Does it take a village? Multiple perspectives on a Chicago encounter

[Editor's note: Last week, I was asked by Stephen Caliendo, co-founder of The Project on Race in Political Communication and the blog This Week in Race, to participate in a roundtable analysis of an incident in which he was involved. Did race play a role in his confrontation with a group of young, black teenagers? Read below for Stephen's account and analysis from several thinkers on race. I also asked Love Isn't Enough contributors Julia and Bianca Laureano to weigh in. What do you think?]

crossposted from This Week in Race

We look to our children as promises for the future, to progress beyond previous generations’ limitations, failures and injustices. We recognize and dream about “their world” — the one we’ll live in when we are seniors, the one that embodies some of our wishes and the fruits of our labor and energy. But we also know that for these goals to be reached, there must be a context within which our young people can learn, grow and thrive. We agonize over how we can improve conditions for young Americans whose future is so instrumental to ours, and we worry about kids who seem to be heading in a direction that can undermine those aspirations. THIS WEEK, we have assembled a small panel of thoughtful folks who are thinkers, writers and social justice advocates to discuss a confrontation that Stephen had with three young men who were vandalizing a subway station on Tuesday evening. We offer these perspectives in the spirit (and with the hope) of instigating positive, thoughtful discussion. Stephen’s story is below, followed immediately by Charlton’s response and then the responses of our guests.

Stephen My wife and I were climbing down into the Harrison Red Line subway station in our neighborhood in Chicago when we happened upon three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint. It was particularly surprising because there are security cameras down there, yet the kids were dancing around and acting as if they didn’t care if anyone saw what they were doing. I thought about it for a second or two and decided to let them know that I saw what they did. Rather than express disappointment or anger (I figured at that age, irrespective of race, they wouldn’t care — I wouldn’t have!), I simply wanted them to know that they were not as quick or careful as they though they were. Even now, I’m not sure if I was trying to scare them or warn them that they could easily be caught, or if I was trying to discourage them from doing it again. In any case, they all denied having done anything wrong, and as we boarded the train, one of the boys stuck his head in the door before it closed, called me some names, and flipped me his middle finger while another boy spray painted on the window of the train as it pulled out of the station. I spent the rest of the night thinking about whether there was anything I could have done to meaningfully intervene in those boys’ lives. Since I am a White ally, I am very conscious about not wanting to be act like, feel like or be perceived as though I need to “save” (Dangerous Minds-style) persons of color. On the other hand, as an adult who wants to see all children succeed and who knows that sometimes getting in trouble is the best thing that can happen to turn someone’s life around, I wonder if I should have tried to call a CTA employee or otherwise “bust” the kids. Further complicating the issue is the fact that with all the youth violence and gang activity in the area, saying anything to kids that age at all — particularly while they are engaging in an illegal act — probably isn’t a particularly smart thing to do. Would I have felt the same or acted in the same way if I were Black (a man or a woman — and would that matter) or if the kids were White? Would the kids have reacted to me differently? Did I act appropriately (do enough, do too much)?

Charlton There’s no easy answer to this question. I suppose like many people my response to what the kids were doing would fluctuate depending on the day, my mood, and my immediate attitude about the actions these youths were engaged in. On one day, no doubt, I’d be apt to say that I would approach them and say something like, “No wonder why some people see kids like you as nothing more than ignorant thugs.” It’s the kind of thing that comes to mind when you are looking at someone from your own racial group reinforcing the dark shadow of prejudice on those of us who have tried so hard to overcome those perceptions. But I’ve also noticed recently that I seem to be getting older. As I do, I find myself distanced from young Black teens not so much because they are Black, but because they are adolescents — adolescents who seem to attempt more today than I would have ever thought possible to get away with when I was their age. And I admit part of me would have stood silently with my wife, not uttering a word to the kids — in fear of their potential volatility and need to remain and keep my loved ones safe from potential harm. If I were wearing my charitable, racially and socially conscious hat that day, I may have spent a moment not only contemplating acting — confronting the young men — but thinking through the implications of my actions. If I report them to the authorities (“authorities” — I feel like I’m in a 1970s Japanese monster film) then these youth will probably be swept into a criminal justice system likely to impact them more negatively than the subway wall they were tagging. So no, don’t report them; they probably deserve a chance that they probably won’t get if the cops get a hold of them.

