Self-Awareness and Self-Education in the Wake of (Yet Another) Police Shooting

During the first week of my classes, I always talk about frames of reference.

I share with my students elements of my own background. My own history. This typically includes personal characteristics; that I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender man. But I also tell them that my life has been split between New York and North Carolina (making me both a pizza and BBQ snob); that I studied sociology and history in college before focusing on criminology in graduate school. I share with them my love of books and music and video games and craft beer (yet another snobbery of mine).

Why, you might ask, in an academic setting — where the goal is the sharing and expansion of knowledge — would I share such personal and seemingly-unimportant aspects of my own life?

For one, I firmly believe that sharing personal aspects of our lives helps to build real, human connections between teacher and student. Those connections, in turn, enhance learning for all of us. But that’s a topic for a different post.

For my purposes here, I want to focus on another point. That is, that knowledge cannot be divorced from experience. How we perceive the world around us is profoundly shaped by our own histories. The issues on which I focus, the ways in which I engage with them, the ways in which I discuss them — all of these are influenced by my background and personal experience. My personal history provides context for how I learn and teach; it is my frame of reference for understanding the world and the society in which I exist.

In short, knowledge is not fully objective.

Sharing my frame of reference with students allows them, I hope, to critically consider the things I teach and how I teach them. And I encourage my students to consider their own frames of reference and to critically assess their own perspectives. I implore them to consider others’ frames of reference and seek to understand and empathize with others whose life experiences differ from their own. Such is a critical element on the path to learning and growing; it moves us toward empathy and humanity.

A few days ago, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in Wisconsin. As of this writing, Blake is alive but paralyzed from the waist-down. The shooting has sparked widespread protests, including among professional athletes in a number of leagues.

Source: Paul Becker, Becker1999 on Flickr

The Blake case also comes just months after a series of others — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd — that led to protests across the United States and around the world.

I would argue that anyone who is an engaged and caring citizen (or human being, really) has a stake in these events and what they represent. But as someone who studies, writes about, and teaches about the criminal legal system, I take it as a personal responsibility to directly and honestly confront the many issues raised by the cases of Blake, Arbery, Taylor, Floyd, and the many other Black people mistreated and/or killed by those in the system.

This is where our frames of reference come in. Some of us will never be able to understand the experience of being part of a racial minority or other marginalized group, and the way those experiences shape beliefs and perceptions. However, we must be aware of our limitations here. We must understand that what we think we know is and has been shaped by our experiences in the world, and that the experiences and perspectives of others with different histories are just as valid and important and valuable as our own.

In the wake of tragedies like the Jacob Blake shooting and the collective action they’ve generated, it is imperative that all of us — particularly those of us who are not members of marginalized groups and lack such experiential understanding — take responsibility for educating ourselves. We should not become defensive or combative, but rather inquisitive, caring, and compassionate.

To this end, we also should not place the burden on others to teach us, but take it upon ourselves to expand our own understanding of the many issues raised by these events; historical and contemporary racism, class-based discrimination, and social inequalities, for instance. The number and variety of high-quality resources available is innumerable. Use those resources; read, watch, listen, discuss. There is no excuse. We can and should seek to expand our understanding to the extent possible. We must seek knowledge, seek to learn and grow and be better.

We can and should be allies.

There are any number of books worth reading that tackle many elements of racism and social inequalities. Books like How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi), Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), and White Fragility (Robin Diangelo) might be good starting points for some.

Beyond broad discussions of race and racism, I am a firm believer that we can better understand the modern world by developing a keen and critical sense of history. Books like The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (Aldon D. Morris) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X, Alex Haley) provide insights into the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and one of its key figures. A recent reading topic for me has been the case of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was mutilated and murdered by two white men, and whose case was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Two valuable books on the Till case are Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Devery S. Anderson) and The Blood of Emmett Till (Timothy B. Tyson). Tyson’s other book, Blood Done Sign My Name, is also worth reading and is thematically similar.

Learning about individual cases also can provide valuable insights into much broader issues of race, gender, and class. In my own world of wrongful convictions, readers might be interested in the case of the “Scottsboro Boys” and are referred to Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Dan T. Carter) and Scottsboro and Its Legacy (James R. Acker). Those interested in more contemporary cases will find plenty to learn from as well. Fans of When They See Us may wish to seek out The Central Park Five (Sarah Burns) and Savage Portrayals: Race, Media, and the Central Park Jogger Case (Natalie Byfield). Other wonderful books in and adjacent to this topic include, among many others, The Sun Does Shine (Anthony Ray Hinton) and Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson).

I also encourage people to learn more about the era of lynching in the United States, a tragic but important period of American history that is well-known but often not well-understood. For an interesting (albeit dated) scholarly study of Southern lynchings, check out A Festival of Violence (Stewart Tolnay and EM Beck). 100 Years of Lynching (Ralph Ginzburg) is also interesting, in that it compiles newspaper accounts of lynchings and racial violence from 1886–1960.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that within the criminal legal realm, racialized and racist practices are not restricted to the realm of policing. Much contemporary civil rights discourse involves discussions about mass incarceration. A number of fascinating books have been written in this realm. A few on my shelf include The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander), Locking Up Our Own (James Forman, Jr.), Slavery by Another Name (Douglas Blackmon), and “Worse than Slavery” (David Oshinsky).

The above books only scratch the surface of the valuable writing on racism and its pervasiveness, but I hope they provide a starting point for (or useful additions to) your own lists. Please feel free to share additional resources that you’ve found interesting and enlightening.

To learn more about my research, or to contact me, check out rjnorris.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @RNorris_PhD.

Author, professor. Writing about law, justice, politics, culture. Books: Exonerated (tinyurl.com/y4jfqsaj) & When Justice Fails (tinyurl.com/yyen4ggf).

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