Liam Day looks deep into the story of Ahmed Mohamed and wonders if surface outrage can obscure larger evils.
This is a story of structural racism. Tell me if you’ve heard it before.
A 14-year old Muslim boy of Sudanese parentage is arrested and suspended from school for bringing what he says was a homemade clock to show one of his teachers, who thought it was a bomb.
You may think to yourself at this point, yes, I’ve heard this story and I know it’s about racism. However, the story you’ve probably heard from most quarters of the social media world is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is one of outrage, both real and fake, outrage that has come to define our social media, of how easy and convenient it is to direct outrage at sitting targets – and for its handling of this whole incident, the Irving School District is nothing if not a sitting target, because administrators are at best guilty of gross incompetence and at worst of outright racism. Finally, the story I want to tell is about how outrage can actually obscure larger evils.
To begin my story I need to say this upfront: I do believe that Ahmed Mohamed would have been arrested and suspended from school if his name had been Liam Day. I believe this because Alex Stone from Summerville, South Carolina, was arrested and suspended last year after he wrote a story in which his protagonist killed dinosaurs with a gun. (One wonders whether it was the gun or the dinosaurs to which the school administrators objected.)
I believe it because Colin Chitwood in Cobb County, Georgia, was brought up on felony weapons charges for having a fishing knife in a tackle box in the trunk of his car at school. And I believe it because 8-year old Asher Palmer, a special needs student, was thrown out of his Manhattan school because he made a toy gun out of paper.
A good friend of mine chastised me for saying this when we discussed it, because, as he rightly said, I don’t know for sure that a white student would have been arrested if he did what Ahmed did. My friend is right; I don’t know, though, as I pointed out, the converse is equally true. No one decrying anti-Muslim prejudice on the Internet has any idea whether Ahmed was arrested simply because he was Muslim. All of it, both mine and that which has dominated social media for the last two weeks, is speculation.
What I do know is that zero tolerance is the guiding policy when it comes to drugs and school violence for most schools and school districts in the United States. I also know that there is, at root, a very good reason why so many schools and districts have adopted zero tolerance policies over the last 15 years: the spate of mass murders that have taken place in schools.
I wrote a piece more than three years ago in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook about the nightmares that haunt a school administrator, which I used to be. Most people don’t spend much time considering it, because it isn’t a very comforting thought, but schools have the distinct expectation of 100% accountability.
In retail, there is an expectation of loss due to theft of as much as 10%, which is built into the retail price. In manufacturing, where Six Sigma is the goal for process improvement, that goal still represents only a 99.99966% success rate, or defect-free rate of production for all parts and/or products coming off the line.
In education, that’s not good enough. A school’s baseline, before a student ever cracks a textbook or takes a quiz, is that each and every student makes it home to his or her parents safe at the end of the day. If one kid wanders off on his way home, or a bus is late, or a student gets injured or killed, the school’s role in the events, even if they take place off-campus, will be scrutinized.
I remember one time when a student in a summer academic-enrichment program I oversaw was hit by a car upon leaving our campus located at a busy intersection on the edge of the South End of Boston. I actually saw the accident out my office window. Though I was, of course, worried about the condition of the student and raced out to the street to check on him, my first instinct was to check the time on my phone: 4:05.
On paper, the program was supposed to end at 4:00 every afternoon, but, it being the summer, and these being high school students who had chosen to spend their summers taking math and science classes, some of the teachers, despite my injunctions, were in the habit of letting the kids out of class a few minutes early. If the student had been hit at 3:55 instead of 4:05, we would have been liable. I’m not proud that it was the first thought that ran through my mind, but such are among the concerns of an administrator.
And I am not here to argue that it shouldn’t be so. What I am saying is that, in light of this, and in light of the increasingly litigious nature of our society, schools and school districts have decided to err on the side of caution. Hence the zero tolerance policies so many of them have adopted.
The problem is that zero tolerance policies are blunt instruments (and, as an aside, ineffective if their goal has been to stop incidents of mass murder in our schools). They cast a wide net, and they surely have contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline we’ve built in our poor and minority schools. The extraordinarily high suspension and expulsion rates for African-American students, particularly boys, starting as early as kindergarten is a reflection of zero tolerance.
Behavior that was once merely rambunctious has been reclassified as threatening. In a zero tolerance environment we place a higher premium on comportment than we do on creativity or imagination. This premium benefits students who are ready to behave themselves in a strict classroom setting when they reach school age – girls over boys, children from stable, middle and upper-middle class families over children who have been exposed to some kind of trauma in their lives, homes, or communities, children who, due to the segregated nature of our country’s housing patterns, are more likely to be of color than white.