If I were to say anything — not wanting to incur the wrath of some pent up anger, or send them on a one-way trip through the American criminal and judicial process — I may have just asked them why. “Hey — why are you guys doing this?” I’ve always found that if you ask someone a question he or she will do one of two things. Some will ignore you, and others will answer the question. If they answer the question, you’ve taken the first step to engaging in some form of meaningful dialogue. This, I think, would be the best possible outcome — and opportunity — I could imagine in this situation.

Jessie Daniels  The encounter that Stephen describes is a vexing situation for those of us who count ourselves as white allies for racial equality. As he describes the exchange, it is one bound up with white racial privilege (and, one suspects, class privilege). The image of the white professor chastising the young, black grafitti artists (or merely vandals) and their understandably angry response, seems like a reenactment of larger scripts about race and class in the culture. I think it’s also important to bring up the issue of gender and sexuality in the dissecting of this story. If I had been in that situation, and I had seen those young men while I (also a white professor, and a woman) had been with my partner (also a woman), I would not have said anything to a group of adolescent boys – whatever their race – for fear of retaliation that was more aggressive than a raised middle-finger. As lesbian-identified woman, groups of adolescent boys raise the possibility of a different kind of threat for me. So, for me, the fact that Stephen feels he can call out these young men is completely bound up in his own position of privilege at the intersection of race and class, as well as gender and (hetero)sexuality. If the underlying issue here is about how to intervene in the lives of young, black youth who may have gone astray on the path toward adulthood, full citizenship and participation in the broader society, I would echo what others have said here about community engagement. I wonder if Stephen knew the names of these young men? He doesn’t say, but my guess is that he did not. Did he ever have a conversation with them prior to the exchange around the graffiti? Without a personal connection in which you at least know the young men’s names or have had a conversation once before, an encounter such as this one is doomed to replay hierarchies of race and class. And, just so you know that this not all theoretical for me, I’ll close with a story from my own life. I attend a multi-racial, queer church called Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY). MCCNY has for 8 or so years run a shelter for LGBTQ homeless teens. The shelter is open 365 nights a year, and operates in the basement of the church building. The kids who reside there come from all over, are predominantly black and latino, and are mostly homeless because they have ‘come out’ to their families and been rejected by them. These young people are struggling – often heroically – to survive in difficult circumstances. They are also teenagers. As such, they not infrequently act out in ways that are just not acceptable. If I see unacceptable behavior by one of the teens and act in ways to correct it, I am in a similar position to the one that Stephen was in. I am white and a professor, and thus have racial and class privilege in relation to these young people. All of our interactions are always going to be inflected by those differences. However, that does not mean that I look the other way when I see a young person putting themselves in harm’s way. I intercede when I can, and I’m mostly likely to take action – and to be effective – when I know a young person’s name, I’ve talked with them before in some non-confrontational exchange, and they have a sense that I care about them beyond the interaction in which I’m telling them that they’ve messed up. Dr. Jessie Daniels is an Associate Professor at Hunter College. She cofounder and frequently blogger at RacismReview and you can follow her on Twitter.   

