I spent an afternoon at the Philadelphia Family court house waiting to see if my young friends case was going to trial. The courthouse has four football field sized waiting rooms in which people sit on benches waiting to be called into the courtroom. I took the time to wander from room to room and observe.
Looking at the people here raised a lot of questions. The answers to the questions are not obvious.
At first it seemed I was the only white person here. After the third person asked me if I was a lawyer I realized there were a few white people, but they were all wearing nice suits and carrying legal pads, or wearing a badge and a blue uniform. I thought I must be seeing things wrong so I made a few more rounds over the next couple hours.
I did not see one white face sitting on a bench with a worried or tired look. Not one out of thousands.
I looked at the cops. There were plenty of black and white but I noticed the white ones more. Maybe it was the cop with flames tattooed all the way up both fore –arms, or maybe the one with a skull clearly visible just below his elbow. I know this is 2009, everyone has a tattoo, and this is Philly where being a cop means someone will shoot at you sooner or later, so a little ‘grit’ is to be expected. But I started keeping track. There were more white cops that had tattoos than those who didn’t. What made it more interesting is that I saw no tattoos on any black officers. Interesting.
Lawyers were easy to spot. They were male and female, middle aged or late 20’s, but all well dressed, and all seemed comfortable in their surroundings.
So what if some white cops are tatted up and all the people awaiting trial are black? I have often been told you cannot judge a book by its cover and I have learned enough about people to know you can never know someone’s motivations just by looking from the outside, but that’s all I had here.
Here is what I do know.
I grew up in an extremely stable, middle class, all white neighborhood and people got arrested all the time. On top of that I saw people doing things that should have got them arrested on a regular basis. Granted this was thousands of miles from here but am I to assume no white kids commit crimes here in Philly? Was it that the jurisdictions here are all black so it’s a natural consequence of the racial makeup of the area? Nope, I live in this area and there are no minorities for blocks and blocks. Now I do see cop cars in my neighborhood but they are always parked in front of a home, a barbershop, or a diner. I don’t see patrols, yet I did see some twelve year olds smoking pot at the local park the other day.
Again I am not claiming to know the ‘why’ to what I observe, but I did, and do, see it. Do you think I am the only one? What impression do you suppose my young black friend gets when he sees these same things?
Let’s assume for a moment my young friend is innocent. He is taken to a place where all the “bad guys” are black like him. White cops all look scary and mean, a bunch of rich looking people argue with each other about his fate, and he has little to no control of it all. What assumptions do you suppose this 16 year old will make about our world? What lessons are being taught?
I will not call tattooed cops racist. I do not assume all these black kids are innocent. I do not think all lawyers are rich blood suckers. I will not assume these things, but how can I expect an immature black youth NOT to?
What picture has been painted before him and what hope is portrayed?
His Mom is single, has four more little kids in the house whom she supports by working temp jobs. Is it reasonable to expect her to make note of what her son may be observing and then encourage him to not look on the surface? Why would I expect her to give any of these people the benefit of the doubt?
I’m taking extra time because I believe in this kid. I think it’s important to see some white faces who really are on his side. I have to explain to him that wearing that tie makes a difference in a judges eye the same way those tattoos make an impression in his. I have to explain to him that white cops see a sea of black faces sitting in those benches and it makes an impression that affects how they see him when he’s on the streets.
I have been told and taught that race does not matter. After seeing the scene at the family court, after knowing the circumstances of this kid’s life, can I say race doesn’t matter in his life?” How do I teach him not to judge while at the same time warning him that he is being judged all the time?