Personal Mantras And Racial Realities

We’re in the last week of the semester here at Kent State, when graduating seniors have reached the zombie stage of stress, and everyone else, it seems, is somewhere else, even when they’re sitting right in front of you.

As a teacher, it can be a challenge in these last days to find that sweet spot between exhaustion and panic. Fortunately, I spent Sunday evening interviewing Stacey Abrams in front of a sold-out crowd of 750 supporters for an event sponsored by the Toledo Public Library Foundation. Ten minutes with her, and your mind breaks open and starts buzzing.

Abrams is the former minority leader of Georgia’s house of representatives who became the first black woman in the United States to be nominated by a major party to run for governor. Had she won her race in Georgia, she would have been this country’s first black female governor. It speaks to the magnitude of Abrams’ personality and message that she now commands center stage of the Democratic Party despite not becoming governor, after a race that will forever be known for its voter suppression.

Abrams is currently on tour promoting her book, “Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.” In it, she writes that each of us should have a personal mantra. When I asked for hers, she answered with one word: “Fight.”

How the mind works. The following morning, I began ethics class by sharing Abrams’ question with my students: What is your personal mantra? I gave them a few minutes to think on it, and then we went around the room so that each of them could share their mantra, and explain why it mattered.

Fifteen students, most of them white, shared personal philosophies of varying degrees of endurance and optimism. Then it was Isaiah Nearor’s turn. I have his permission to share this story.

At 26, he is the oldest in the class and the only military veteran. He is also black. He’s one of my more reticent students, a hard worker with an easy smile and a preference for listening. When Isaiah does talk, I’ve noticed that students tend to pay attention.

I asked for his mantra, and he smiled softly before answering: “I do not expect the media to create positive black male images.

He was quoting the late activist Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, who specified “white media.”

“Why is that your mantra?” I asked.

Isaiah shrugged. “When I die, no matter how much I have accomplished, my obituary will talk about my mistakes.”

The room fell silent. I stood and looked at him for a moment, searching for the words.

“I don’t want that to be true,” I finally said.

He nodded. “I know, but you know that it is.”

In my experience, you cannot teach journalism without discussing media coverage about issues of race. If you don’t bring it up, your students will, armed with multiple examples of unfair coverage.

Here in Kent, we’re less than an hour from Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in 2014 by a white police officer who had been fired from his previous job on a suburban force after he was deemed unfit for duty.

Early coverage on Tamir’s death focused on past criminal records of the boy’s parents, which had nothing to do with his borrowing a friend’s air gun and hiding it from his mother, who forbade toy guns. He was playing with it a city park when the police cruiser swept up. Seconds later, Tamir Rice was on the ground.

He was just a boy, but I will never forget how some of the coverage made it sound like he was growing in the grave, becoming taller and heavier, and more menacing.

Every semester, we talk about Tamir Rice.

After Isaiah explained the significance of his mantra, he talked about Shane Piche, another 26-year-old man, in upstate New York. Piche was a school bus driver who pleaded guilty earlier this year to third-degree rape of a 14-year-old girl. He was in the news again this week because of his sentencing.

“He’s white,” Isaiah said. “And he’s not going to prison.”

Instead, Piche was sentenced to 10 years of probation and, as The New York Times reported, “assigned the lowest-level status on New York’s sex offender registry.” That means families won’t be alerted if Piche moves into their neighborhood.

I can’t stop thinking about Isaiah. The look on his face as he talked about that white man’s freedom. The certainty in his voice as he described how he, a black man in America, will be remembered one day.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.

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