When Will We Learn?
Listen to the news: Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Brooklyn. I feel like the universe is slapping me in the face, slapping all of us. “Look. Can you see? Can you feel?” Racism, yes, and so much more. Is this what happens when an economic system, and its political and justice system, is lopsided and only a small percentage of “We The People” control most of the wealth and power? I listen to the news and feel angry, and am heartened by protests. But I also recognize fear in myself. The biggest fear is that not enough people will hear what I hear.
Will people hear the questions being asked? Questions like: Will substantive change happen? Will the Grand Jury in Brooklyn indict the police in the Akai Gurley killing? Will the federal investigation into the death of Eric Garner lead to prosecutions? Will there ever be a trial for Darren Wilson? Will we as humans make the effort to create a more equitable nation and world?
Will we bother to educate ourselves, to better understand our own mental processes so we can understand the importance to all of us of justice and equity?
These events are part of the curriculum for our nation. The streets are texts for our classrooms. And I am not just speaking of current events classes but all classes. Science can study the neurobiology of compassion and attunement systems in the brain. Social studies and history can study the effects of greatly unequal wealth distribution. They can study systems of justice and how nations transform themselves—or fall. English classes can write stories of street experiences and read about people fighting injustice and persisting in the face of great challenges. Language classes can study the relationship between language and thought systems and the necessity for diverse perspectives in thinking critically. All classes can ask: Brown, Gurley, Garner, Rice—and Wilson: who are they? They are people who feel and think not much differently than you and I feel and think. To try to separate them from ourselves distorts the substance of our lives and makes us incapable of acting in a humane, well-considered manner. There is no justice without compassion and understanding, no understanding without empathy.
We all have to learn enough about how our brains work so we can understand how we can misunderstand ourselves and dehumanize others. I think most people believe in what is called “naïve realism.” We think the world is just as we see it. We can feel our own sensations but not (or rarely) those of others. So we think the red of the apple is all in the apple, the sound of a raindrop is all in the raindrop. We can’t understand why other people don’t like what we like. The person over there who I never look at is not as aware or valuable as I am. I am right and they are not seeing the situation correctly.
This study of how events on the streets speak to political, economic, and legal systems, and how they relate to the mind and our social-emotional nature, should be required in our schools.
A powerful and empowering must-read to give additional crucial context to the Black Lives Matter movement: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, 2010. It’s about mass incarceration of black and brown young man directly stemming from the Reagan initiated and now institutionalized War on Drugs, which targets minority neighborhoods rather than, say, college campuses – though all races use drugs at remarkably similar rates, with whites using cocaine and heroin at 7 to 8 times higher rates than blacks. The book is incredibly enlightening.
Thanks. An important book–I will have to look for it.