Law in Contemporary Society

Conflicting Justice

-- By AfiaKwakwa - 01 Mar 2018

I. The Incident

I was in the middle of my first-year of teaching when I heard that one of my students was found dead outside his mother’s house: a gunshot to the head. There were a few witnesses, but none who were willing to step forward. The young man who shot him was a member of the community, belonging to the rival gang. The unfortunate truth is that this story was all too common in our Clarksdale community. The number of principles that rotated through our schools matched the number of students I had to burry before driving away from Clarksdale almost three years later.

At first, it seemed hard to comprehend the silence of my students regarding their classmate’s death. My views of justice were so deeply embedded in the normalization of what was projected onto me by TV, radio, internet, and a partially privileged upbringing. I had grown up picturing the chaining of bodies as a way of serving justice. In my warped and underdeveloped understanding of the term, righteousness meant punishing the man who killed; it meant imprisoning the killer for actions that resulted in the death of my student.

The truth? Incarcerating an oppressed man is a weak form of maintaining social hierarchy.

II. Background

My classroom was 100% Black but its walls 100% White.

I had grown up understanding Mathematics as a universal language. For my students, Mathematics was a retainer — an area that kept many of my brightest scholars three years behind grade level despite their drive to succeed. For my students, Mathematics was not colorless, because nothing was colorless in their community, and just as sure as they were that their school had failed to give them the education they deserved, they knew that justice could never fulfil its purpose in a system of perpetuating oppression and persisting racial inequality.

The wealth of Clarksdale was expended by the white man made from years of exploitation of Black bodies. That is the truth of the system I was living in, and the truth of how that system manifested itself into the segregation of schools, poverty-concentrated housing areas, and the continuous plantation parties organized by the KKK, which still epitomize Clarksdale today. Whiteness had always been a source of privilege and protection, and Blackness the threat to that privilege and protection.

It was not until the murder of my student, D, that I became the teacher that my pupils needed. And it took for me to become the teacher that my pupils needed, for me to better understand the world that I was living in. When D passed away, I realized the predicament that a poor education system had put my pupils in: as a Black student in Clarksdale’s worst performing high school, it made more sense to take chances on the streets than it did to take chances in the classroom. With few teachers who believed in them, and with societal expectations of failure projected onto my students, their struggle to find meaning in learning everyday became my mission to help them overcome the perspective others had of them. I stopped teaching for the love of Mathematics, and began teaching the subject as a stepping-stone to free movement for my students. For the first time, I associated Mathematics in education with a potential tool for mobility. And as my students improved, I associated their Mathematical growth with an opportunity to live a fuller life than that of so many they had known before them. Mathematics became an opportunity for my students to gain social, cultural, and economic capital so that their class and place in society ceased to be something that others controlled, and became a gift that was in their own hands.

III. Why I am Here.

I am frustrated and tired, and ready to not be either of those things. I am not upset that my students did not all master the state test. I am not upset that my students had to learn to process death before they processed life. I am upset that my students live in a world in which they are attacked before they have the opportunity to arm themselves with the tools needed to defend themselves.

By teaching in the Mississippi Delta, I learnt that I was capable of equipping my students with one of the most powerful tools of self-amelioration: freedom of movement through education. I lived in the space that I was in, fully embraced my role, and looked for the equipment I needed to empower my students as best I knew how. But the Delta also taught me that Mathematics, education, in a world of blatant inequality, would only go so far.

I first entered my classroom indifferent about entrusting a system, fueled by years of race and sex discrimination in Clarksdale, incarcerating one of our own. I believed that somehow that incarceration would bring “Justice” to my student and his family. After the incident, I took a step back. I had to ask myself if a system – no matter how normalized – could serve those whom it was made to silence. My experience led me to believe in the importance of equipping each individual with the tools needed to be mobile and to navigate through social norms, gender classifications, and racial pre-conceived notions.

I am frustrated and tired of being a witness to the injustice and ready to begin to affect the kind of change that I need to in a world that doesn’t quite yet feel like my own – that doesn’t quite yet feel like the world that I want my students to grow up in.

This is a good first draft, because it gets the ideas out where you can see them for yourself. The difficulty accepting that this is what you want to write, need to write, has not resulted in preventing the draft from existing. Improving it as a piece of writing is pretty easy: you want to increase its coherence. As you reread it you can see where some sentences should be changed or removed in order to make the rest of the paragraph around them flow better, keep the reader's attention focused. By focusing the writing you help the reader, and the story of your self itself; you contribute to the movement from Mississippi to New York; from watching society to learning how to change it; from feeling powerless as a witness to the way in which what seems like "simple justice" becomes nothing of the kind when the context around it soaks everything in long-continued injustice.

I need to say again about first semester grades that they mean nothing. They measure the speed with which you acquired "law talk." But as a teacher you are aware that measuring speed of initial uptake (particularly in language acquisition) isn't very useful. It doesn't tell anything about the ultimate nature of the learning, or what will happen to the knowledge gained in the student's mind. First semester grades are an example of the fallacy of mensuration: that what can be counted is what counts. So, substantively, the final paragraph of this draft, what might have been called the conclusion, seems to me only an example of some weight you are left to carry that does not in fact exist: a form of the obscenity of injustice from which we can free you with the truth.

Making this better as writing also means, therefore, making you better, in the sense of healing, too. Your education here is not under control other than your own: from here on out you can learn as much by doing as it suits you to arrange. Knowing why you are here helps you to fashion how you learn. The next draft can get you further to understanding your practice than you presently suppose.

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r3 - 27 Apr 2018 - 01:25:56 - AfiaKwakwa
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