I remember sitting in an AP history class. We were glossing over the topic of slavery. I tried my best not to reciprocate the awkward stares darted in my direction, especially when my teacher equated an enslaved African to a pencil for comparison’s sake.
The subject was already uncomfortable enough for me as one of the only two Black students in the class. I didn’t know what to say. I thought I would look like the angry Black girl if I stood up and said something, so I just sat there. I didn’t think I had the knowledge to adequately check him and show why remarks like that water down and perpetuate racism. This was before
It’s too often believed that the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental atrocities of the past have no effect on the present. The it’s-all-good-now-we-had-a-Black-president mentality is foolish and dangerous, because it allows for statements, like the one my former teacher made, to slip through the cracks and not be addressed or corrected. It’s not like 200 plus years of slavery along with decades of discrimination just vanished overnight. The overt racism of the past has simply transformed into covert forms of discrimination. This undercover racism is often encountered in the criminal justice system. A horrendous example of this is the case of the Central Park Five.
In 1989, five Black and Latino boys were wrongfully targeted, prosecuted and imprisoned for the rape and assault of Trisha Ellen Meili, a white woman jogging in Central Park. Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson were considered guilty from the start. They were referred to as animals and our current president even took out several ads in newspapers demanding to bring the death penalty to New York. These young boys were seen as older and more aggressive because of their skin color. The racist overtones in news coverage and the injustice exhibited throughout the investigation and trial clearly supported this. There was no physical evidence showing they even touched Meili, but they were still convicted due to a taped confession that was clearly manufactured by law enforcement. Don’t believe me? Watch the footage for yourself here.
Their story was brilliantly captured by Director Ava DuVernay in the four-part series “When They See Us.” It shows how inequality played out in each step of the criminal justice system. This case isn’t a rarity. There are hundreds if not thousands of Black boys and girls that have been treated unfairly. It shows racism wasn’t just washed away after the Civil Rights Movement. We can pick out any section of this series and relate it to a recent case whether it’s Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland or Philando Castile. The list could go on forever.
There’s a reason why a white boy like Dylann Roof can shoot several people in a church and be taken in alive by police and treated to Burger King while a young Black 12-year-old named Tamir Rice is shot on sight without question. It’s the same reason why these five boys were harassed by cops, held for hours without sleep, food or water and ultimately convicted. They were exonerated years after being in jail and given a $41 million settlement due to the bogus conviction. Despite this, law enforcement officials, including prosecutor Linda Fairstein, still believe they’re guilty. Racism really is alive and well.
I believe this mini-series is a learning tool that needs to be seen by not just Black people, but people of all races. Knowing history prevents us from making the same mistakes, and this story is part of our not-so-distant past. It shows why we as Black and brown people feel the way we do when it comes to the police and the court system. This series shows our reality and what we go through that others may not have to see or experience. It is a harsh reality, but it’s our reality. If we want to prepare high school students for the real world, this story is part of it.
If I would have seen this mini-series, I could have been armed with the knowledge to be able to correct my teacher and say how problematic his language was. Knowledge really is power. Had I known about the Central Park Five, I may have been able to explain why comparing a human being who was tortured to an inanimate object can be detrimental and desensitizing. If not that, it may have lit a fire within me to make sure I called out racism in any form wherever I see it.
Just because Jim Crow is no longer on the books doesn’t mean attitudes have changed overnight. Racist thinking is still being passed down from one generation to the next, and the laws that support this thinking have not changed much. Projects like “When They See Us” cannot be the end-all-be-all. We need to continue showing the reality of the Black experience if we want to change not just laws, but attitudes. We can do this by educating the next generation with movies like “When They See Us.”