Tami Winfrey Harris It is easy to see the implications of race and class all over an interaction between a white, male, college professor and three, young, black, inner-city males in the city of Chicago. We are trained to think that way, especially those of us who are committed to anti-racism and the exploration of privilege and power. But in this case, I wonder if those things–race and class–are distractions. Let me explain. Race and class play a tremendous role in the marginalization of young, black males. And there may be no better illustration of that fact than Chicago, where 36 young men of color have died violently this year, and the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in the highly-segregated city grows ever wider. So, it is safe to say that race and class likely played a significant role in these youths’ seeming disaffection. But I am not convinced that it colored their interaction with you, Stephen. I witnessed similar scenarios play out during my years in the Windy City with similar results. Adults, old enough to remember the time not so long ago when grown ups were expected to chasten ill-behaved young people and the young people generally obliged out of a sense of respect for age and authority, attempting to correct a raucous or anti-social group of teens only to be met with verbal or physical aggression. The races of the adults who embraced the notion of “it takes a village” varied, the infractions did also–loud cursing on the No. 6 bus, jimmying locks to make a short cut through private property–the outcome of their actions usually did not. What is happening to our children? Well, in the case of black males (and there are certainly many troubled youth of other races, but young black men are particularly at risk), Anti-Racist Parent columnist Liz Dwyer said, in a post about the murder of Derrion Albert, that we are faced with “chickens coming home to roost.”   

As a society, we have chosen to not uphold desegregation laws. We have chosen to allow low income children of color to receive a substandard education, simply because they live in a different zip code. We have chosen to not pay a living wage so that people can actually have the means to pursue life, liberty and happiness, so they can move out of dangerous neighborhoods if they see fit. And we have chosen to allow gangs and narcotic trafficking to run rampant, as long as it stays controlled on the “bad” side of town.As for having some sort of moral or spiritual “center” where today’s teens know not to beat one of their peers to death, that sort of center doesn’t just fall out of the sky and infect kids like Swine Flu. Yes, children and teens should know better, but we live in a do-whatever-you-wanna-do culture. Self-control is in no way a part of our world these days.

I’m not saying this to excuse what these teenagers did. But hello, didn’t you read Lord of the Flies as part of your education?

THIS is where race and class come in. Society has surely created an environment where anti-social behavior will fester in disenfranchised youth, including children of color and the poor. And because we broke it, it is our job to fix it. It is good that you intervened, Stephen–not as a white savior, but as a concerned adult. What most of us, including me, are far more likely to do is look away and say nothing, to tsk tsk about the kids and the mamas and daddies who are raising them, to give the children in question up for lost. We look away from the loud and aggressive behavior. We look away from the loitering. We look away from the vandalism. We look away…until a teenaged boy is beaten to death on camera…and then it seems people cannot look away. And we wonder how we got here.

Tami Winfrey Harris blogs at What Tami Said and is the editor of Anti-Racist Parent. Follow her on Twitter.

Alvin Herring It would be all too easy for me as an African American male to categorize the angst my White brother felt over this incident as just another example of the privilege Whites enjoy – as it relates to race – to stand at a distance from the dirty work of confronting the tough realities racism creates and retreat to the sidelines where behaviors, motives and choices can be safely analyzed and timidly dissected. For sure, that is the choice of many White liberals, intending to sound like allies and then losing their voice when situations and circumstances call for a more vigorous assertion of solidarity. But in the real world of race, no one gets a pass. Racism exists to systematically rob of us our humanity and psychically prepare us for the dirty work of denying to those deemed “less than” or “other than” opportunity, access, power, wealth and the very essentials of life itself. And racism doesn’t ever stand alone as a single issue but pulls in every other societal structure in around it, forcing us to contend with unholy combinations of race and other social dimensions such as class, gender or sexual orientation. What has to be remembered is that race is the predicate, the root. Indeed, a racist system will never truly let you forget it. In the encounter with the boys making mischief on the train, the scenario is as it seems. No matter of intent, goodwill or progressive racial sentiment can alter the reality that a White man has stepped into foreign territory and entered the world of these Black boys without invitation. Their response is neither novel nor unexpected. They rebuke him and put him “in his place.” His angst is also part of the “script.” Was he right to express his displeasure at the boys or was his behavior based on race? Did they reject his correction because he was an adult censoring youth rebellion or did they interpret his actions as racist? In a better world a grown-up should be able to confront misbehaving juveniles and have his intent be seen if not as helpful and corrective at least benign. But this is not a better world. It is the world that racism has created. In that world –our world – racism is an idol that must be worshipped and our desire for community is the sacrificial lamb. How do we ever get past this? How do we meaningfully enter each other’s worlds and build real connections across race lines? The answers are not simple ones but they begin with a need for a universal recognition of what racism is and how it distorts the human heart and mind. It begins with Blacks and Whites each speaking to the ways our lives have been wounded by racism. Whites must summon the courage to acknowledge how they have been privileged by the oppression of people of color and undertake the work of dismantling that privilege by working for justice. Blacks must come to grips with centuries of rage and bitter resentment (much of which has been focused internally) and become earnest partners in forging a more just society. Real community ought to be our goal, but to get there we are going to have to have the courage to step up to situations such as this and confront how incomplete our lives are in the shadow of structural racism. We’re going to have to finally reach that place where justice demands that we stop business as usual and get down to the real business of confronting racism. Alvin Herring is the CEO and lead facilitator of Side by Side. Follow him on Twitter.

