I Wish I had the Words to Tell my Students

 I wish I had the words, the wisdom, and the skill as a teacher to help my students understand what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri – and in every other community around the United States that is so much like Ferguson.

I thought that today as I talked to one of my undergraduate criminal justice classes about the events and the continuing-to-unfold Ferguson story.

I wished as I listened to my students share their thoughts about Ferguson that I could help them better understand one another and understand the different perceptions and opinions that African-Americans and whites have about what has happened in Ferguson.

White students seemed to feel that the grand jury got it right – Officer Darren Wilson shouldn’t have been indicted. But the African-American students were critical of the process; some even critical of the prosecutor. One woman said that the prosecutor didn’t try to convince the grand jury to indict Officer Wilson.

Furthermore, white students seemed convinced that Wilson had no choice but to use some kind of force, whereas black students said that he should have used a different means of dealing with the situation. “Didn’t he have a stun gun on him?” one African-American student asked. Shouldn’t he have tried to use an alternative method of control rather than immediately reaching for his gun she wanted to know.

African-American men in my class reacted negatively to an interview of Wilson that we watched from ABC-TV News. “He is too calm and detached,” one said. “If you just shot someone wouldn’t you be more emotional?” another said. “He seems too comfortable with having killed someone,” a third man commented.

Earlier in the class we had talked about December 1, 1955 being the day that Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man. We discussed how this was one of the great triggering events of the civil rights struggle in the 1950s.

It was ironic that on the same day — December 1, only 59 years later — that we were talking about Rosa Park’s brave defiance of the Jim Crow laws in the south and we are still talking about black-white issues. What has changed in those 59 years?

My students said a lot has changed. But an African-American woman in the class said that maybe not much has changed.

“Why are we still talking about race in 2014?” she asked. And then she answered her own question: “We have to because it is still too often about race.”

To which other students joined in: “Why is that white police only seem to shoot black people?” “Why do white officers think that black kids are carrying real guns when they may only have a toy?” “Why are white police officers afraid of black people?”

I wish I had answers for my students. I know many of them will go on to work in the criminal justice field – as police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, maybe even police administrators. I wish I could tell them how they could avoid being part of some event in the future that will get national coverage.

And, most of all, I wish I could help them leave the university with a greater understanding of other races so that the world might be a better place.

But I can’t.

I can, however, help them to see things the way they are – 59 years after Rosa Parks’ arrest – and to more fully understand that issues of race will still be a part of the criminal justice system for a long time to come. And I can help them to understand the young African-American student who said that she thinks that the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson is a metaphor.

“It’s a metaphor,” she said, “for all the things that are wrong in Ferguson, Missouri and every other city in America that is like Ferguson. It’s a metaphor for what we still have to accomplish in this county. Yes, it’s about race, but it’s really about human relationships.”

And I felt proud on this December First to think: At least she gets it.

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