The Privilege of Being Heard
Last month, I watched and listened as a trial unfolded in the federal courthouse downtown. The case involved a Voting Rights Act claim brought by Missouri NAACP against the Ferguson-Florissant School District. The plaintiffs alleged that the district’s electoral system diluted votes coming from people of color, resulting in a school board that was disproportionately white. In fact, in the school district’s history, there have never been more than two Black members serving on the seven-member school board at one time. This is despite the fact that the school district’s school-age population is mostly African American, and the district’s voting-age population is split nearly 50/50 between white and African American voters.
In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, many of us discussed problems associated with having police forces that do not reflect, look like, or represent the communities they are charged to serve. Having school boards that do not reflect, look like, or represent the communities they are elected to serve can be equally problematic.
Throughout the trial, plaintiffs presented evidence and witnesses who laid out the ways in which the mostly-white school board failed to meet the needs of the district’s people of color. Disaffected and displeased community members took turns cycling through the courtroom’s witness stand, radically speaking their truth in a system that too often ignores it. These witnesses testified (and both the legal and religious senses of this word are appropriate here) that the district perpetuated structural racism by allowing discriminatory disciplinary practices (creating a school-to-prison pipeline), by turning away transfer students from unaccredited majority-Black school districts, and by refusing to recognize Black community members as stakeholders in the district’s affairs.
The trial was not the first time that the district’s people of color have tried to shine a light on these issues. Witnesses described their repeated efforts to be heard—at town hall meetings, by contacting the board directly, by campaigning and running for the school board, and by voting for their preferred candidates. Voting rights are about being heard. And evidence showed that the district’s people of color were not being heard through the electoral process, as Black-preferred candidates were almost never elected while white-preferred candidates were almost always elected.
The school district maintained that it was merely conducting its administrative business, which ostensibly had nothing to do with race. In fact, according to the district, the entire trial was an annoying distraction away from the real, school-running work the district should have been doing. The district’s view of the school board elections was just as colorblind, arguing that the board’s two current African Americans achieved their seats at the table through “hard work” and their own bootstraps.
All in all, as both sides sorted through their arguments, evidence, and witnesses, the trial boiled down to a simple exchange that would be repeated over and over.
Plaintiffs: This isn’t working, and you’re still not hearing us.
The district: What’s to hear? We’re just running the schools.
If this dialogue sounds familiar, perhaps it is reminiscent of another call and response that is more recognizable.
Call: Black lives matter.
Response: All lives matter.
When someone says “all lives matter,” are they hearing that “Black lives matter”? When the district says “we’re just running the schools,” is it hearing that “this isn’t working”?
At its most basic, our legal right to due process involves two things: notice and an opportunity to be heard. This trial showed how, on a very real level, communities of color within the school district are regularly denied an opportunity to be heard, just as those who proclaim “Black lives matter” are shouted down with the dismissive “all lives matter.”
Many of us have had the frustrating experience of not feeling heard. And many of us are so used to being heard that we forget that others are not always quite so heard. The only way we can ensure that others are heard is by hearing, ourselves.
Hearing is something we are called to do. But sometimes we need a reminder. Many Jews affix a mezuzah, or a kind of plaque or container, to their home doorways as a reminder of their relationship to God—a relationship that requires listening. The mezuzah contains the prayer, Shema Yisrael, which translates to “Hear, O Israel!” Similarly, when a scribe needed a reminder about the first and most important commandment, it is no coincidence that Christ’s response began, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel!” (Mark 12:29).
This Lent, as our Cathedral community reflects on privilege and what that means for us, we would do well to think intentionally about the privilege of being heard. And we can start by hearing those closest to us.