I belong to one obvious ethnic identity. I am white. I am the recipient of privilege, the beneficiary of power structures and social mores that, speaking broadly, make my life freer of police intrusion, endemic multigenerational poverty, employment bias. I am more likely to go to good schools, and to have kids who graduate from even better ones. My own children, should they resemble me, will not have their aptitude questioned based on the color of their skin.
These are all obvious facts to anyone who spends any time studying the world around them, facts immediately obvious to any person of color, but a reality of which many white people are allowed to remain unwitting beneficiaries: another manifestation of privilege. Life is not only “easier” 1 if you’re white, but white people can exist largely oblivious to that ease, free of guilt, free to define issues of race as things affect the “nonwhite,” free to enjoy, and never ask why.
I went to majority-white schools, and I have worked (and am likely to always work) in places where race is always an issue, and “white” is both the other and the minority. This hardly makes me unique: it is in fact very statistically likely for urban teachers to have a similar demographic and educational background similar to mine. By virtue of my career, I have had an education in white privilege.
A long time ago, I wrote a piece about a young man named Fabyon Harris. It’s nominally a piece about a basketball star, but I don’t know very much about basketball and the tribulations and resilience of that young man shine through more than anything he could do on the court. It is also, sadly, a story full of blood and death.
One of the dead came up today, when I was contacted by the City of Chicago Department of Law about the article, and my knowledge of the killing of Izael Jackson by Chicago Police Department officers on the night of April 25th, 2010. Izael was one of four Hyde Park Academy seniors killed in April , 2010. They were among the 27 CPS students killed in 2010, the unluckiest of the 218 students who were shot that year.
Apparently my “reporting” had details of interest to the City of Chicago’s lawyers. The Department’s lawyer wanted to know my sources. They wanted to know if I ever spoke to Izael. I never did. He had dropped out of Hyde Park Academy months earlier and was already dead when I began researching the article. It was, in fact, the terrible coincidence of multiple students from the grade I taught being killed in one month that prompted me to begin learning about the lives of those students, which in turn lead me to Fabyon, brother to one victim and best friend of another. I told the lawyer that my “reporting” consisted of talking to current and former Hyde Park Academy students, teachers, and coaches, and aside from the one coach named in the article, that was as much as I would say about sources. All in in all, a polite and I imagine fairly routine conversation. I appreciated the lawyer treating me as a journalist, and respecting the intention of my writing and the ethics of the profession that I was trying to learn.
I asked the lawyer why they were following up on a three-year-old piece on a blog about a shooting that was a clear-cut case of police officers defending themselves. I had been able, as a college student, to find police records and news reports that showed Izael initiating a gun fight with the police. Why did they need to know if I talked to him? I got my answer.
Izael’s mother is suing the city, and as part of that suit, the lawyer explained, her legal team is trying to paint a picture of Izael as someone who never got in trouble. That’s a legal tactic, I understand, and one that must rankle a Department of Law legal team that must defend police officers who fired in self defense.
But then the lawyer said something else.
“They’re trying to say he could have been a doctor.”
I really wish the lawyer hadn’t said that.
We finished up our conversation, and I probably should have kept my mouth shut, but I am already the recipient of privilege, I do not have to be a conspirator as well.
“I know what you meant,” I said, “And I know he had a criminal record. I was able to find it when I was a college student. I know his records as a minor were sealed but I know it was bad because as you know I had sources, and I know he had an outstanding warrant for a weapon as an adult. I know he was a criminal.”
The lawyer thought she knew what I was getting at “So did anyone say anything about him being in a gang? Because in the back of the car, the one he jumped out of and then began firing at the police, in the back of the car there was a picture of him throwing up gang signs, and Fasion was also in the picture.”
I thought she said “Fabyon,” the subject of my piece and Fasion’s brother. Fabyon is alive and well, playing ball and kicking ass at Texas A&M. I told the lawyer “Fabyon wasn’t in a gang- there was no way on earth Coach Kirksey would have let that happen.” The lawyer clarified- “Fasion,” she said. “Am I saying that right?”
“Fasion,” I said, “was killed outside of his night school.” He was trying to graduate on time with his brother. “I know what you meant by ‘they’re trying to say he could have been a doctor’ but I hope, outside of the courtroom where you have to argue against that, you don’t believe that what someone looks like, or what pose they assume in a photo, means they can’t do something.”
Izael Jackson, 18, died after engaging in a gunfight with Chicago police in April 25th, 2010. Was he going to become a doctor? No, probably not. But he wasn’t likely to become a doctor on April 24th. Nor in 2000, nor when he was born. In Chicago, an African American male has a 2% chance of graduating from college by the time he’s 25. Izael was a criminal. But he was also the victim of the same power structures and social mores that make my life free of police intrusion, and made his end in police gunfire.
Izael wasn’t going to be a doctor. Fasion, who was struggling to graduate from high school, wasn’t going to become a doctor. But it wasn’t because he posed in a photograph. It wasn’t because he was black, and a boy, and living in Chicago. It wasn’t anything either of them did that made being a doctor a joke that this lawyer thought we could share. It was the city of Chicago, it was America, 2010, that made doctor a joke.
I’m not willing to be in on the joke.