Mikhail Lyubansky This is a no-win situation. That was my immediate reaction to reading about Stephen’s encounter. But I didn’t want to write that. It was pessimistic and, more importantly, not at all useful, helpful, or constructive. I try to approach my analysis of race and racial dynamics constructively. So, I didn’t write anything, hoping that that something more constructive would come to me. Nothing has. It’s a no-win situation even without the racial layer, at least from my perspective as a White ally (I’m in full agreement with Stephen’s take on it). That is, I don’t see a productive way to respond to this specific encounter, even if the boys in question are also white. The reason is that, given the situation, the boys are likely to distrust me and, therefore, perceive anything I do or say with suspicion. The remedy – the only remedy, in my opinion – is to earn their trust, to convince them that I had their interests and their needs in mind. As a clinical psychologist, I have some ideas about how to do this: I’d try to guess at their underlying motivations and needs (these might include self-expression, autonomy, fun, and even justice (e.g., payback for perceived systemic oppression) and respond to any expression (even if hostile) of such needs with statements expressing empathy and my desire to understand their motivations and experiences. Not always, but quite often, if it really comes from the heart (true empathy is hard to fake), this method is effective in building trust. But it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, and in this particular situation, the time is just not available. Stephen is waiting to get on a train, which could arrive at any moment, and even if he is willing to talk to forget the train and talk to the boys as long as necessary (unlikely since he is traveling with his wife), it is, at best, doubtful that the boys would be willing to engage with him long enough to be convinced of his good intentions. And to this, we add the racial layer, because there is no way that this encounter is not, in part, racial in nature. In Spike Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing, the local African American community, furious about Radio Raheem’s needless death at the hands of the police and despondent over the certainty that the city would not care, take out their frustration on Sal’s Famous Pizzeria – not because Sal deserved it but because as a White person in the Black community he represented not just whiteness but white power and oppression. The destruction of Sal’s Famous was not a personal attack on Sal. In some ways, it had nothing to do with Sal the person, who, the incident with Radio’s radio aside, was generally well-liked by most of the people in the neighborhood. I recall Do The Right Thing, because, I think that, on some level (possibly an unconscious one), the boys in the subway station are acting out the same kind of frustration with the (white) “system” as the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Do The Right Thing (or not – they could be middle-class kids just having “fun” – the truth is there is no way to know). As such, until he proves otherwise, Stephen represents the “system” and white oppression. It has nothing to do with Stephen the person. And it may not even be something that the boys have a conscious awareness of. But the moment that Stephen initiates a conversation, this racial history and symbolism come into play. His words and actions become transformed by who he is racially and who he represents on a racial level, pushing the possibility of trust even further out of reach. These racial dynamics can be overcome. In another context, I think Stephen could do it. I’m sure he has done it and will do it again in the future. But in this particular case, I just don’t think the opportunity for establishing a relationship is there. In this case, an engagement with the boys is a no-win situation. Allies need to know when to lead, when to play a supporting role, and when to stay out of the way. It makes me sad to say this, but I think this is a situation we have to stay out of. Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky is a member of the faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a managing editor at the progressive media site and blogs at Psychology Today. Follow him on Twitter.

