I wouldn’t want you to think I’ve disappeared from this plane. It’s the end of the semester at my teaching job, and so the final papers are coming in day by day and needing to be graded. It’s a very particular sort of practice, this grading business. The essays are about the way racial caste is reinforced by the US justice system through mass incarceration and then examining some effect of that on society or some solution to its inevitable ills.
We spent the semester reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, which is a pretty intense read, not so much because it’s exhaustively (and exhaustingly) researched, but because the news is so relentlessly BAD. Add to that my average class which is overwhelmingly African American with a fair representation of formerly incarcerated folks and the children, mates and family of incarcerated folks, and it becomes quite a heady mix.
Our time together is always rich, and this semester has been especially so. I’m really consciously bringing mutuality to bear in the classroom, making a place where it’s safe for everyone to show up as they are and speak their truth. Sometimes that truth is quite a bit out of kilter with what other students hold, and we have had some shouting matches and once a near call to “take it outside” between two young men on either side of the classroom and an ideological divide. I had to actually shout myself that day just to be heard and sound a call to quiet, like a ref blowing a whistle. It was all good.
Now reading their papers, I am confronted by how little effect I can have as a teacher of writing. The content is often good, honest, raw, and knowing, but the expression doesn’t always match it. I should add here that the course is in writing research papers, not criminal justice or sociology, so the outcomes I’m assessing have to do with framing a thesis, information literacy, ethical use of sources and so on. Still, there is a good deal of delight in what I read.
These students are the next generation in this emerging awareness of and movement to end race-based mass incarceration. If it’s going to end, and they are almost equally of both minds: it can and it can’t, then it will in large part be up to them. And yet when I consider how deep the layers are, poverty, ghettoization, and the inherent and (not so) invisible racism that underlies the process, it’s hard not to lose heart.
Alexander’s book replaced Letters from the Dhamma Brothers as my primary text. Students brought it to my attention, used it as a source. When I first tried to read it, I was overwhelmed, but I assigned it anyway, and then I went online looking for some tool that would help them manage it. I found the Veteran’s of Hope New Jim Crow Study Guide and Call to Action, and this has been a useful tool. It asks the hard questions that the book raises about our individual complicity in this system, the way we are bamboozled by the media, especially television news, and both “reality” and fictional shows about law and order. About our beliefs and understandings of the nature of race in the Obama America. About the role of personal responsibility and how easy it’s been to blame black men for abandoning their families without wondering where they’ve gone.
What keeps me connected to the topic as the semesters and years go by is the way the students respond. One young man, who to be frank is scrambling at this point to get everything in before the cut off date, a former felon who is in school on a grant, told me he couldn’t believe that “they allow” me to teach this. He expressed concern for my safety, and one day, asked to speak to me privately in the hallway. In tears, he told me he couldn’t read the book. He couldn’t stand to read the relentless march of facts about the role of racism in criminal justice. It was his story, and it was breaking his heart. His resistance took the form of absenteeism and missed assignments, then at the birth of his new daughter, a rock lifted off of him, and he tore into the work with a vengeance. It remains to be seen whether he gets the points to pass, but it will not be his lack of passion or intelligence if he doesn’t. It will be the years and years of hitting the wall of race-based limitations that have directed so much of his early life. One of his classmates has been to every class and participated quite powerfully and not handed in a single assignment. Not one. What to do?
All I can do is hold space. I don’t mean to be cliched, but as I often tell them “a journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step.” Some succeed brilliantly. Some muddle through. Some fail. All learn something that is bound to change their perspective on their journey. And in ten or twenty or thirty years time, when they look at the nature and texture of race in American democracy, maybe they will see that collectively we made a difference.