Scissors, Lies, and Videotape: A Look at Race Relations in the U.S.
I remember little of my elementary school years in Cleveland, except for one incident in the second grade. We were doing an art project in class, and I couldn’t find my scissors. When I noticed that the student next to me, an African-American boy, had an identical pair, I was quick to accuse him of stealing mine. Our teacher, who was white, led the two of us into the cloakroom, which served as her courtroom. Based solely on my word against his, she believed me. The next day, while rummaging through my messy desk, I found my missing scissors – but I was too embarrassed or afraid to confess my mistake, so I kept silent. It was clear to me, even at that young age, that I was given the benefit of the doubt for no other reason than my skin color. I imagine that this lesson was not lost on my black classmate.
What makes my childhood misdeed all the more shameful is that I knew that my survivor parents were tortured by the Nazis solely because they were Jewish. We left a world of painful memories to make a new life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but I failed my first test in courage.
Fast-forward a generation. My 6-year-old daughter Mimi was having a play date at our house with her best friend, Danielle, the only African-American child in her school. After Danielle went home, Mimi took out a pair of scissors and, out of curiosity or boredom, cut a chunk out of her own hair. When my wife demanded to know who did the cutting, Mimi lied and said it was Danielle. We believed our daughter and phoned Danielle's parents to tell them what had happened. Danielle denied the accusation and her parents backed her up, telling us that Danielle wasn’t a liar; neither was Mimi, we insisted. To sort it out, we put Mimi on the phone with Danielle and, realizing how much her lie upset her friend, Mimi felt terrible and confessed. Danielle never played with Mimi again, and her parents cut off all relations with our family. When I reminded Mimi, now 30, of this incident, she said, "It is the greatest shame in my life” and calls it “my first and last attempt at lying.”
Our memories of these scissors stories might have lain dormant had I not recently viewed the video showing Eric Garner’s fatal confrontation with the police in Staten Island. His last words – “I can’t breathe” – did not deter the police from their smothering assault on the unarmed man. I thought either they did not give him the benefit of the doubt that he was telling the truth, or they simply did not care, confident that the justice system would take their side.
Fast-forward another generation. I am the grandfather of two biracial children, a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. Eli is a whiz with scissors, and Hannah recently proved her dexterity by cutting off a swath of hair above her forehead (without injury, fortunately). But it is not their seemingly inherited attraction to scissors I fear; it is that they might someday fall prey to a justice system that will not give them the benefit of the doubt.
I can’t help but think that my not confessing the truth in that Cleveland classroom might have undermined my classmate’s self-confidence and moved our society one small step in the direction of disharmony and distrust across the color divide. My daughter’s falsely accusing her friend was another small step. If the racial prejudice that permeates our society today is seen as the sum of a multitude of small steps from generation to generation, perhaps the solution is for each of us, at every opportunity, to take one small step in the opposite direction.