The first time I saw my students ball their fists and lunge at each other, I hurled my body across the room, smashing the buzzer on the wall for security — something I would do many times during my first year of teaching 10th grade in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“Stop it this second, both of you!” I screamed as they spat insults at each other.
My students, 95% of whom were black while I am white, looked at me blankly for a second, then burst out laughing. “Ms. Rosenblum, we were just playing!” they wailed, eyes still watering as they took their seats, best friends once more.
In the hall the security guard stared at me, eyebrows raised. “Sorry,” I mouthed. “I thought they were fighting.”
In the days since since Jeronimo Yanez walked free, I can’t stop thinking about how I would have reacted had I been in his shoes and encountered a black man with a gun. With every particle of my being, I hope differently. But realistically, I frequently misread my students’ behavior when I was a teacher, just like Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, alleges Yanez, who is Latino, misread Castile’s.
The way my students ribbed each other, to my ears, sounded like bullying. Flirting, to my eyes, looked like harassment. I grew up in a lily white part of West Virginia, and now that I found myself teaching black teens in the Big Easy. I regularly perceived much of their culturally normal, innocent behavior as dangerous and frightening. It took years of watching how my black colleagues responded to, and diffused, those same behaviors to realize that my students weren’t the ones out of line — I was.
Research confirms what black people already know: White people tend to view blacks faces as more threatening than white ones. We also know from first-person shooter experiments in the same study that this incorrect perception can make them more likely to respond with force.
I was armed with detention slips instead of a gun. The instances when I exercised that power poorly are not excusable, and are just one reason I believe we need to hire more black teachers. But like Yanez had the law on his side, I had the school on mine. I could justify my discipline by calling the behavior disruptive, just like Yanez justified his use of force by saying he feared for his life.
The problem with these justifications is that they are both subjectively defined, and based on the cultural norms we grow up in. And increasingly, too many of us live under one cultural code, in isolation.
In Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Yanez and Castile grew up, neighborhoods are growing dramatically more segregated in a pattern that reflects the nation’s. For reasons related to segregation, the Huffington Post ranked the Saint Paul-Minneapolis-Bloomington metropolis as the third worst city in the country for blacks in terms of poverty and unemployment. While the high school that Castile attended, Saint Paul Central, is relatively diverse with a student population that is roughly one-third black (like Castile), one-third white and one-third Asian, the high school that Yanez attended, South Saint Paul, is markedly less so: just 5% of students are black, 66% are white, and 22% are Latino, like Yanez.
Does segregation alone explain why a group of South Saint Paul students told racist jokes days after President Trump was elected? Does it explain the noose a South Saint Paul Trump supporter hung in his yard? Does it explain why Jeronimo Castile shot Philando Castile?
Perhaps not alone. But the fact that Castile’s alma matter has virtually no Latino students, and Yanez’s has very few black students, should give us pause. How can we ever learn to perceive each other correctly if we never have the opportunity to care about, let alone know, one another?
Until enough children from integrated communities grow up to be film directors and network CEOs, racial stereotypes will continue to serve as surrogates for personal knowledge. Fear will continue to trickle in via every screen we invent and burrow in our psyches like a tumor, ready to activate at the first shot of adrenaline.
It will take massive change to bring justice to victims like Castile. Better training, clearer laws, and weaker opposition to such things from police unions are all overdue and essential. But in the spasm of solutions that will follow this too-familiar pattern of horror and prescription, let us not forget integration’s role to play.
Integration was not popular during the sixties and seventies, and it is unlikely to be popular now. The alternative, however, is that mothers will continue to bury their sons, while my former students grow up believing the Declaration of Independence is just another piece of funny paper.
Cassady Rosenblum is an intern in The Times’ Opinion section.