The central problem with ALL of the news reports on the Ja'eisha Scott case and with almost all of the commentary is that the case gets viewed as an isolated incident. The reports and discussion turn over the various bits of available information about what happened to opine on the behavior of Ja'eisha Scott, the parenting of Inga Akins, the conduct of teachers Christina Ottersbach and Patti Tsaousis and Assistant Principal Nicole Dibenedetto, the necessity or lack thereof of police in this particular case, and the right or wrong of handcuffing the girl.
Respected groups, like the local chapters of the NAACP and the SCLC, are "cautious on the subject of race, which has crept into the debate over the girl's treatment because she is black."
Black leaders noted that Mark Williams - the veteran police officer heard on the video confronting the girl and directing the handcuffing - is black. So is the school's principal and the police sergeant who arrived on the scene later and put an end to talk that the girl be prosecuted.
Rouson described Williams as a respected member of the community and noted the girl had previous problems at school.
This sort of discussion of racism is about the motivations of individuals. But analyzing a situation for racism is not just about deciding if an individual is behaving in a racist way. It's also about analyzing institutionalized inequalities.
"We believe that this act is a symptom of a system with longstanding hostility toward African children," said Uhuru leader Chimurenga Waller, reading from a prepared statement. "Furthermore this hostility has its roots in the desegregation of schools and the subsequent failure to educate African children in Pinellas County."
Readers may wonder what the Uhurus are talking about because none of the news reports:
- mention the alarming number of children under 12 being arrested in the state of Florida as a whole;
- acknowledge that Pinellas County leads the state in these incidents;
- mention that African American children are grossly over-represented among young children who get arrested;
- deem it relevant that Pinellas County has been hit with a class action lawsuit for not educating its African American students; or
- mention other incidents where it appears students have been targeted for abuse by administrators and teachers for no other reason than being African American.
In Pinellas County, Florida, it is standard procedure to call the police on small children who are having behavior problems. It is standard procedure to charge children in Pinellas County with felonies. It is standard procedure in Pinellas County to handcuff children as a means of discipline . It is standard procedure in Pinellas County to use police, criminal charges, and handcuffs disproportionately on African American children: 55% of children under 12 charged with crimes in fiscal year 1999-2000 were African American, though they were only 20.95% of the school age children in the state.
It is standard procedure in Pinellas County, Florida to ignore the cultural differences between African American children and white, European American children and to run schools geared only towards education of the the latter.
On June 23, 1992, thirty-two retiring African American teachers were interviewed by Peggy Peterman, a St. Petersburg Times journalist. Twenty-one years after desegregation they reported that there continued to be a dearth of black role models in the schools and a climate of cultural tensions. They observed that many white teachers are afraid of black students, and black students do not feel comfortable in the predominantly white schools. Even Howard Hinesley, superintendent of schools, acknowledged that whites don't have a significant understanding or appreciation for differences in cultures and a respect for African Americans. "We have culturally ignored some of the issues that bother the (black) students," reported Hinesley. The school board undermined the ability of African American community to transmit its cosmology through the school and endangered African American students by not addressing cultural differences between blacks and whites. The burden of desegregation fell unequally on African American children.
That was the state of things in 1992, but a 2003 study shows that institutionalized racial discrimination is still alive and well in the Pinellas County schools:
Parents alleging in a lawsuit that Pinellas schools discriminate against black students have added new specifics to their claim.
A consultant hired by the plaintiffs concluded that FCAT scores are as much as 28 points lower for blacks than whites, that black students are not promoted at the same rate as white students, and that black students are 3.8 times more likely to be disciplined.
By the time the police arrive and handcuff Ja'eisha it does not matter what color the officers are. Her treatment takes place in a context of persistent inequality and especially punitive attitudes towards African American students. The three white police officers who handcuffed Ja'eisha merely enacted the existing physical and psychological brutality of the school system's white makes right atmosphere. The presence of an African American police officer overseeing the handcuffing does not mitigate the racism inherent in the event.
If this way of talking is a little too abstract for some, let me put it another way. Institutionalized racism promotes individual acts of racism. As an illustration of this principle, take Janice Arthur's complaint that Tyrone Elementary School educators routinely harass her grandchildren, Treazure and Erskine, who are African American. Arthur's complaints are numerous and deeply upsetting—many detailing physical abuse and purposeful neglect of the two children. Among Arthur's allegations is one that a teacher called Erskine a monkey in front of his classmates. The teacher admitted to having done so, and though he was disciplined (how and to what extent is not clear), Area III Superintendent Michael Bissette minimized the incident, saying
It was not the worse [sic] of swear words.
In a climate where the needs of African American students are not on the agenda of the school system, and where school superintendents do not take it seriously when teachers direct racial epithets at their students, racist teachers feel free to abuse African American students. No one tells teachers to behave badly, but they do in a permissive atmosphere. Among the other allegations that Janice Arthur has made are:
- Treazure being suspended for choking a classmate, although she denied the incident. The victim recently confessed Treazure was merely hugging her but she was told by a teacher to say Treazure choked her.
- Children being allowed to hit Treazure, but when she retaliates, she is the only one disciplined. Last week, she was hit in the head with a rock.
- Erskine, who has cerebral palsy, being forced to wear wet clothes all day after being caught in a downpour while walking from one building to another during a recent rainstorm.
- Erskine being forced to participate in a regular physical education class where he is made to run laps despite notes from his physician stating it is causing discomfort and pain in his legs.
Tyrone Elementary School is also in Pinellas County. Michael Bissette, who does not think it's a big deal when teachers direct racial epithets at their students, also oversees Fairmount Park Elementary School. When the Ja'eisha Scott story first broke in mid-March, before the video was released, Bissette was heard making odd excuses for why Fairmount Park called city police instead of district campus police to deal with Ja'eisha Scott:
The assistant principal was in the process of just that [i.e., calling district campus police], he said, but another in a series of outbursts by the girl interrupted her in mid call. When she asked the secretary to call for help, the secretary called city police instead.
This early statement conflicts directly with the April 29 St. Petersburg Times, in which police Chief Chuck Harmon gave "the most detailed account so far of how police came to be called to the school."
On March 14, the day of the taping, the school called city police again after Pinellas schools police could not come.
In the earlier article, no one ever called the district campus police. In the later article, the school called, but district campus police could not come. What the two accounts have in common is that they both deflect responsibility from Assistant Principal Nicole Dibenedetto, who, according to the police report, was disappointed when charges were not made against Ja'eisha Scott.
Could there be a cover up? Are there African American children at Fairmount Park who have been treated like Janice Arthur's grandchildren at Tyrone Elementary? How many arrests and handcuffings of children under twelve have there been at Fairmount Park? I do not know, but concerned citizens should demand some answers.
Examine existing evidence? Ask more questions about what actually happened? Silly me. It's so much easier to sit back and blame Inga Akins and Ja'eisha Scott. Why would anyone want to do anything else?