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Weaponized Innocence

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

By Jabali Stewart

The times in which we find ourselves represent The Perfect Storm. Elevated emotional tensions due to Covid-19 created an unprecedented canvas. The blood spread on the canvas includes that of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, and George Floyd. A family member during a recent Zoom gathering said it feels like open season on Black people. They are right. It does. And with the time between killings - of which we have alerted to - so short, the ability to process it all is almost reduced to nil. This past Friday when I woke up I was already crying. A personal first for me.

Two large concerns sit with me today. The first is that most will celebrate the life of the recently murdered cisgender black men, at the expense of the recently murdered Black woman, and Black transgender man. Moving into the 'new normal' the conversation must be about the killing of Black people -- period. The second is that the sensationalization of death by police brutality will over-shadow the equally deadly act of weaponizing innocence as exhibited by Amy Cooper. A term I heard in a recent Community Peacemaking Circle. An act that has deep roots in the history of this country that is perhaps even more insidious because it is employed consciously and unconsciously daily to varying levels of severity - everywhere.

I have spent most of my life connected to the education system in one way or another including 14 years of work in the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the independent school world. Along the way, a leader of a school told me that DEI at his school was only a part time job. I still marvel at those words. To me his thoughts on the subject were in perfect lockstep with that of this country. The work required to address the inequities of our society is only a part time job, that takes a back seat to everything else. We see the results of such an approach time and time again.

No one should expect one off, or sporadic DEI training to overcome experientially learned life lessons, including the lessons of racism which begin at an early age. Amy Cooper, a college graduate, white collar liberal still does not consider herself a racist. The life lessons passed down by the likes of Rebecca Latimer Felton, however, proved to be stronger than whatever infrequent diversity training her office provided, and her liberal identification combined. Amy Cooper is clearly not self aware, and therein lies a major problem since there is a direct linkage between Amy Cooper's weaponized innocence, and the death of Black humans in this country.

Rebecca Latimer Felton best voiced one extreme of the spectrum of the performance of weaponized innocence when she urged “white men to prove their manhood by lynching black men accused of raping white women." In 1897, Felton, a white supremacist who owned slaves and went on to become a senator, declared 'if it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.' The weaponization of innocence has deep roots in this country and has led to the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, the massacre in Rosewood, the death of Emmet Till , the Susan Smith story, the Patricia Ripley story, and New York's own Amy Cooper, among countless other stories of this kind. While not professing a white supremacist platform like her predacessor, Cooper is guilty of using a page out of Felton’s playbook.

In Amy Cooper’s non-apology we clearly see cognitive dissonance at play when she begins with, ‘I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.’ Despite seeing herself using racial identification to enhance the supposed threat of Christian Cooper's existence, she still believes she is not a racist. It is the exact same cognitive dissonance present in any addict who denies being an addict even when caught partaking in their drug of choice. Just to be clear - Amy Cooper, like much of White America, is addicted to racism. And, any successful addiction recovery program begins with the addict admitting they are an addict. That takes work. All of which leads me back to a school leader’s perception that DEI work is a part-time endeavor.

In the United States of America, a Felton-trained Amy Cooper is incognito, often masked with a guise of liberal niceness. They are everywhere with their true selves hidden from most - sometimes even themselves. They are women, they are men, they are people of all genders, and to be honest they are not just white. They occupy every position in existence, including the role of teachers, and we all know the statistics when it comes to teachers. How then can the leader of a school believe that DEI work is a part-time job? The simple answer is that he too is an Amy Cooper.

What then are we to do? What needs to be done to see to it that the repetitive cycle we are experiencing comes to an end? What needs to be done so that Amy Cooper does not mobilize the forces that lead to the potential death of Black bodies? What needs to be done so that Amy Cooper does not utilize her weaponized innocence against a kindergartener? Ultimately what needs to be done to cure America’s addiction to racism?

Part of the answer is that the United States of America needs to stop thinking and acting as though addressing racism is a part time job. That belief exists because as with Covid-19, many people show no, or very mild outward symptoms. That does not mean they are not infected. We are all carriers. Understanding racism as an addiction allows us to see it as a “common psychological...compulsive behavior” that is “very much in the mainstream of the human condition.” And facing an addiction is no easy task. It requires admission, work, failure, and more work. It is ongoing, and requires conscious attention. It cannot be an afterthought, or an add-on program. It is nothing that is solved by a check-the-box diversity training.

I truly believe that a key and vital part of the work is the Peacemaking Circle Process. Through the process we are invited to work on the contents of our chair, no more, no less. I have watched the transformation of myself and others occur over and over again as a result of engaging in the process. So much so that as a social scientist, using the scientific method, my skepticism of the process has all but been silenced. When we sit in Circle we grapple with our realities within the support of the presence of others doing the same thing. I do not sit in Circle to try and change you. I sit in Circle to change myself. To heal myself. The Amy Coopers of the world, and their victims, need to do so as well. Then and only then will the fear and devastation brought about by an addiction to racism, in the guise of weaponized innocence, begin to subside.

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