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SANDY BANKS

How Much Is It Costing Minority Kids to Stay in Line?

May 28, 2000|SANDY BANKS

I could feel trouble brewing, telegraphed by a glare as harsh as the thunderclap that announces an approaching storm.

He was oblivious to us--two mothers with young daughters--as we moved through the line he monitored at this amusement park ride. And I knew, without having to follow his eyes, exactly who his stare was aimed at.

They were just ahead of us in line. Four teenage boys--three Latino, one black--sharing a laugh as they wound toward the front of the Matterhorn line. They were unaware of the wrath heading their way, until his voice pierced their frivolity.

"OK, that's enough. You guys. . . . Step out of line," the attendant ordered. The boys stared at him, uncomprehending, confused.

"Step over here, out of line. . . . Now!" he called, his blue eyes blazing, his voice growing harder, louder.

"Us?" one of the boys asked, looking incredulously at his friends, at the crowd, at me. "Get out of line? For what?" My heart clenched at the prospect of looming disaster. "C'mon," I pleaded with the attendant, my voice so soft it was almost a whisper. "Don't do this to them. They didn't do anything."

The line had stopped moving, heads were turning toward us. I sensed a high-stakes standoff in the making and slid between them, my eyes on the usher.

"Look, how about if they just apologize? Will you let them get on the ride?" The usher--barely older than the kids he was hassling--seemed to waver for a moment.

"Apologize? For what?" One of the boy's voices rose from behind me. Reflexively, I held up my hand to shush him.

"Just say you're sorry," I turned and told him, in the kind of voice a mother uses to chastise her child.

"For what?" he repeated, and I could see the puzzlement in his eyes.

"C'mon, somebody . . . " I was pleading with them now. "Just say, 'I'm sorry,' and let's move on."

They paused for what seemed an eternity. Then one threw up his hands and mumbled, "I'm sorry." A chorus of muffled apologies followed.

The usher threw back his shoulders, looked at me, at them, around at the crowd. "OK, you can stay. And maybe in the future you'll learn to respect people."

They turned, bewildered, whispering to each other, "But what did we do?"

I shooed them through the line, then leaned in toward them and tried to explain. "Look, you didn't do anything. But the guy was clearly on a power trip, and sometimes the only way to avoid trouble is to go along."

My friend, Joelle--a white, suburban mom--was not so easily mollified. "What did they do wrong?" she asked, rhetorically. "Absolutely nothing! They do not deserve to be treated like this."

We'd stood behind these kids for 20 minutes, had heard nary a raised voice, an improper word. They were clean-cut, polite, with none of the trappings we associate with unruly kids--no earrings, tattoos, underwear showing above sagging jeans.

As near as we can figure, their crime was giggling, whispering, having fun in line. Whatever . . . it bothered this young, white attendant, who may have felt threatened by their laughter, may have presumed that these boys were mocking him.

And at that moment, he used his power to shame them.

"They would never have been treated that way if they were girls," fumed Joelle, casting a glance at our own two rambunctious daughters.

"Or," I added, with a lump in my throat, "if they were white."

*

Among minority kids, it is a common refrain. They are hassled, accused and punished more severely than whites for the same--real or imagined--crimes. Theirs is not simply youthful paranoia; it reflects a reality that the rest of us don't often see.

According to research reported last week in The Times, African American and Latino youths are judged more harshly than whites at every stage in our justice system. Among youthful first-time offenders, black and brown kids are six times as likely to be locked up as white youths charged with the same crime.

It is not solely a function of outright racism but reflects an insidious, often-unconscious bias that makes us quick to suspect the worst of these young men.

And it is not just whites who succumb to that perception. A study of Seattle probation officers by sociologists at the University of Washington found that both black and white officers were harder on black kids than they were on whites.

The subtle and persistent bias in their probation reports was striking, study co-author George S. Bridges said.

While the officers routinely blamed character flaws for the misdeeds of black youths, they tended to depict white offenders as hapless victims of external forces such as family problems or delinquent friends.

"These were kids with the same background, the same offense, the same age," Bridges told The Times. "The only difference was race."

*

I can't know what was on that young usher's mind as he challenged these kids, his blue eyes smoldering.

But I won't soon forget the hurt and humiliation I saw in the dark eyes of those four young men as I counseled them to kowtow to his anger rather than let it ruin our day.

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