Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Simple Question

Brown at 60: The doll test NAACP LDF
Sometimes just a simple question can open our eyes and rearrange our thinking.

Sometimes that question can come from an unexpected source.

For me that happened in the fellowship hall of a West Philadelphia church.

I was sitting on the threadbare carpet, watching my not-quite-two daughter rock a plastic baby doll in an area sectioned off as a makeshift nursery.

A little boy beside me was watching too, with a thoughtful look on his face.

“Does your daughter have black dolls at home?”

Black dolls? This was 1983. Had I ever seen a black doll? Did anybody make them?

David was five. Maybe six. A quiet little boy. I’m not sure I’d ever heard him speak to any adult except his parents.

He looked at me earnestly and asked the question again, then looked past my wispy-blond daughter to his own little sister, Katherine, a tiny, dark-skinned girl with tight little braids framing her face. She was holding a plastic baby doll just like my daughter’s. Both dolls were pasty white.

I followed David’s gaze from the little white girl with the white plastic doll to the little black girl with the white plastic doll to the basket of dolls, all white, beyond them.

David was waiting.

“She doesn’t,” I finally said. “Does Katherine?”

He nodded yes.

I knew Katherine’s mother. If there were black dolls to be had her children would have them.

“I guess we should have some here,” I said.  

He nodded yes.

“I’ll talk to your mom about it.”

That was over three decades ago.

We still have some of the dolls we bought  for our daughters in the years after that conversation: a healthy mix of shapes, colors and hair styles. Just days ago, after a family gathering, I walked past the little doll corner we have in our basement playroom and saw a cheerful assembly of friends dressed and gathered in what appeared to be a party.

But David’s question wasn’t really about dolls.

It was more about belonging, imagination, seeing oneself as an accepted, even treasured member of the world we live in.

From 1939 through the 1950s, Dr. Mamie and Kenneth Clark used dolls to test children’s perceptions about race. Children of different ages and colors were asked questions designed to measure attitudes about what skin color has to do with being “pretty,” “ugly,” “good” or “bad”.

Their troubling conclusions were part of the evidence offered in the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954:  
To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
It’s been a long time since segregation was a legal educational policy.  It’s still around in other forms: housing patterns, hiring practices. We still have unwritten codes about who does and doesn’t belong.

I’ve been wrestling lately with the intersection between criminal justice, racial bias and political representation.

I’ve posted about these topics before: the steep imbalancein incarceration rates, the  high number of people held in jail because they can’t afford bail,  the misguided policies that pour money into prisons rather than educate the children who otherwise land there.  

This week my focus has been the Census Bureau’s decision to continue counting incarcerated persons as residents of prison districts, rather than their home communities. Despite a recent federal court decision declaring the practice unconstitutional, despite Pennsylvania state law describing place of residence as last known address, despite testimony from experts, the Bureau recently announced that the practice will continue.

In essence, prison gerrymandering, as it's sometimes called, dilutes the voice of urban and minority communities, amplifies the votes of rural communities where the prisons are based, distorts democracy.
Pennsylvania is among states most strongly impacted, because of high disparities in incarceration rates for people of color and because so many of our prisons are in rural, predominately white districts

I sit and dig through data, pour through websites, study the correlation between maps of party leadership, maps of skewed demographics, maps of underfunded schools.

We wrestle with principalities and powers, systems and structures, embedded injustice so entrenched, so complex, so subtle, so strong, it’s easy to lose hope.

Is change possible?

I had hoped the Census Bureau, after recent legal challenges, would decide to count prisoners in their home communities.

They didn’t.

It’s still possible if there’s enough public outcry.

But the comment period ends August 1 and the news cycles are busy jumping on stories about Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton and tragedies near and far. 

Prison gerrymandering looks like just a tiny ripple at the edge of a very active pond.

Yet small things shape larger.

Sentencing guidelines, decisions on where and when to build prisons, funding for public defenders, training for policing, investment in public education: all are shaped by elected officials.  

Whose interests will they represent?

I’m working this week on encouraging individuals and organizations to offer public comment. Links, talking points and reasons are available here.

I’m working as well on strengthening the work of FairDistricts PA, still promoting our petition, still asking for donations to help spread the word about gerrymandered districts. 

I’m leading a conference call this week with stakeholders who wonder: is it worth the investment?

Meeting with minority advocates who know this all matters, but wonder if there will ever be enough comfortable white Pennsylvanians willing to help shift the balance of power.

Joining a small group of motivated activists who scheduled a meeting with a key state senator.

Around it all, I’ll be praying: for families I know impacted by our inequitable system of injustice, for politicians considering the risk of supporting change, for potential allies weighing their own tangle of priorities. For grace, wisdom, persistence, resources, hope.

We are all part of this unfolding story.

We can speak out for change or endorse the status quo.

We can find new ways to be a neighbor, new ways to embrace others, new ways to encourage, befriend, affirm.

Or we can shrug and say it’s not our problem, not our kids, not our future on the line.

I look at the photo of PA legislators. 

Mostly white. 

Mostly male. 

Mostly fine with the way things are.

I wonder: do their children have black dolls at home?

Do yours?