When I was ten years old, I was one of the four African American students who were transferred to the predominantly white school. This move was my county’s half-hearted and passive-aggressive effort to comply with the U. S. Supreme Court’s orders to desegregate the nation’s public schools. I was the only African American child in my class of about thirty students. My teacher was white. Because our school was overcrowded, my class met in a separate building called the “Tater House” and I did not see or interact with the other three African American Students.
We were on a six-week grading period and during that first grading period, I would raise my hand to respond to questions that were asked in class or volunteer to solve a mathematical problem on the board or diagram a sentence. However, it was as if I was the invisible child because my teacher never called on me. It was only after our first grading period had ended and I apparently did better on all the tests than all of my white classmates that she condescended to notice me. When she did, she called me aside and said (with all seriousness and as if she was delivering a compliment):
“You must have some Indian blood in you or something. You can’t be just a regular colored child.”
Not only do I remember her exact words, but I remember the pain they caused my little ten-year old heart. I also remember the pain they caused my mother. Her complaints about the statement were met with “mansplaining” by school officials who assured her that the teacher had not meant anything derogatory by her words. Even more painful was the fact that my mother’s ability to carry her complaints to higher levels was hampered because, as a a public school teacher in the county, she could not buck the system that was providing her livelihood.
I thought of my little ten-year old self as I read about young Ahmed Mohamed, a budding scientist, inventor, and engineer who lives in Irving, Texas. Ahmed also happens to be Muslim and to have brown skin.
Ahmed built a homemade clock and took it to school to show his engineering teacher. When his clock went off in his English class, the teacher apparently concluded that his invention was a bomb. The local police department was called and Ahmed was questioned and then arrested. Ahmed was suspended from school for three days and the school system issued this letter to parents.
Various news outlets have reported that the chief of the local police department has stated that the police officers had determined “fairly quickly” that the device was not a bomb. However, in an attempt to defend the actions of the police department, he has stated that the question then arose as to why Ahmed had brought the device to school and has reportedly stated that the clock “never should have been brought to school.”
There was no real reason for my teacher to act the way she did when I was in the sixth grade except for her blatant racism. Similarly, in Ahmed’s situation, there was no real reason for either the school officials or the police department to act the way that they did other than blatant racism. It was 1967 when I was mistreated by a racist teacher and a racist school system in rural Georgia. It is 2015, almost fifty years later, but Ahmed has learned, courtesy of his school and the local police department, that racism is just as rampant in Irving, Texas.
Although President Obama has invited Ahmed to the White House, the local school district and the local police department appear to still be standing behind their actions. Ahmed and his parents have decided that he will not be returning to his school and are weighing their options. It is enough to make even ardent supporters of public schools look into other alternatives for their children’s education. There are no words, except the ones that my south Georgia relatives would use: “It is a sin and a shame.”