You Want A Dialogue On Racism? These Black Teens Are Living It


The following piece is from Talking Points Memo. It was written by Seth Freed Wessler.

By: Seth Freed Wessler

It’s like we’re waiting to get punched in the face because of something we didn’t even do.”

I’m talking with a 15-year-old boy at a virtually all-black, all-free lunch high school in northwest St. Louis, just a few miles south of Ferguson. It’s third period on a Friday, 80 hours before Robert McColloch, the St. Louis county prosecutor, will announce that the grand jury won’t indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.

The kids all know it’s coming. And they know Wilson won’t be indicted. So when the teacher asks her classroom, “What did Mike Brown’s father say today about the protests?” referring to Brown Sr.’s request that protesters remain peaceful, the kids straighten up. The girl in the back stops playing with the hair of the boy she likes. Another girl in the front stops making fun of her friend and darts her hand into the air.

“He wants peace and he wants justice,” the girl says. “But I don’t get how they can say they don’t want people to riot, but they got tanks out there in their neighborhood outside of their houses. It’s like we’re the enemy.”

“The whole thing is racist,” another kid says.

National polling tells me the next generation thinks talking about race and inequality is a craggy atavism from a bygone era of formal discrimination. The less you talk about race, the less it exists. But in this classroom, students have already dispensed with these aphorisms, long before they returned to school yesterday for the first time since the grand jury decision. (The teacher, who didn’t want to be identified, allowed me to observe her class on the condition that I didn’t reveal the school’s name.)

In the months since Michael Brown was killed, we’ve heard a flood of calls for a renewed dialogue about race. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proposed a commission to “jump-start an overdue national conversation.” Cultural critic Jeff Chang observed on Saturday that “every time toxic, tragic events” lay bare our country’s persistent racism, “we talk about having a productive conversation. But we never really have it.”

It seems the Ferguson protests have started to change that. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission met for the first time yesterday. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder met with a group of leading organizers, all young people of color, to talk about policing.

“The president requested this meeting because this is a movement that cannot be ignored,” Ashley Yates, of the St. Louis group Millennial Activists United, said in a statement. The conversation is jumping off.

But the thing is, these kids in this classroom—and others I’ve met since Michael Brown was killed—are already having it. Because the conversation is about them.

For these students, race is built into every move they make. They see older friends and brothers’ pictures on online mug-shot aggregators for warrants issued for failure to pay speeding tickets. Nearly all the faces are black. Police harass them; one girl tells me a story of how two white cops looked at her legs after school one day and told her she was “too young to be hoeing.” Another said he’d been stopped because “he fit the profile of a suspect.” They say their families are careful where they drive: “My brother won’t drive to Ferguson, because if you get pulled over you’re getting a warrant and you’re going to get arrested,” says a girl sitting beside me.

Their teacher says many struggle to get the post-high school educations they hope for, and summer jobs are hard to find.

These kids see other kids die.

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