Monday, January 20, 2014

On MLK Day Wisconsin Basketball Brothers Almost In Trouble For Having Fun While Black

A happy little newspaper photo got three Wisconsin brothers in trouble because, well, they're basketball players, they're black, so the automatic assumption is they're up to no good.
To the school and police, their hand gestures were gang signs
To everybody involved in basketball, the hand gestures
celebrate a three-pointer.  Photo by Steve
Ottmann, Sheboygan Falls News  

The problem was the way they gesturing in the photo.

Incidents like this, when they hit around the time of MLK Day as this one has, kind of makes me depressed about race relations in the United States.

The Sheboygan Falls News recently ran a feature about the three brothers, Jordan, Juwaun and Jamal Jackson, who are on the local high school basketball team.

It was a light, seemingly noncontroversial story, with a photo of the three teens showing them making the kind of hand gestures professional players, and their fans often make during successful moments on the court.

But these kids are black, you understand. They were making hand gestures, so they had to be making gang signals, said many readers, the school and local police, who began an hardboiled investigation into the matter. Two of the boys were suspended from their next game after the photo appeared in the paper, according to Jim Romenesko's journalism web site 

Never mind that the hand gestures in questions are now a staple, a cliche, really, at many basketball games.

"Gangsters" like U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has made similar gestures while he enjoys ball games. After all, as Think Progress notes, there's been plenty of media attention and several trend stories about the gesture, which celebrates successful three point shots in basketball. 

If anyone at the school or the police department was confused about the gestures in the newspaper photo, it would have been so easy to quietly ask the kidswhat the hand gesture meant, look it up, confirm what they said and go on.

But no, everybody, including the police, which should have known better, went into full bore panic about gangs in Sheboygan Falls. After all, if an uppity black kid makes a gesture for a newspaper story,  no matter how innocent, said black kid will go on to just gang bang and shoot up the whole town, right?

There was a quick reversal after people started pointing out how ridiculous the school and police were being. According to WHBL, the local radio station:

"The suspension was handed down after a school liaison officer noticed the two brothers had made hand gestures that looked like gang symbols in the picture. After Sheboygan Falls Police confirmed the gestures were gang symboos, the school followed their athletic code and suspended the two for the team's game against Plymouth.

Police chief Steve Riffel said their investigation also determined the boys' actions were not intended to be a gesture supporting crime or a certain gang, but rather a gesture made when a shot was made."

The two brothers who had been suspended from the game were allowed to play. But the damage had been done, really.
House Speaker John Boehner does a variation
of the "gang sign" that got the kids in Sheboygan Falls
in trouble. m

Why couldn't the liasson officer and the police done a quiet, easy search at the beginning on this to prove that indeed this was just harmless game signals?

Common sense would dictate the kids probably wouldn't be in a gang if they were that accomplished in school, and wouldn't be dumb enough to do it in a publication that would be seen all over the community.

Yeah, some teens are dumb, but most aren't that dumb.

And how are these three boys supposed to trust the school liaison officer and town police after this?  Apparently, the school and the police always view them with suspicion, so no matter what they do, they can assume the authorities are assuming they are up to no good.

What kind of way is that to enjoy your high school years?

The quotes in the Sheboygan Press newspaper from Sheboygan Falls School Administrator Jean Born sure are rich:

 "This decision that was made here or these students has absolutely nothing, nothing to do with race, she said. "We balance a bunch of factors" when looking at student discipline, Born said. She noted the district's top priority is student safety, and that officials sought "a balanced approach" to the situation.

"You knowk we're challenged all the time with keeping our schools safe," Born said. "Part of our ob is to make sure that everybody that comes here feels safe."

Yep, that's her job. Making sure everyone who goes to the school feel safe. Why not apply that to the Jackson brothers, too. Make them feel safe instead of suggesting they are members of a gang, to make everyone afraid or angry at them. That's not a safe situation for a high school kid, is it?

Meanwhile, Jeff Pederson, the editor of the paper which had the original photos, told Romenesko that he is shaken by the whole incident.

"What has happened with what I still believe is a perfectly fine photo that fit well with the story is disgusting and will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am struggling to understand this entire situation, but I do know that I can't allow the people we photograph to be put up to this very serious level of scrutiny ever again."

"I firmly believe that a fun photo with personality catched the eye and  an even bring a smile to someone's face even if they don't know the people in the photo. That is the kind of photo I have always tried to search for, but obviously things will change with this very ugly event, which should have never been an issue, let alone a national controversy and even a joke to some.

Honestly, that is unacceptable and it will force me to change my approach to make sure that never happens again."

So in other words, Pederson, because he has found that ugly streak in society, will now have to think twice about putting in a fun photo in his paper. Especially if it involves minorities.

It's true, some black kids are scumbags. Just like some white kids are. Asians and everybody else too, have their bad apples.

However, in the minds of some people in our society, if a young black kid is doing something admirable or just fun, he's up to no good unless proven otherwise.

I'm a white guy, so I don't claim to have all the deep insights into race relations.  I do believe, like most Americans do, that we've come a long way from the days of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we're celebrating today.

But as the Jackson brothers in Sheboygan Falls know, we've still got a ways to go.

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