Between Black and Blue, There Is Colored Television

I do not own the copyright/license to the digital media or images included below. Their inclusion is not strictly for personal gain, but for an educational demonstration.

Six months of police academy DOES NOT erase a lifetime of racist images.

This is a conversation from my Composition I class, believe it or not. In this particular class, students were very passionate about Kaepernick. They truly feel as if he should be given the right to exercise his free speech. Since they have grown up with social media, they truly cannot imagine someone being denied a job or even losing a job over a social media posting, especially if that post was made years ago! They also cannot understand why a Black man would be punished for protesting police brutality when the police homicides are broadcast nationally every day. They have not yet entered the world of systemic racism.

The free speech debate ultimately turns to the #blacklivesmatter versus #bluelivesmatter fallacy. They want to know, as an African American mother, how I feel about it. I often tell them that my feelings are irrelevant. I’ve gone to school once, and I am here to help them express their opinions in a rational way. Well, the students do not let me wiggle out of the debate so easily. And here’s what I think (not feel).

First, I have a Black son. I am slowly introducing him to racism and telling him that as a Black male, things will not always be fair towards him. It is difficult and tough having those kinds of conversations, but they must be had. His Black life matters to me. The Black lives of all those who were innocently slain in the streets by cops matter to me. I once saw a cop beat the shirt off of a Black woman, and I cried. There was something primal and animalistic in the way that cop sat atop that woman and pummeled her, seemingly with no control! Second, as a homeowner, my property matters. I have been robbed before and the cops, both of them Black, never even bothered to look for a perpetrator. But when a string of robberies, with exact MO, happened on the whiter, wealthier side of town, they sprung into action and caught the two men.

Now, I have family and friends who are cops. It is a tough job and they are not compensated nearly enough for their risks. Every day, they put their lives on the line and for the most part, no one says, “Thank you.” When we call the cops, we want them to come and protect us. We want our property protected. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I love my home and want to feel safe in it. Because I have several neighbors who are cops, our neighborhood is comfortable, clean, and quiet. We live in a very mixed-race neighborhood and all of our children play together: Black, white, Latino, Arabic, and Asian. They run around to their hearts’ content screaming, yelling, and making up games as they go along. They can play until the street lights come on and none of us mothers worry about them too much. We have our share of scraped knees and falls, but we relish the joy of our children just being children. And it is all made possible by the presence of patrol and detective cars in a few front yards.

To me, Black lives matter. To me, blue lives matter. The students are then confused when I say that. We live in a world that wants simplicity, but life is just not that neat. As my students look at me puzzled, I change the direction of the conversation. I announce, more than one time, that there is a silent culprit that we fail to take into account each and every time we talk about this subject matter. I ask the students, “Who is the silent actor?” I give them about a minute of awkward silence as I see them struggling to answer me. I say, “I will give you a clue. It sits in your living room and some bedrooms.” They still do not know.

Finally, after about two minutes (and this is an eternity in the freshman classroom), I tell them: “television.” I ask them, “How many months or years do cops spend in school?” The longest time any of them saw was 24 weeks. I ask if having a college degree was a requirement for local or state police (this is also my way of teaching students to use Google productively). The answer is mainly, “no.” I ask them what kinds of images of Black males do they see on television. The usual answers are: “murderers,” “drug dealers,” “dead beat fathers,” “pimps,” “Rappers,” “basketball players,” and “football players.” In turn, I say, “In other words, criminals or entertainers, but never anything in between.”

Next, I show them pictures of Black men as intellectuals, government advisers, and even fathers. When I show Michael Steele, the students ask me if he is an East Indian. I tell them that he is not. He is an African American, and they are shocked.

Michael Steele. Downloaded from his twitter page: Michael Steele

Yes, a Black man was the head of the Republican Party at one time. I also throw in that there are many Black Republicans. As a matter of fact, it is my personal belief that the Republican Party is losing ground because it does not listen to its African American members. They have good ideas, and their own party ignores them for the most part. Because many of them were born in the late 90s and some right around the year 2000, they also have no memory or reference to Colin Powell, one of the chief advisers to both Bush presidents.

Colin Powell. Downloaded from CNN.com

One student asked me if Powell was a well-tanned white man. They were in such disbelief. I further ask them who they thought a terrorism expert would be? None of them know, of course. They are absolutely shocked and when show them this guy:

Malcolm Nance. Downloaded govtech.com

Malcolm Nance is not only a soldier, but a linguist, a computer scientist, and a terror expert. He has risked his life, just like white men, to keep our country safe. And who says thank you?

My last question is one of a sexy brain. I ask the students who is the smartest, sexiest man in the world right now? Of course the students chuckle at the fat brown teacher calling someone, “sexy” in class. I reveal this man:

Yes, the students CRACK UP when I tell them that I am a groupie of this man. But they sober up and ask me who he is. I tell them, “He is the head of Hayden Planetarium, the smartest man on earth, and my fantasy baby daddy. He is the phenomenon, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.” Last, they ask me who is going to be my father example. I tell them to look around them. They see Black men out with their children every day.

But what about the cops who do not? What if a young man comes from somewhere totally devoid of a minority population? If my class is majority-Black, I ask this question: “Who is going to jail in Vermont? I mean, there are so few Black people there, but there are jails.” My Black students ALWAYS answer, “The Black people in Vermont.” They cannot even fathom white criminality! I tell them simply, “You all watch too much local news.”

My final statement to the class is this: “If Black people cannot fathom white criminals going to jail, what about cops who have never seen a Black person outside of tv?” The realization is dumbfounding to students. Now, since I am in general education class and spend the bulk of my time teaching general education, I ask, “Now, do you still think that classes like this and history and gender studies and psychology are useless?” None of them answer me and I say, “Come back tomorrow. I’ll learn you some more.”

It is my true belief that 24 weeks of police academy DOES NOT ERASE A LIFETIME OF INCULCATION! Cops are young, human beings. Many of them are no older than the students that I teach. And like my students, many of them are underexposed to people who are not like themselves. Many of them may not be exposed to productive Black men and fathers at all. While many of my colleagues in STEM argue against liberal arts and humanities classes, I feel they serve a purpose. I believe that police — at all levels — need a Bachelor’s degree in the humanities: English, history, the classics, gender studies, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, biology…anything with a humanities component.

While education is not a panacea for everything wrong with our current society, at least exposing police — who have the power of life and death at their fingertips — to the histories and the complexities of the society they serve may just save a life. In that sense, humanities matter oh so much!

As always, if you like this, clapback (press the hands). Or, I will see you in class.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.