In light of zero tolerance, it doesn’t surprise me that Ahmed’s teacher reacted as badly as she did to the makeshift clock. What proceeded from there, though, was a story of bureaucratic inertia overlaid on the story of zero tolerance’s structural racism. No one – not the school’s administrators, not the arresting police officers, at least one of whom must have thought the whole thing ridiculous – stepped up to say so. To do that would have meant going out an a limb for this 14-year old boy and, to paraphrase Vice Principal Donnelly from Season 4 of The Wire, most school districts and municipal police departments know how to handle a chainsaw.
Like in an NFL game, in a bureaucracy an initial decision carries an inordinate amount of weight in all future considerations. In an NFL game, if a pass is called complete or results in a touchdown on the field, the evidence in the replay booth must be clear and overwhelming for the play to be overturned.
In a bureaucracy, if an object is initially suspected of being a bomb, the burden is no longer on proving that it is, in fact, a bomb, but in proving that it isn’t. Because even if he or she is 99.99966% sure that a clock isn’t a bomb, the bureaucrat, erring on the side of caution, will base his or her reaction on the 0.00034% of doubt. And not just due to his or her responsibility to ensure student safety, but, at least in part, because there is no incentive to do otherwise.
If a school administrator had looked at that clock and decided on his own that it was harmless and sent Ahmed back to class without incident, no one would be there to clap him on his back; there would be no outpouring of support on Twitter. And, if he turned out to be wrong, if the clock had turned out to be a bomb or even a hoax bomb, that administrator would have put his career at risk.
The easier, the safer thing to do is simply to pass the buck, in this instance to the police. Let them make the determination. It ultimately doesn’t matter if you turn out to be wrong or, as in this instance, look silly and racist, because you won’t be wrong or look silly and racist alone; you will be wrong or look silly and racist in a system that is wrong and looks silly and racist. For the bureaucrat, there is safety in numbers.
A post on Facebook that went viral pointed to the fact that the school wasn’t evacuated as evidence that administrators knew the clock wasn’t a bomb and only wanted to embarrass a Muslim student. Again, here, I disagree. Or perhaps it is safer to say here that I want to disagree, because I can’t imagine an administrator who would purposefully go out of his or her way to publicly humiliate a 14-year old. Or maybe I just don’t want to know that administrator.
Either way, the failure to evacuate the school strikes me more as evidence that administrators didn’t believe it was a bomb, but weren’t 100% sure, than it does that their intentions were explicitly racist.
To evacuate a school is hugely disruptive. You only do so if you absolutely have to. Evacuation disrupts learning, gives kids who might be looking to skip class a chance to do so, and sows fear among students and faculty alike. My best guess here is that administrators were hedging their bets. They were almost positive the clock didn’t rise to the level of necessitating a full-scale evacuation, but called the police just to be sure.
That is my best guess and, yes, it is a guess. I don’t know for sure, but, to bring the discussion back full circle, neither does anyone else out there in the ether. The speculative narrative I have just offered is built on the few facts I do know, as reported in the media, and my experience as both a school administrator and employee in multiple municipal agencies, where I have toiled for much of my professional life. None of it is offered to condone what happened to Ahmed Mohamed, which, whether or not racist in intent, should never have happened in any case.
We should all condemn racism when we see it, but we should also all look inside and analyze the role we play in perpetuating racism. It is easy to condemn racism on social media, especially when an apparent act of it happens in a red state like Texas. Those of us who reside in places like Boston or New York or San Francisco can hop on Twitter and say, “See, those rubes, they’re racist.” But I suspect doing so is as much about us as it is Ahmed. We want to stand with Ahmed so that we can distance ourselves from this supposedly racist act.
However, the deeper story is, I would argue, the story of school violence and zero tolerance, the criminalization of once normal childhood behavior, and the structural racism that has been built with those blocks. That is a story that implicates all of us. Zero tolerance exists everywhere. School violence exists everywhere. The perpetrators of incidents of mass violence at schools are overwhelmingly white.
To address those issues won’t be easy. In the absence of a policy of zero tolerance, how can we be sure to keep our kids safe? How can we design systems of discipline and support in our schools that don’t disparately impact students of color, particularly African-American students? We will need to design and offer reasonable alternatives that both keep children safe and let them be children. That is a very fine line to tread. It won’t be easy.
There is a famous quote from George Orwell’s 1984 about film and football and beer being the tools by which the masses are mollified. That quote, however, ends with the following: “And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.”
In my original draft of this essay, I was snarky toward all those out on Twitter who stand with Ahmed. Probably unfairly so. I’m sure there are thousands of Twitter users who typed #IStandWithAhmed in genuine earnestness. However, to Mr. Orwell’s point, I do believe that social media prioritizes specific grievances over larger evils and general ideas. How can it be otherwise when we have only 140 characters to communicate or when we are likely to get a response of tl;dr on any Facebook post that runs longer than a paragraph.
What happened to Ahmed Mohammed is an example of a specific grievance (though in no way petty). Don’t let the specific grievance eclipse the larger evils. And please don’t think that that #IStandWithAhmed is enough. It isn’t.
Photo: LM Otero/AP