Our columnist grew up in foster care, and knows all too well what it is like to be rendered invisible and reeling in emotional pain in a high-school classroom.
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Since last week, Americans have been discussing the brutal attack on a 16-year-old Black female high-school student by a White South Carolina school resource officer. Some have demanded accountability of Deputy Ben Fields, a.k.a. “Officer Slam,” while others have defended him, including students who organized a walkout. Many people across the racial spectrum have chastised, excoriated, and blamed the teen for being brutalized—saying that she brought it upon herself. What has largely gone unspoken here is that this one horrific example that happened to be caught on video—by another student (Niya Kenny, who was arrested) is set in one of so many criminalized school settings, and we are witnessing yet another Black youth being denied her childhood.
We have seen this scenario play out repeatedly, the way Black children’s emotional lives are repeatedly denied, how they have no protections, no presumption of innocence, no right to bodily integrity. And they are being arrested to facilitate the flow of Black and Latino bodies straight into the nation’s prison pipeline.
The nature of today’s schools, particularly those inhabited by Black and Latino children, is all too clear in that viral video. The eerie silence from the students shows us a classroom devoid of life and the exuberance associated with high school. As the officer terrorizes their classmate, the other students sit in silence, eyes downcast. You can almost feel and smell their fear during the officer’s attack, wondering if he had introduced himself and his bullyclub pedagogy in previous weeks. Even the teen sits in silence as she’s yanked and thrown by the officer. No screams. No crying. It appears as if she’s almost intuitively submitting to the injustice of the moment.
The behavior of the students at Spring Valley tells us that they are no strangers to witnessing and/or experiencing this kind of violence—via “Officer Slam,” in their homes and neighborhoods, or via news coverage and nonstop social-media videos of Black people being attacked and sometimes killed by White cops.
It reveals a lot about a culture that renders Black children’s pain, trauma and grief illegible. This is part of a long racist heritage of denying Black children access to the category of childhood and innocence. When Officer Slam threw that child across the room he sent the message to Black children everywhere:“You ain’t shit!”
Then the sheriff blames the student. The media played that footage over and over again, with some referring to the teenage girl as “a woman.” They blamed her for having reflexes when she responded to being yanked out of her chair by a brute. That’s because whiteness needs to exonerate itself by placing blame and all social ills at the feet of the Black child’s body, even though we all know good and goddamn well that if a Black officer had thrown a White child across the room, the country would be having a very different conversation.
Watching her be thrown around like a rag doll triggered my personal memories of childhood abuse.
When I was around 5 or 6 my adoptive Black mother used to pick me up and throw me across the room when she got angry. I could only hope that I landed the right way and didn’t hit my head or break my neck. At the nearly all-Black private Bethany Lutheran School I attended in Trenton, New Jersey, she gave my White teachers and principal permission to hit me if I acted out in class. Most of the other Black parents did the same. Teachers slapped us in the face, on our butts, or snatched us inside the coat closet, pulled down our pants and whacked us with long wooden rulers. And if our offenses were especially egregious, they called our parents who sometimes showed up to the school wielding a belt or freshly picked switches. I’ll never forget the time my music teacher threw a handful of pink pencil erasers in my face at close range. I’ll spare you the details of what I fantasize about saying to her if I ever see her on the street.
Everywhere I turned—home, school, church, the hair salon, the barbershop—the message was that everyone could whoop me because they didn’t want “the White man” to whoop me.
The words that were spoken by the other students at Spring Valley are equally telling. One of her classmates said, “She doesn’t have anybody.” “She doesn’t talk to anybody.” “She’s always quiet.” Someone noted that she was a recent transfer student. Those descriptions, coupled with the way she braced that assault with quiet resolve, made me wonder if there was a deeper story, if she was already bringing a set of traumas into the classroom with her. Traumas and pain that the school is unwilling or incapable of addressing, especially if the police are on speed dial.
While there have been multiple and conflicting reports, it appears the girl is currently in foster care. This is not surprising and is part of the story. Not because it proves she is “bad” or growing up in a dysfunctional environment that led her to “act up,” although that is clearly the narrative being peddled. It reflects a societal disregard for the lives of Black girls. Her being tossed aside and thrown out as a disruptive piece of trash, is emblematic of the societal values toward marginalized kids, whether with foster care or the school-to-prison pipeline that sees little value in their humanity and future. Schools, foster care, prisons, and police encounters teach this lesson over and over again. And if we weren’t doing wrong, then the onus is on us to “behave” and respond in such a way to minimize the chance of being slammed, attacked, arrested, or killed.
The nonstop stress and emotional trauma of being in foster care is essential here. It must be easy to cast judgment from your picket fence for those who say: “IF she just did …”
After eight years of abuse I finally ran away from my adoptive parents’ home and ended up in foster care. Every day at school was hard when I was in foster care. I was case number 114343. I felt ashamed about being an adoptee, a victim of child abuse, ashamed of the scars on my body, ashamed that I had to live in youth shelters and in the homes of strangers, and ashamed that I had to travel from one placement to the next, like a refugee, with my belongings packed in garbage bags. I was teased, isolated, frustrated, exhausted, and anxious about an uncertain future. If I had a cell phone, maybe I would have found refuge there. Instead, I had to deal with the drama inside my foster homes and residential facilities where other traumatized kids fought each other. I didn’t have access to my own belongings much less privacy.
