“They try to tell us we’re too young...”
— Nat King Cole
So what does it mean that Dennis Turner is black?
Turner, as you may know, was the police officer who arrested Kaia Rolle last week. Kaia, it must be said, was raising a ruckus, acting in a disorderly and disruptive manner. Worse, when someone tried to restrain her, she compounded her misbehavior by committing assault, kicking the person who grabbed her. So Officer Turner of the Orlando Police Department dutifully handcuffed her and took her away.
One wonders if he had trouble fitting his cuffs to her wrists. Kaia Rolle is 6 years old.
Turner, a resource officer at the Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy charter school, was fired Monday after a weekend of national outrage over his appalling decision to arrest a 6 year old for having a temper tantrum — in effect, to arrest a 6 year old for being a 6 year old. That outrage grew after it was learned Kaia was actually one of two 6 year olds Turner busted that day.
The second child has not been identified, but we do know that Kaia is a little black girl, and that should not surprise anyone who’s been paying attention. As years of research have quantified, black children face harsher and more frequent discipline in school than their white classmates. Indeed, data released by the Department of Education in 2014 showed that this extends even into pre-school, where black kids make up 18 percent of the student body, yet 42 percent of those who are suspended once, and nearly half of those who are suspended more than once.
Nor is this the first time we have seen that reality illustrated. Consider the arrest of 5-year-old Ja’eisha Scott of St. Petersburg in 2005. Or 6-year-old Desre’e Watson of Avon, Florida, in 2007. Or 6-year-old Salecia Johnson of Milledgeville, Georgia, in 2008. Or 8-year-old Jmiya Rickman, a special-needs student in Alton, Illinois, in 2013. In 2015, a 16-year-old black girl from Columbia, South Carolina, was lifted bodily and slammed to the floor by a male police officer. Now there’s this.
And yeah, Dennis Turner is black. What shall we make of that?
Some people, after all, will surely believe his melanin content proves racism has nothing to do with what happened to Kaia — and, by extension, what happens to black kids all over the country. It’s an argument that springs from the misguided but stubborn conviction that what we call “racism” is about interpersonal interactions.
And as sociologist Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” has observed, “I don’t know that you could’ve come up with a more effective way to protect systemic racism than to reduce it to this simple formula of someone who deliberately is mean across race.”
Because we do that, she says, we are prone to confront situations like this one by asking an utterly useless question: “Is he racist, or is he not? And if he’s a nice person” — or, as in this case, a black one — “then the answer will be, ‘He can’t be racist.’ Understanding the systemic nature of racism, you ask a different question which is, How is racism manifesting in this context, in this policy, in this outcome, and then you seek to address that policy or outcome.”
Our failure to do that, to confront this impersonal machinery of oppression, only ensures that soon enough, there will be another Kaia. And another after that. Yes, it’s good Dennis Turner is no longer a police officer. He doesn’t deserve to wear a badge, especially around children. But take no comfort in his melanin. It doesn’t prove the absence of racism.
If anything, it proves the power.
Leonard Pitts is a best-selling author and nationally-syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald.