I was taken aback by the amount of media coverage given Zachary Christie since his suspension from school in Newark, Delaware, last week. Zachary, an enthusiastic Cub Scout, is the little boy who took his new camping tool with him to school to eat his lunch. It has a fork, a spoon, some other gadgets, and a knife.
The media and other pundits are making much ado of Zachary’s suspension, decrying the one-size-fits-all application of the school district’s zero-tolerance policy against bringing weapons, in this case a knife, to school. The district stated that it had to suspend Zachary because the rule applies “regardless of possessor’s intent.”
This story really caught my attention because perhaps now that someone as cute and lovable and as white as Zachary has been punished by a zero-tolerance rule, the way that children of color have lived with these kinds of rules for decades may get some much needed attention.
My husband works in gang prevention. He has done this work for decades. And you would not believe the number of children of color who have been cast out of public schools for the same thing! They, like Zachary, had no violent intent. They, like Zachary, wanted to show off a cool gadget or tool. But, unlike Zachary, the children in my husband’s school district are mostly of African or Latino descent and from poor or working-poor households.
They don’t have karate instructors to step forward to make their case. No television network rushes to their home to hear their take on their unjust suspension. No, the application of zero-tolerance policies in communities of color is widely accepted.
Hearing little Zachary talk about his predicament was a delight to me! He understands that he did nothing truly wrong and that he is only in trouble because the rules must be followed. But his words also drove home for me again the reality of race in the United States, because I wish the children my husband works with could demonstrate that they have received similar messages of self-worth and autonomy along their way.
As I watch this playing out in the media, I see that what is being plead for is some kind of discretion on the part of school districts. Am I the only one who shudders at such a possibility? If school districts within a racist school system were able to decide who gets booted out of school and who does not based on criteria as subjective as intention and character, it would result in two things: the Zacharys of the world would, with impunity, be declared harmless by these judgment calls, and the judgment calls on children of color would label them trouble makers, track them to alternative schools, and assign them unnecessary interventions.
And if a Black or Latino child were to verbally challenge the system as Zachary is doing it? Well, what do you think would be said about that child of color? Really, I am curious.
Inez Torres Davis is director for justice, Women of the ELCA.