I lived in places where they locked the refrigerators. Put alarms on our doors. Sometimes the mostly white staff members treated us like we were criminals, even though we were victims.
As each day went by, I wondered when my social worker would show up at school with my belongings in those garbage bags, tossing me to the next placement. Sometimes I missed weeks of school. My teachers often were often unaware of why I was absent because social workers didn’t always communicate with school administrators. I was mad all the time; who wouldn’t be mad? Some days I stormed out of class. Other times, I just sat there giving zero fucks about solving for “x” or “y” or how to conjugate a verb in French or how to regurgitate historical facts about how great famous White people have been. I didn’t want to be bothered because I had no control over my world. I felt powerless, invisible, unheard, and constantly on edge.
The South Carolina student’s reported refusal to give up her cell phone is understandable to me. Children in foster care don’t have much property or many lifelines. There is so little that you can call your own, much less control. You’ve already been abused, abandoned, violated and made to feel like a number rather than a child. Rather than a human. You have to deal with the shame and embarrassment of the violation and circumstances that landed you in the system. Your trauma is likely to be misdiagnosed and rather than receiving adequate counseling, too many children in foster care are given psychotropic meds, with no caring adults to monitor their response to the drugs, potential side effects or even if they’re helping at all.
The culture of dehumanization and the lack of empathy within the foster-care system is why it is becoming the breeding ground for the juvenile and adult prison industry. As the child welfare workforce is dominated by White women who, like White (and self-hating Black) teachers, principals and resource officers, carry implicit biases against Black people, even the grieving and traumatized Black children in their care. There is a mismatch between the student population, which is rapidly browning, as well as the foster-care population, and those paid to teach and keep children safe.
And that, coupled with a widening racial empathy gap and the fact that few people are considering the emotional lives of these children, leads to the situations we are seeing today. When Black and Brown children come into the foster care system, they are traumatized, often abused, but their behaviors are not contextualized as symptoms of grief, trauma and loss. In a culture that demonizes children of color, that refuses to see them as innocent, as young people who have pain and trauma and emotional lives—they are then criminalized. What happened in that South Carolina classroom is the perfect case study that bears this out. Rather than hear voice, respect and validate her anger and pain, and empathize with her trauma, the response was to brutalize and drag her into the punitive system.
Black children in general are not afforded the right to have freedom over their bodies and expression. They are not afforded the privilege of evolving through the primitive stages of childhood. They are not allowed to have or express emotions, to have moods, to act out, have an attitude or make mistakes without the fear of being brutalized, locked up or killed.
In these moments, the news media wants to push for yet another “racial conversation.” Yet a prerequisite for a meaningful conversation and substantive change: empathy for Black people. This is clearly missing.
Research at the University of Milan-Biocca examined why Black people’s pain is underestimated. “It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black—in terms of social status and hardship—may be behind the bias. In additional experiments, the researchers studied participants’ assumptions about adversity and privilege. The more privilege assumed of the target, the more pain the participants perceived. Conversely, the more hardship assumed, the less pain perceived. The researchers concluded that people assume that, relative to Whites, Blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.”
Add to that the fact that, “starting at around 7 years of age, American children (mostly White) believe that Black kids feel less pain than their White counterparts,” according to a study from the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Medical professionals don’t outgrow this belief.
Colorlines reported on a study published in Jama Pediatrics that found that doctors are less likely to give Black children painkillers in the emergency room than their White peers—even when they are suffering from agonizing conditions. The report, “Racial Disparities in Pain Management of Children With Appendicitis in Emergency Departments,” found that across all backgrounds, 57 percent of children who arrived in the ER with acute appendicitis were given pain medication. Despite the fact that experts agree that appendicitis is a condition that requires opioids (such as fentanyl and morphine) for pain relief, just 41 percent of the children received them … Only 21 percent [of Black children] were given opioids, versus 43 percent of White patients. Overall, the researchers found that Black kids with acute appendicitis only have a 12 percent chance of receiving proper pain management.
A 2011 study found that White people do not feel the same level of empathy for Black people experiencing physical pain that they do for people of their own race. And other studies have uncovered racial bias in medical care for people of color. It’s a phenomenon so widespread that the government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative counts eliminating that health inequity as one of its goals.”
In absence of empathy or even recognition of Black pain, it is no wonder that Officer Slam is empowered to keep our ‘kids safe;’ it is no wonder that everyone from Raven Symoné to Fox News feels no shame in blaming Black kids for their own pain. The consequences are clear.
If nobody is considering, or looking out for, or thinking about how to protect vulnerable Black children—who represent all of the promise and peril of our future as a community and a nation—then we can expect to keep seeing these disturbing videos, struggling to process these horrific attacks, straining to maintain our own balance in precarious times. If Black children are indeed a major part of our future, then we have much to learn and many changes to make in how we view, treat and care for them. We must invest in their emotional well-being and demonstrate to them that their lives don’t just have meaning when they become hashtags.
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