Profiling Black and Latino Kids as “Ghetto Thug” Criminals

In this blog entry, Elaine Bell Kaplan, author of “We Live in the Shadow”: Inner-City Kids Tell Their Stories through Photographs, gives voice to her students who use the photovoice methodology in her book to tell their stories.

The deadly shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was on the minds of the 30 social workers at my book talk in late July.  They believed that George Zimmerman’s perception of Martin was provoked by the popular image of inner-city kids

That dehumanizing image as kid criminals certainly prevailed when I was growing up in Harlem. I remember thinking I was just like other kids who played Simon Says, Jumping Jacks and other street games. That idea was shattered by comments like, “those kids are playing street games today will be robbing us tomorrow.”  As an inner-city kid, I quickly learned that negative images tracked kids like me.

In fact, as I write in my book, inner-city kids “have been set apart and that there’s no will in this society to bring these kids into the mainstream.” A blogger, quoted in my book, responded to the question, “What should be done about these kids?” “Send them to Iraq!”

We Live_smI wrote We Live in the Shadow,” to look at the significant social problems faced by inner-city kids,

The group of seventy-four 12-15 year-olds interviewed in the book, attended after-school programs. The kids credited these programs with making them feel safe from the gangs and drug dealers that roam their neighborhoods.

In order to capture these kids’ sense of their world and not that of adults who usually write about them, I gave each a $5.00 disposable cameras and asked them to, “Take photos of whatever it is you want to tell me about your life. “

Instead of giving in to negative stereotypes, the kids used their cameras to capture another view of themselves. Thirteen-year-old Kyle put it best:

“Most ‘people see kids like me as inner-city–gang bangers.  I don’t wanna be a gang banger.  That judges me and how I act. I don’t do that stuff. It makes the community look pathetic.  Um, like some people say that, like where you live, says how smart you are how dumb. But I don’t think that’s possible because I live in, like, a pretty bad neighborhood, but I’m still, like a bright kid.”

The kids’ photos and stories of South Central neighborhoods revealed homes desperately in need of repair, rats in the lunchrooms, teachers who did not teach and bathrooms that were, ” messy, dirty, they stink.” As 12-year-old Jessica, said about her photo showing what she called the “filthy bathroom and unflushed toilet at my school.  Look at what we have to put up with. We get blamed for this, but nobody cleans it up.”  What did the kids learn from this experience: “Don’t go unless it’s an emergency.”

Unflushed toiletThirteen year-old Cesar’s photo of his family’s car led to a story of being carjacked and threatened by a gang.  Oscar’s photo of his father cooking Tamales led to stories of late-night dinners because parents worked late or had two jobs. Other photos showed kids working on homework in a classroom or wearing sweaters with a college logo —the kids’ way of showing their desire to well in school.

I had this conversation with Max, a student in one of my classes who had read my book.

“I could not help but feel like you were writing about me. Each turned page was like a memoir of my experiences at Los Angeles Unified School District public schools. The kids of this book and their stories are real. I am them, and they are me. Even though they are little bit younger than me, I understand their pain and frustration. I dreaded going to class each day. My school was like a dropout factory. It was extremely over-crowded, ridden with racial tension, violence, trash, and graffiti.”

The worst part of the matter was the collective of faculty and staff who seemed to care more about their selfish endeavors rather than teaching their students. Not to say that there were not good teachers.

Max said, “Maybe if the odds were not stacked so hard against us, we would all be scholars.” Instead, as the kids in my book said: “No matter what I do I will still considered to be a ghetto thug.”

The social workers and others I talked to agreed. For Trayvon Martin’s, Kyle, Max, and even me, there is no escape from being racially profiled. The bad news is that these kids can’t defend themselves from this assault. Nonetheless, I am excited that they knew to use photos to tell their stories.  Still, the key question remains, when will the rest of this society hear them?

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