Commentary: Cumulative effect of everyday verdicts
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2013: It’s not about a courtroom verdict. It’s about the verdicts delivered the moment a Black man is assumed to being up to no good simply because he is a Black man. Those blatant judgments and high profile examples certainly sting but so does the accumulation of no or slow service, assumptions of inferiority, questioning of integrity, body language of avoidance, or the false compliment of "you're so articulate." It all functions to make clear that little is expected of you -- or your kind -- and that respect is not immediately granted.
It’s hard to swallow.
It feels sad, heavy, deep, thick, intractable and downright painful. Not because I cannot accept the ruling in the George Zimmerman trial but because the trouble is far bigger than the case. My concern goes beyond Zimmerman. It reaches far, wide, and even deep within my own psyche.
St. Louis is in the midst of its own struggle around the role of race. Arguments abound about whether race is a factor in the reactions to Normandy and Riverview Garden students (who are predominantly Black and most qualify for free and reduced lunch) being able to apply for transfer to Francis Howell and Mehlville (which are predominantly White districts where the majority do not qualify for free and reduced lunch).
Fears of “crime,” “safety” and “test scores” seem to be code words for “We don’t want these poor Black kids in our schools.” Some even make it a bit clearer than “safety concerns” by referring to “those kids.” Yet when pressed for elaboration, no one gives race or class as the reasons to resist the transfers.
It feels sad, heavy, deep, thick, intractable and downright painful. Not because I cannot accept the failing of struggling districts, but because the trouble is far bigger than these scenarios. My concern goes beyond the affected districts. It reaches far, wide, and even deep within my own psyche.
In psychology we talk about micromessages. That refers to information we convey between the words we say. They can be sent via tone, inflection, body language and other subtle mechanisms. They can drastically influence the meaning of a sentence
For example, if I say, “I’m not saying he took the car,” the micromessage is that someone else is making the statement and I want to be clear it is not attributed to me. If I were to say, “I’m not saying he took the car,” the micromessage is that you were mistaken and while he didn’t take the car, he certainly took something! The words, or messages, do not have to be stated explicitly to be sent.
We need to be honest with ourselves. The disregard, invalidation, and minimization of the lives of Black children should not be so commonplace. That statement does not point fingers at one man or one district and includes myself. It is an observation of our actions over time at individual, cultural and institutional levels. We narrowly debate and dissect specific events, which actually obscures (sadly) wider analysis. We fail to make connections across issues to understand the far-reaching implications of our actions. And the cumulative effects of our judgments and micromessages are rarely acknowledged.
The micromessages being sent about the children from Normandy and Riverview Gardens appears to be that they are a liability. The regional history of White flight and skewed media coverage deem St. Louis city, the schools and children as dangerous, unteachable and to be avoided. The Zimmerman verdict suggests that young Black men are vulnerable, in danger at any point in time -- a danger that is exacerbated and can be used against them should they respond.
Some say it’s open season, I say it’s a call to action.
We have a responsibility on an individual level to be mindful of the micromessages we consume and send in addition to the verdicts we cast upon others. On a societal level, as uncomfortable as it makes us, we must be willing to consider that the cumulative effects of judgments and subtle messages can collectively impact groups of people. To reject the gravity of that possibility would be a failure of empathy.