A Respectable Outrage
"Cool clock, Ahmed."
Only President Obama can assign the imprimatur of coolness with such casual flair. A tweet from @POTUS instantly transformed one of the most humiliating days in Ahmed Mohamed's life into a life-affirming one, complete with fresh invites to the White House, Facebook, and MIT. In a Wednesday interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, America's most beloved 9th grade clockmaker said the outpouring of support on social media sent a "message to the rest of the world that just because something happens to you, no matter what you do, people will always have your back."
If only, dear Ahmed. If only.
Don't get me wrong, I'm as thrilled as Astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein that the child of a Sudanese immigrant family is "coming out on top here." His arrest was outrageous, and the teachers and police involved were rightfully exposed for their disgracefully racist response. For once, society course-corrected to ensure that a Black child knew their creativity and initiative should be rewarded, not criminalized. Ahmed was undeniably wounded by the experience, but there is some hope in a collective effort to heal him.
Yet the same is demonstrably untrue for millions of other children sitting at many of the same intersections as Ahmed: black, Muslim, immigrant. School suspensions and school arrests disproportionately impact students of color -- most especially Black students -- and America hardly notices. Muslim and immigrant students are frequently profiled and harassed, but are often justifiably frightened at the potential repercussions for speaking out against discrimination. (Just ask Ahmed's own sister Eyman, who was suspended when another student accused her of wanting to blow up her school, which is in the same district as her brother's.) In fact, America's apathy about the criminalization of youth of color is so embedded in our local systems of education and economy that we give it a name that evokes permanence: the school-to-prison pipeline. Today, local governments -- with significant federal aid -- spend millions on the policing and prisons that feed this pipeline, while schools fail and close nationwide.
So why did Ahmed's story elicit such a distinctly strong response? What makes it worth 140 characters from the most powerful elected leader in the world?
"We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great," the president tweeted.
I respectfully disagree. Not about the science bit. About the criteria for a society's greatness.
It's easy for us to defend civil liberties when we craft a narrative of hard work and innocence that makes the victim worth our collective efforts to protect them. That's a respectable outrage.
What's more challenging -- and what would make America a much better place -- is resisting the everyday racism that normalizes the dehumanizing treatment of young Black lives, young Muslim lives, and young immigrant lives, en masse. It's hard, but necessary, to tell school districts that whether students of color are making science experiments like Ahmed Mohamed or Kiera Wilmot, or throwing tantrums in their kindergarten classroom like Salecia Johnson or Jaisha Scott, the steel of handcuffs shouldn't touch their wrists. And though it seems downright impossible, nothing would be cooler than for our country's top leader -- our moral and political compass -- to tweet out with full frankness and honesty, "Hey, we've got a serious problem with racism and policing when it comes to young Black and Brown children in America."
I know, the president's too politically savvy to be that obvious.
But truthfully, I wish he weren't. Because I want every young person we've cuffed and hauled away from school to feel the same way Ahmed does today. Like their creativity and imagination are valued. Like they have rights to due process and equal treatment guaranteed by their Constitution. Like they have a future worth investing in and waiting for.
Like we'll always have their back.
Thomas L. Mariadason is a Staff Attorney with the national racial justice organization Advancement Project.