When a black female high school student was wrestled violently from her desk and slammed to the floor by a police officer in Columbia, SC, many responded with outrage across the nation, confronting the mounting evidence that black lives do not matter—even in the supposed sanctuary of a public school.
Many also raised voices once again about the significant negative impact that zero tolerance policies and police in the hallways have on black and brown students, both male and female. As Kathleen Nolan has documented, zero tolerance policies and police in the hallways often criminalize children, a dynamic almost exclusively impacting black, brown, and impoverished children.
Assistant professor of Communication Studies at Clemson University, Chenjerai Kumanyika added yet another in-state moment of violence between police officers and youths to his advocacy for social justice and equity. In fact, Kumanyika represents the power of highlighting that #BlackLivesMatter is a necessary mantra that both targets and transcends race since he has stood beside the parents and supporters of a white teen shot and killed by a police officer and raised his voice against the excessive police violence experienced by a black girl in her desk and apparently endorsed by the school leadership.
However, among the outrage and calls for both racial equity and justice for all, we have the white responses of “yes, but”—such as this letter to the editor in The State:
It seems unbelievable that a school resource officer would respond in a physical manner because the student was disrespectful. We would expect the teacher to be in charge, and we would certainly expect any student to respond to the direct commands of a teacher or an assistant principal, but both of these school officials relied on the school resource officer to comply with their request to remove the student from the classroom.
Now we have lots of folks who were not present in the classroom, and have no direct knowledge of the student’s actions, providing guidance in how to handle an unresponsive student.
At some point we have to recognize authority will be obeyed and that enforcement consequences may be ugly beyond our expectations. I don’t have to agree with legal commands, but I do have to obey them.
“If they just did what they were told” is the coded racist response to the outrage; it is a comment heard and read about the black girl being slammed to the ground, but not echoing against the growing skepticism about a police officer shooting and killing a white male teen.
The “yes, but” responses among white and privileged commentary on police in the hallways represent the larger white denial about racism and white privilege.
The U.S. was founded (by white privileged men) through widespread refusal to obey the law. Women’s rights were gained through widespread refusal to obey the law. Civil rights were demanded through widespread refusal to obey the law.
In a society or a school where laws and rules are themselves practiced along racial lines, as Martin Luther King Jr. implored, the right thing to do will be not to do as we are told.
But that is not a mandate for children or youth—although they too must be supported when they do take those stances. That mandate is for all adults of conscience, especially adults of conscience and privilege, and our voices must not waver when the people charged to protect and serve us take the lives and dignity of our children—because any child is everyone’s child, or we are a people without any moral authority to demand that anyone obey the laws and rules.
There is no excuse for “yes, but” from the lips or keyboards of white privilege.
These are times for listening, for having our own zero tolerance policies for abuses of power and the remaining cancer of racism among our society.
We are well past the time, also, to admit that the winners always love the rules of the game and to confront as well that this game is rigged .
First, then, we must demand a level playing field, one upon which every child is sacred, every person is judged on the content of their character.
Otherwise, “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us,” James Baldwin argued; “particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything” (Baldwin, 1998, p. 593).
And the most tragic among that destruction will continue to be children and youth—too often “other people’s children.”
Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.
Dear Black Children: Everyone Can Beat You!, Stacey Patton
Where Are Black Children Safe? Roxane Gay
 See Why are working class kids less likely to get elite jobs? They study too hard at college, Henry Farrell: