To Protect and Serve

written by AMANDA GROSS

Unlike 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, I have never been targeted by the police in a way that made me fear for my life. My three and a half decades of personal experience with the criminal justice system can be counted on one hand: jury duty + 4 traffic stops, only one of which resulted in a ticket.

Upon further examination, though, my involvement with the system goes deeper. My above list omits the times I have initiated contact with the system, like the one time I called the police when my neighbors were having a domestic dispute so loudly, I could hear chairs being broken through the thin apartment walls. I was afraid; terrified really, as my neighbor screamed for mercy. I felt both powerless and convicted that something must be done. And so I did what I had been taught to do: I called 9-1-1.

There are also the numerous other times that I have considered that option but not followed through, sitting on the front porch or peeking out through the blinds while clutching my cell phone as I struggled with the moral dilemma of whether or not to call the cops. I still struggle with the urge to call even though I am now aware that law enforcement disproportionately targets Black and brown communities and that police involvement can harm more than it helps. I still struggle internally even though I know that the police force as an institution was never intended to protect and serve my neighbors. I know now that the police force we have today began originally as slave patrols. In 1857, the Supreme Court declared that under the Constitution, a Black person “has no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” A 17th century Virginia law proclaimed that if an enslaved person was ever killed in an attempted arrest, the person who killed them “shall be free and acquit of all punishment and accusation for the same, as if such accident had never happened…,” as if Antwon Rose II’s murder had never had happened.

I know now too that enslavement is still legally sanctioned through incarceration, that we disproportionately incarcerate Black and Indigenous people, that Black students are disproportionately pushed out of education and into the criminal justice system, that in Allegheny County, Black students are suspended at 5.6 times that of white students, and that white women are the frontline offenders in upholding this dynamic termed the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

If you haven’t guessed already by my traffic-stop-to-ticket ratio, I am a cis white lady. And as one of many such white ladies who have been entrusted with the education of young people, it would be easy for me to obscure my relationship to the systemic violence of racism. It would be convenient for me to point to the violence of white men: the police officer who pulled the trigger, the attorney who represented him, the first and then second judge who presided over the trial, the majority of the jury responsible for Officer Rosfeld’s acquittal, the D.A. who failed to present a strong case. It is so much more comfortable for me to gloss over the long-lasting history of white ladies organizing for racism and my connection to it.

White Middle-Class Neighborhood; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

To Protect…

There have always been white women rallying for the cause of racism. Since the early 20th Century, Women of the Ku Klux Klan and its predecessor Ladies of the Invisible Empire have had reach beyond their base in southern states, spanning from Portland, Oregon, to Baltimore, Maryland.[1]White mothers were on the front lines against school desegregation both in the Jim Crow South and also against integrated busing practices in Boston.[2]Closer to home, white women took on leadership roles in organizing against the 1981 court order that merged the then-predominantly white school districts of Churchill, Edgewood, Swissvale, and Turtle Creek with the predominantly Black districts of Braddock, North Braddock, and Rankin to become the Woodland Hills school district, the district where Antwon would eventually attend.

Despite recent calls to “stand against hate”, our history of racist organizing at its root is more about fear than hate. This fear exploits a patriarchal narrative that presumes an innocent victim status for white women and white children in need of protection from the violent pathology that has been projected onto Black and brown people. The fear that has me gripping the telephone is not disconnected from the fear tactics used in crime reporting on the local news, in commercials for home security systems, on the NextDoor East Liberty listserv asking if anyone heard gunfire 20 minutes ago, or from the weekly Pittsburgh Police Zone 5 email blast, which lists names, ages, and descriptions of people who have been arrested and reminds us to stay vigilant. My persistent urge to call points to a very deeply instilled belief that for every time I feel helpless, there should be a hero ready and waiting to protect me from an outside danger or at least protect me from my own feelings of helplessness.

College Classroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

…and to Serve

I wholeheartedly believe that of Pennsylvania educators, 96% who are white women,[3]get into education because they want the best for their students. I believe that these same educators went to teacher school with vision, integrity, and the intention to nurture all young learners and to help prepare their students for brilliant futures. I have witnessed many of these white lady teachers put in countless, unpaid extra hours, spend their own salaries on classroom supplies, and advocate for their students within a system bent on pushing out students of color. I don’t believe that any teacher enters the field eager to disproportionately fail, discipline, and suspend their Black and brown students while disproportionately passing, promoting, and graduating their white ones. And in a system where teachers are so often stripped of institutional agency and scapegoated as the problem, I also don’t believe that any teacher joins the teacher’s union planning to organize for their own best interest to the detriment of their students’. Yet, these are the dynamics we have today. Pennsylvania teachers, 96% of whom are white ladies, are the ones making decisions in the classroom that lead to racial disproportionality while teachers unions frequently stand with the institutional status quo instead of with student of color-led organizing, such as in the case of siding with the administration during the recent student walkout and in opposing an extension of the moratorium on out-of-school suspension.

As a fellow white lady, I want to know how our good intentions have become so distanced from the collective negative impact we have on the young people we say we serve. As a student of history, I am seeking answers to how we have come so unaligned with organizing that would actually make life better for our students andfor us.

A brief history lesson shows that this is not the first time we have used whiteness to advance an agenda for white women at the expense of People of Color. The end of the Civil War opened up a whole field of work in education to white women who had previously been discouraged from working outside the home. Northern white women descended in droves upon the South to teach Black children to read. Around the same time, white women gained employment and status through government jobs working on Indian reservations, teaching at Native American boarding schools, and doing church work as missionaries in other countries.[4]White women assumed these roles under the guise of benevolent caretakers and cultural workers who would guide their young charges away from their home cultures and towards a “more civilized” white way of being. These teaching opportunities were steeped in a racism that promoted the superiority of white culture and was built on a false narrative that Black and Indigenous children needed white women to help, fix, and save them. It is so important that we know our history. This history helps explain how white women have come to dominate the field of education. It also helps explain how we as white women inflict violence when we don’t recognize our power as white people. Like the white mothers protecting their white children from going to school with children of color, like me clutching the phone, like teacher unions inadvertently organizing against their students, we are most effective at organizing for white supremacy when we carry our victim mentality with us into the halls of institutional power.

Only You Can Prevent Racism; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

When I see injustice or harm, I am moved by a loud voice in my head to JUST DO SOMETHING and so the idea of not doing something – of not calling the police, or of not discipling students, for example, seems contrary to the parts of me that want to spring towards action, to the parts of me that have learned that I too should protect and serve. And I am learning that there are so many ways towards action that challenge racism. It’s just that those actions are not as simple as a phone call. Those actions reject the historical claim for white women as righteous victim/saviors. Those actions take a whole lot of unlearning and learning anew. Those actions require creativity and are grounded in humility and relationship. Those actions call on a type of persistent collective courage we rarely see in heroic films. Those actions require self-study and a long term lifelong strategy that acknowledges the extensive power we currently hold through institutional positions, cultural access, and proximity to cis white men. There are so many ways for us to refuse to collude with white supremacy. Above all, those actions require us to center the humanity of Antwon Rose II and of his peers.

[1]Women of the Klan by Kathleen M. Blee

[2]Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

[3]Public Source Reporting

[4]White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, Louise Michele Newman

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