By Michael A. Johnson
A Brooklyn, NY white woman dubbed “Cornerstore Caroline” calls the police on a Black child she falsely accused of sexually assaulting her. When, in fact, according to the store’s surveillance video, his backpack, unbeknownst to the child, “accidentally” brushed up against her. The boy is traumatized and confused, he begins to cry. His mother, who is with him, is outraged, probably because as a Black mother she knows the possible tragic outcomes of such calls. “Cornerstone Caroline” claims that she is “not a racist.”
Before I gave better attention to healthy nutrition options, I often engaged in that NYC dietary ritual of ordering a “Bodega breakfast.” And so, when I read that this incident took place in a Bodega (a small NYC neighborhood grocery/takeout food store), I was reminded of how cramped Bodega spaces are, and that even without a large backpack you could easily accidentally bump into a fellow customer.
I have come to accept in the age of Trump that the: “You are a racist!”; “No, I am not a racist!” conversation is a waste of time. I suspect that Black voter suppression officials in places like Alabama and Georgia (where the chief Black vote suppressor is actually running for governor!) know and don’t care that their philosophical ancestors are the racist segregationist and civil rights deniers who beat now-Georgia Congressman John Lewis bloody as he attempted to secure voting, civil and human rights for Black Americans. Racism is what racism does.
And so, it is also with our white privileged police caller whose reporting practice is not a new phenomenon and is only being fully exposed now because of the power of social media. In fact, this act of white folks calling (their) law enforcement agents on Black folks actually has its historical roots in a pre-Civil War period when every white citizen was unofficially deputized to report and help capture any escaped Black slave.
Our “I am not a racist” police caller is totally unaware of these historical roots of her behavior as well as being disconnected from an awareness of her own taking for granted entitled existence. Perhaps if she were racially sensitive and informed she would know that once the police arrived, and depending on their approach, and how the young man, his parents and the Black neighbors who gathered to comfort the grieving boy acted, this event could have taken a very bad, and maybe even deadly, turn for the worse.
But less we forget, that following this incident, the traumatized young man will walk into some school. He will sit in a classroom with other students, who if they look like him could bring their own personal set of serious worries and problems not covered by the news media, into the classroom. These children will be asked to “act normal” when there is absolutely nothing “normal” about growing up Black in America.
Like many young Black men and women growing up in Brooklyn, I vividly remember those moments, some traumatizing, when my “otherness” was painfully revealed to me. The blissfully safe childhood unawareness of constant danger is stripped from you. All of the “kid stuff” you can no longer do, the kid you can no longer be. It’s an unimaginable terrible feeling, having your childhood essentially stolen from you prematurely, with no hope of ever reclaiming it. In early adolescence, I truly became a man-child; fully aware of the pain and limitations of my Blackness, and yet not being mature enough to have the necessary adult defense mechanisms to cope with it. The fear and shame that Black people, including your natural protectors, your parents, really can’t protect you from American racism. All of this is what that young man will bring to school and he will be asked to “act normal.”
Many Americans (including many Black Americans) have been bamboozled and tricked into buying fake best-selling books, theories and expensive consultants that suggest that Black children “underperform academically” because they lack “grit.” After spending 11 years as a Title 1 high school principal with a majority Black and Latino student population, there are, in my view, no other young people in our schools who better display and model “grit!” For I was amazed every day that many of them even showed up for school, knowing what those students had to go through outside of school.
As a principal, I stood at the entrance door every day to greet students, welcome and thank them for coming to school that day. Many of my students lived under very difficult situations: foster care, group homes and grandparents subbing for parents. I hugged many of them because I knew they longed for the hug of one or both of their incarcerated/missing parents, particularly a father. Some of them were parents themselves or, despite being teenagers, they were, in reality, the only functioning or available adult in the house, and so their day started intensely early getting their younger siblings fed, dressed and to school. I thanked the students because I knew their individual stories, and I was thankful that they pushed through a difficult evening and morning, and despite it all, made a commitment to come to school that day.
What I never publicly revealed was that part of my “greeting at the door” exercise was my own silent spiritual ritual, and it was dedicated to thanking God for my students’ safe survival and arrival from their time out of the school building. I felt I could keep them safe inside of the school, but as far as them traveling to and from school, for the things taking place in their neighborhoods and homes, I was powerless, and so I sought the help of a higher power. I know from my experience as a superintendent of a city school district, that what I am describing here may appear to many Americans like a terrible fictional story. After all, it does not remotely sound anything like their childhood, the experiences of their own children, or the children of family members, their friends and neighbors.
But every day, millions of young people in this nation arrive to our schools with serious life matters weighing on their minds and hearts; these sociological-psychological mental backpacks full of troubling thoughts have nothing to do with their academic studies or school activities. “Am I going to live long enough to graduate?”— “My parents are not ‘citizens,’ will they come home this evening and will I (born in the US) be able to go to college?”— “Are we going to eat tonight?”— “I don’t have clean clothes for tomorrow!”— “How can I avoid negative encounters with young criminal elements who look like me, or some police officers who could without reason, and because of what I look like, see me as a criminal element?”— “Why does my being and acting smart create a social and safety problem for me?” The schools that serve these young people betray their educational mission if the school pretends that the thoughts these children think, and the lives they live outside of school, is anything near normal.
Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]