum up the mood of the people there.

But most importantly – I’ll remind her that it is our duty as White people to not forget it’s different for us. That if anything tragic happened to her or her brothers, I would naturally put a lot of faith in our justice system. I would trust it to do the right thing. I would trust the checks and balances in place to make sure anyone responsible would be punished.

And that is OUR privilege. And as long as people of color can NOT say the same thing, it is our responsibility to keep talking about it, to amplify the voices of those fighting to make things better, and to NEVER FORGET that it is NOT the same for everyone.

And that when it comes to skin color, Justice is not always blind.

9 thoughts on “Teaching Lessons”

  1. My daughter is seven, my son is five, and I’ve been struggling trying to figure out a good way to start talking to them about Ferguson and about the world we live in. (We live in a racially diverse city, but our neighborhood has it’s own racial/cultural issues.) This is such a well-thought out discussion. Thank you for sharing your conversation with us.

  2. I didn’t listen last night, because I knew I would feel sick to my stomach no matter what happened. I wasn’t there, the facts aren’t clear to me and there are just too many people with their own agendas, too much grief… to much *everything* for me to feel like I have any idea what happened. (I wanted to say attention, but I don’t actually think this reality could have too much attention.)

    Here’s the thing, as a former social justice lawyer who pays attention to the world around me, I know injustice exists and I don’t trust our legal system to address it. Everything everybody is saying about racial bias in policing (and many other things) I believe to be true, and I want so badly to see our country change.

    I am also close friends with several cops. People in whom I’ve never seen a hint of racism or bias (except when they want to get a rise out of me) and whom I would trust to only shoot if they believed it was a matter of their life or his. And, I see their Facebook feeds. Cops die trying to keep that legal system I don’t trust functioning, and they are grieved deeply by the entire law enforcement community. My friends put on their uniforms every day knowing they might not come home because of that uniform. (And, yes, I know that’s a choice, but I am so glad there are those willing to don that uniform.) I love my friends, and I want them to pull their gun when they need to so that they can come home. And, I recognize that they only have a second, sometimes less, to make that determination.

    And I know that mothers send their dark-skinned children out in to the world every day knowing they might not come home because of that skin. I don’t want kids – kids – shot because someone was scared. And so, I don’t want a cop pulling a gun just because he’s confronting a young black man.

    So, today I just feel sad. Sad for us all. I don’t know whether the grand jury got it right or wrong. I don’t know whether that cop truly believed his life was in danger. I do know that a kid is dead, and he didn’t have to be.

  3. I really appreciate it when you write your thoughts on explaining things to your kids down. It’s such an important thing to understand, privilege, and it’s so very hard to explain well.

  4. I so appreciate it when you write out your thoughts on explaining things to your kids. It’s so important to understand, privilege, but so difficult to write about convincingly without being overbearing. You do it well.

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