The Black Kids and Everyday Discrimination
Everyday discrimination is not simply a matter of violation of a paper right. In fact, described as ‘interpersonal daily hassles and insults’, and ranging from receiving poor service to being followed in stores, it is found to have ‘deleterious effects on both physical and mental health’.[i] As observed in a study, it is a ‘portent source of stress’ for racial minorities and is associated with a number of health outcomes from psychological distress to cardiovascular disease, and even some forms of cancer.[ii] In other words, not only does it prevent people from leading their lives free of fear, it is not without impact on their other rights, including their health—it certainly is not something that can be or should be merely shrugged off. And for certain communities, this is a reality they face every day.
The Black Kids, a young adult novel by Christina Hammonds Reed, published in 2020 (Simon and Schuster 2020, 359 pp.: INR 399) highlights the issue of everyday discrimination faced by the African American community. The book, is set in 1992 around the events of the Rodney King incident (King was a victim of police brutality), [iii] the trial in which the officers who brutalized him were acquitted, and the riots that took place in its aftermath in LA.[iv] The book tells the story of a teenage girl Ashley Bennett who attends a posh high school and hopes to go to Stanford. Her family are fairly wealthy—both parents well qualified and in good jobs, they live in an affluent neighbourhood, the only Black family there, and she has a full-time nanny/governess, Lucia. At school too, while there are a few other Black kids, Ashley’s friends are mostly white. She and her sister Jo (Josephine) have been kept sheltered by their parents and given every opportunity to do well. Ashley does fairly well at school while alongside dealing with the everyday happenings and challenges of high-school life, from cutting school to hang out with her friends, to the upcoming prom, and of course, college admissions. But when the city begins to burn in the protests after the Rodney King trial, she suddenly finds she is no longer being seen as one of the kids, but as one of the ‘Black Kids’. As the situation becomes more tense, people around her seem to change, their prejudices come to the surface, and even her friends don’t seem the same anymore. Yet she tries to continue living her ordinary life.
In Ashley and her family’s story we see the prejudices people have to live with every day, and how race, class and identity play a defining role. While the riots in the city bring people on edge and bring their prejudices to the surface, one can see in her narration, how even before that, even during ‘normal’ times, how different their normal was—despite their education, their position, and their wealth. They are living in an affluent neighbourhood but are questioned by firemen who can’t seem to accept that they could be living in such a place; Ashley’s mother driving with her in their new expensive car is stopped and must prove that she is the owner; and her parents are often taken for their own assistants in the places they work. Hearing prejudicial and discriminatory language is no surprise, and they must keep their heads down, go that extra mile and work extra hard at all they do just because of their identity. And this in normal times.
And then when the riots break out, things only get worse. Ashley’s family’s (her father’s brother’s) store is targeted and almost everything in it destroyed. Then Ashley herself experiences the fear first hand when during the prom she goes with another Black student, LeShawn, to his home to check if his family is ok. Here the two are held up by a police officer at gunpoint, not allowed to even explain their presence—simply for being Black—just two teens in their prom finery outside the home of one of them. And when some neighbours vouch for LeShawn, the officer has not one word of apology for them, instead calling them ‘lucky’ for running into her and not any ‘other’ officer. Such incidents are not uncommon, for studies have found that African Americans are more often stopped, frisked, questioned, and even arrested than whites. [v]
LeShawn, though from a poor background, is a star of sorts at Ashley’s school—not only a good person, but a good student and also a sports-star, he has already secured a place at Stanford. But when Ashley’s careless and foolish remark sparks off a rumour against him, and he reacts strongly for the first time in his life, the school authorities immediately take harsh action, perhaps something they may not have done against a ‘regular’ student.
I think the author does a great job in putting this across, and making us feel this injustice. Overall I felt this book deals with a really important and strong theme and puts the point of the prejudice, the discrimination across really well. The book certainly makes us question what kind of society we live in. Our societies claim to respect and protect human rights, to ensure that every person has the right to life, to liberty and to certain freedoms—of movement, to work in our chosen professions, live in neighbourhoods of our choice. But reading this book, we are compelled to ask what all these claims of recognizing and protecting human rights, living as free and equal beings really mean? Can we really claim to live in such societies when in some form or other discrimination and other violations of rights take place around us all the time? When only a privileged few have actual access to these rights?
[i] Dawne M. Mouzon, Robert Joseph Taylor, Amanda Woodward, and Linda M. Chatters, ‘Everyday Racial Discrimination, Everyday Non-racial Discrimination, and Physical Health Among African Americans’, 26 (1–2) Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work 68–80 (2017). [ii] Heather H. Farmer, Linda A. Wray, and Jason R. Thomas, ‘Do Race and Everyday Discrimination Predict Mortality Risk: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study’, Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine (2019): https://doi.org/10.1177/2333721419855665 [iii] Rodney King was a victim of police brutality in an incident in 1991 relating to his arrest for drunk driving. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King. [iv] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1992_Los_Angeles_riots. [v] See Robert Joseph Taylor, Reuben Miller, Dawne Mouzon, Verna M. Keith, and Linda M. Chatters, ‘Everyday Discrimination Among African American Men: The Impact of Criminal Justice Contact’, 8(2) Race Justice 154–177 (2018).
Dr. Mallika Ramachandran is a freelance editor and legal researcher. She is visiting Faculty at Centre for Post Graduate Legal Studies, TERI School of Advanced Studies, Delhi.
A parallel post reviewing this book and examining some of the issues mentioned here appears at: https://potpourri2015.wordpress.com/2021/02/09/review-the-black-kids-by-christina-hammonds-reed/