Malcolm X, in his autobiography, details a life altering interaction he had with his 7th grade teacher. The teacher said, “Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?” Malcolm responded, “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.” The teacher, according to Malcolm, looked surprised, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer-that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands-making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”
14 year old Muslim high school student Ahmed Mohamed was arrested last week at his Irving, Texas high school after he brought a homemade clock to school. Ahmed, a freshman excited to show off his inventive and creative nature to his teachers, was met with suspicion rather than adulation. His English teacher reported Ahmed and his clock to the school principal who in turn called police. The principal and a police officer then removed Ahmed from class and escorted him to a room where four other police officers awaited. Ahmed was interrogated for over an hour and then arrested, marched out of school in handcuffs, surrounded by police. Only after being taken to a juvenile detention facility and booked by authorities was Ahmed finally released to his family. Not the response to building a clock Ahmed anticipated. Not the field trip Ahmed foresaw when starting high school.
If a white child freshman named Allen Martin, wearing a NASA t shirt, had enthusiastically brought that same device to his teacher, he would have been celebrated. He would’ve been referred to the school’s robotics club or given a flyer for a local science camp. He would’ve been sent to the principal’s office not to be disciplined but instead to be encouraged to represent the school at the county science fair. But Ahmed’s name and skin color, like Malcolm’s, prompted a different response, a reaction based in stereotypes. Ahmed was removed from his classroom as a threat, not called to stand in front of it as an exemplar. He was dangerous, not creative. Ahmed’s clock was hazardous, not inventive. Ahmed’s ambitions and passions, like Malcolm’s, were trampled rather than applauded.
As if the principal and a police officer removing Ahmed from class wasn’t humiliating and degrading enough, police had the gall to handcuff the boy at school and trot him out in front of his peers with multiple officers surrounding him. At that time, authorities had determined the clock wasn’t a hazard. The school hadn’t been evacuated. The bomb squad wasn’t called. Ahmed was not a threat to anyone’s safety in those moments, especially when enveloped by police officers. He wasn’t accused of a violent crime. He wasn’t acting erratically. Even assuming his conduct merited criminal charges, the circumstances and Ahmed’s behavior, age and stature did not merit handcuffs. His parents should have been called for a parent teacher conference. Like many of my former juvenile clients of color accused of minor crimes, Ahmed was not afforded that dignity; instead, police placed his hands behind his back and slapped those cold, metal cuffs on him, shackling, dehumanizing and belittling him.
The picture of Ahmed in handcuffs should startle us. That picture symbolizes how our people, and in particular our schools, mishandle young people of color. Let the picture remind us of the thousands of our minority children who, like young Malcolm X, are degraded and dehumanized, arrested and confined, handcuffed and brutalized, derailed from aspirations and instead placed in the school to prison pipeline. Let it remind us of what little progress we’ve made from when Malcolm X sat in that 7th grade classroom hoping for encouragement only to find his ambitions crushed and his dreams deterred.
Editor’s Note: Sajid A. Khan is a Public Defender in San Jose, CA. He has a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UC Hastings. When not advocating for justice, Sajid enjoys playing basketball, football and baseball, and is a huge fan of Cal football and A’s baseball. He lives in San Jose, Ca with his wife and son. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @thesajidakhan. The views expressed here are his own.