My thoughts: A taste of our reality

ByPaul Schneider (op-ed)

Four black teenage boys sit in my car as we pull up to the housing project, home to one of my students. He steps out of the car and heads to his door.

By his fifth step, and for no apparent reason, three police cars race up, lights flashing. Officers immediately surround us, probing my car’s occupants with blinding floodlights, one instantly on the passenger side, another standing at the driver’s door, watching for any movement, and another stationed behind the car.

Flashlights shine on my student, frozen at his doorstep. An officer screams, “Stop right now!” Rapid-fire questions ensue. “How old are you?!” “You look older!” “Whose car is this?” “What’s in the trunk?” “What are you doing here?”

Simultaneously, the officer on the driver’s side, dressed more for a raid in Fallujah than to protect the citizens of Memphis, interrogates me. I calmly explain I’m a teacher at the local middle school, dropping off students after a basketball game. After the questioning, the police tell us to get on our way.

We drive away in tense silence, tough questions bouncing in my head. What if my student walking toward home had run, or worse, made a quick movement? What if a student in the car had decided to say something? Did it matter that the officer questioning me was white, as am I?

What if I weren’t a teacher? What if I were black? Could my student have been just another black kid killed at the hands of the police?

As teachers do when creating daily lesson plans, I start to think from my students’ perspective. I am engulfed by a tidal wave of fear. My fury grows. The realities of my white privilege violently collide with the social consequences of growing up in a poor, inner-city neighborhood.

It felt as if the police stopped us with the intent to intimidate. While my interaction with police has always been positive and safe, it was not so for my students. Some as young as sixth grade have been harassed by police. How would I cope and grapple with this reality every time I walk outside? How do they? I can only imagine the persistent anxiety of mothers of black boys across this country.

“I’m sorry you went through that with me last night,” I say to my student. He reassures me, “It’s cool. This happens to us all the time.”

For me, the encounter was traumatic. For my students, it was just another day.

Regardless of whether the police had justification, this show of force was unnerving. With each police pullover, my students build a wall of hopelessness, each brick containing distrust, apathy and anger. Our black youth are forced to acclimate to injustice.

For our country to rest upon the pillars of justice, equality and opportunity, our most vulnerable citizens must be exonerated from the crimes of what they look like and where they live. We must reconcile blackness and justice.

Justice cannot be based on appearance. It cannot be applied only when convenient. Unfortunately, my students are found guilty of the crime of living in the wrong ZIP code where 50 percent live in poverty and almost 40 percent are out of work.

They are guilty of failing to learn in schools from which only 4 percent graduate prepared for college. They are guilty of being black.

Every day students recite the six words “with liberty and justice for all.” It is our duty to make this pledge ring true.

Paul Schneider teaches eighth-grade history and coaches boys basketball at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle in North Memphis. He previously taught at Bellevue Middle School through Teach For America.