The Face of America’s Police Problem

The picture above is blurry.

But the picture above also shows why America has a police problem: officers would rather threaten youth of color with a gun than treat them like actual people. In this instance, a McKinney police officer was called to a break up a pool party in the small suburb community. The officer can be seen running around keeping certain teenagers detained, and when one young black teenager fails to leave the scene, he over-aggressively tackles her, shoving her face into the ground. The crowd, naturally, decries the intense situation, and when two black teens arrive to help their friend, the cop can be seen pulling out his weapon and pointing it in their direction.

Let me state that again: a police officer drew his weapon and pointed it at two teenagers who were not threatening him because he….wait, what was his motivation again?

Did he feel threatened? The two teenagers had a chance to attack the officer but did not. They cannot be heard yelling vulgarities at him. Any discussion of “feeling threatened” must begin with the officer projecting his fears onto young teenagers of color when he knows he is in the wrong.

Did he feel afraid for his life? The police have a hard job for sure. They place themselves in the line of fire, between intense, emotional, and even life-threatening situations all the time. But the line must be drawn at some point; a cop should not use the “feared for my life” excuse upon a situation that he or she draws a gun. I agree that pulling out a gun should be a last resort, an assessment of the situation which leaves the officer to believe violence could occur and must be stopped, but when the fear of violence is not felt, not seen, not heard, a gun should never be pulled. That simple action causes the constant mistrust between police officers and communities of color, and when events like this take place, we as Americans need to empathize with the civilians because they are the ones truly fearing for their lives since the sight of the gun was aimed in their direction, not the cop’s.

So what did he feel? We can only assume that in this moment, the McKinney police officer felt that pulling his gun was the answer. How has our police culture moved to this moment when unarmed teens who do not threaten an officer makes him pull out a gun and threaten their lives?

The event in McKinney represents a microcosm of the mistrust of police all across America. Until Americans decide that situations like this, when unwarranted violence is unnecessary and deplorable, should be intolerable, they will continue to happen, and the rifts between our communities will continue to grow. We owe it to our fellow people, yes, the humans of color who many dehumanize and “thug”ize, the ones many of you feel scared sitting next to in movie theatres and in public places, to make the police for the people not against the people.

Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gl92emFF3Ww&feature=youtu.be

Kennesaw State Happened to me too

Today, Kennesaw State University made news when a black student was refused advising from a white advisor. She accused the student of “harassing” her by waiting patiently in the lobby. Links of this event and video can be found all over the internet right now. Black Twitter, as awesome as they usually are, called out the racial undertones present in the video and made this event a public ordeal. Though no explicit racial remarks were made, many on Black Twitter promoted the hashtag #ItsNotJustKSU for them to express moments when they were denied services by advisors and mentors, relating these similar events to a racial oppression many of them feel in their own education. A similar occasion transpired for me at the University of Texas at Tyler when I was studying for my BA. The moment altered my view of education, power dynamics, and cultural capital.

To begin, I loved my undergraduate experience because of the major progress I made between my freshman year and my senior year. I entered college in the Fall of 2006 and had absolutely no tenacity nor work ethic. I partied my first two years of college and my grades reflected this lack of effort. I transferred from Tyler Junior College into the University and Texas at Tyler with a 2.8 GPA in the Fall of 2007. I decided to become an English major when I made this transition and began taking classes that fulfilled my major.

My transition into upper-division English reflected my lack of primary education. Being raised in small, rural area, I never had the advanced readings and learned the complexities of language that many of my peers had in my junior-level English classes. When I proofread their work, I became ashamed in my own. Specifically, in my Literature and Critical Theory course, I recall making many Cs and even a few Ds on papers. To become a better writer, I knew I must become a better learner; thus in my junior year of college, I promised myself to make better grades.

My grades improved quickly. I made mostly As and a few Bs, and as I finished the courses prior to my senior year, I raised my GPA from 2.8 to a 3.4. These grades, of course, are not great, but I believe anyone can see the major improvement. At this time, I decided I wanted to enter graduate school and eventually earn my doctorate in English. Thus, I made an appointment with my advisor to talk about my senior year and being smart with my graduate studies pursuits.

I entered my advisor’s office (I will keep him nameless here), and we began chatting. He usually kept a sarcastic but funny tone and was known by students as being kind of a “dick.” (I truly have no other word to use than this one; my peers called him a “dick” on many occasions). But his persona appeared funny and light-hearted, so I enjoyed many of our conversations. On this particular day, we conversed about my senior year and the courses I needed to fulfill in the fall semester. Slowly, I brought up the idea of graduate school, hoping he would be proud of a young student wanting to try their hand at graduate studies and follow a similar career path. His one sentence response to my idea disrupted this fantasy.

“Chase,” he slowly expressed while leaning in closer to me, “people like you wanting to become a professor are who people like me laugh at.”

That sentence, uttered to me over six year ago, remains verbatim. I recollect these words exactly because a part of me changed that day. My professors once inspired me, making me want to become an educator and to help students become better thinkers and writers. But he stripped this naïve notion from me.

My face swelled with anger. I did everything in my power to not yell at him. To not scream. To not tell him that I was better than what he perceived of me. And once our session ended I called my mom and cried.

What prompted this occasion? Why would an advisor tell me I could not do something and basically laugh in my face? What gave him the right?

His remarks probably did not come from some inner hatred towards my skin color, but I believe it did stem from my cultural positioning within race, place, and class. I appeared undereducated, a Brown body who typically does not represent academia in many circles. My single mom raised me in a very low-middle class/low class lifestyle. I never fought for things I needed, but like many kids in my area, I did not benefit from wealth. Also, being that I was from rural, East Texas, a place not known for its educational standards, I am sure my advisor thought I had no chance to get past UT Tyler. Though he did not need to represent some false, bootstrap myth to me, his statement could have been more encouraging, more empowering. He could have inspired me. As a Brown English student with a terrible lexicon, he thought my choices in life seemed more ready for a desk job or a banker (as he told me many times). To this white male professor, I, undoubtedly, seemed beneath him.

Needless to say, I am now in my fourth-year of doctoral school in Rhetoric and Composition and should be finishing my dissertation next year. I raised myself out of the stereotype he presented me, and I honestly utilize my words now to spite him. Every year of grad school, when the times get tough, I recollect how his words sliced me, and that motivates me every single time. No doubt, I had professors who encouraged me (a big shout out to Dr. Sloan, Dr. Wu, Dr. Pooler, and Dr. Ross), but his one statement wounded me on an identity level, in a way I could never imagine.

But I cannot help but reflect back now and think of how many students in my position maybe gave up, felt discouraged, never rebounded, thought they were failures. The embodied pain I felt encourages me to always do better by the students. They are not nuisances or problems; they are the reason why we are here.

Looking back over the case at Kennesaw State University, I have no doubt that similar occasions happen to students of color and students from marginalized positions daily across this country. People with power often look at them with doubt, wondering if they are only here because of affirmative action, believing they are a problem rather than a gift. I promised myself years ago I would never do that to students, and I hope you promise yourselves the same thing.

The case at Kennesaw is not exceptional. If you talk to people of color, you will hear similar stories of how they were dismissed by people who should be uplifting them. If we ever want true change in our politics of academia, we will need to position more culturally-aware people to wield power. Until we do so, advisors like mine and like the student’s at Kennesaw will keep telling people like us “no.”