From ARP Contributors
Julia Reading your account, I found myself remembering something a teacher friend used to say: “teaching is all about relationships.” His idea was that you have to build a relationship with a child before you can teach them anything (or guide them or redirect them). In my teaching life, I’ve found this idea to be true again and again, and I think the same principle applies to your situation. Given that you had no relationship with these teenagers, I doubt that ANYTHING you could have said or done would really have made a positive difference. You could not help but be cast as Disapproving Adult in just one more round of Adult vs. Teen.

Without a relationship, it’s also hard to know what is motivating the tagging. If the motivation is destruction and/or the excitement of doing something illicit, that’s one thing. If it’s a gang-related marking of territory, that’s another. If it’s a misdirection of artistic expression, that’s still another. I don’t know how one intervenes effectively, without understanding the underlying issues.

Now, for your questions:

Would you have acted in the same way if you were Black?
I find this question impossible to answer. It would probably depend very much on your life experience as a black man (or woman).

Would you have acted in the same way if the kids were White?
I don’t know, but I wonder if you would have been less concerned about their behavior, and if you would have had more of a tendency to view it as youthful high-jinks vs. one step further on a seemingly unavoidable path to prison? Is it wrong that you might have responded differently? Hard to say. Could we say this is simply a realistic reaction, given the racial dynamics of our country? Or could we say that it is this very perspective that contributes to a larger problem, that in assuming the worst, you leave these black boys and many others like them no choice but to fulfill your negative expectations? Or should we worry about a white boy who might need intervention desperately despite the privileges of race and gender that serve so many of his peers so well? It’s a vexed (and vexing) question.

Would the kids have reacted to you differently if they were white?
I doubt it. Obnoxious teenage behavior, at least in my experience, looks pretty similar across race.

In another permutation, would black kids have reacted differently to a black adult?
I don’t know. Again, I doubt it, but I would love to hear from others on this.

Did you act appropriately?
I believe that what you did had no effect on the kids. In that way, I have difficulty judging your actions as either appropriate or inappropriate, because I believe that there were no consequences, negative or positive (except, that is, for the train window).

Bianca Laureano I’ll begin by stating that I am pro-graffiti writing. This is for many reasons, but mainly because I was raised by an artist and in a home where I was encouraged to express myself in various ways. I also value graffiti writing because it is an important way that people can create, construct, and share messages; it’s a form of media. As a result of my value of graffiti writing, I wonder what is the reasons/motivation in confronting young people engaging in this activity? The author does not seem clear on this himself, which I find troubling. I wonder why does it matter to the author that they know you saw them writing on a wall or window? Why does the author center himself versus centering the youth (it’s about what the author wanted, even though unclear, not about the youth)?

My opinion is that the approach and motivation behind it are key to examining this situation. Unfortunately, we only know of the approach. If someone wanted to engage the young people, even if it is to help them understand that their actions may lead to incarceration, approaching them as productive individuals would have a more useful outcome. If the author knew that there were cameras why not in that one/two seconds consider saying “Ya’ll be careful they have cameras around here.” Not only is this statement one that shows the “I saw you and what you did” perspective, but it also demonstrates a sense of concern for the youth involved which may have been interpreted as sincere versus defensive, accusatory, and reactive.

It is my opinion that this approach not only offers young people an opportunity to positively engage with adults in their community, but it also allows them the opportunity to think about how their actions may lead to certain consequences. The reality is if you are not 100% committed to calling authority and being a part of having youth (whose circumstances you know nothing about) interact with law enforcement, but want to help influence them in a particular way, communicating with them in a respectful manner, regardless of perceived racial classification, is essential.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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