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OpEd: The Black Boy NOT Suspended For Staring at White Girl

by Jason Johnson /
Image: A sixth grade classroom sits empty on June 19, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.
A sixth grade classroom sits empty on June 19, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.Scott Eisen / AP, file

African Americans have been inundated with so many stories of ridiculous racism over the last few years that there is scarcely enough time to do follow ups on stories no matter how ridiculous.

Driving while black, going to the bank while black, going on a wine tour while black, and even standing in front of an expensive hotel while black are so common we don’t collectively blink when a new story pops up.

So it’s no wonder why the story of a 12 year old black boy suspended for ‘staring at’ a white girl in an Ohio school was so quickly leapt upon by a justifiably frustrated population.

The problem is, this story wasn’t actually true, and even in the flood of racist stories popping up online everyday it’s important that we actually get all of the facts, so that we can actually address the real problems that face the black community.

A few weeks ago, just about every African American news outlet jumped on the of the Tolbert family and their son’s suspension in Ohio. The story began in September of 2014 when Candice Tolbert and her husband sued St. Gabriel Consolidated School in Glendale, Ohio to vacate a one day suspension levied on their son.

According to Cincinnati’s WLTL NBC affiliate the Tolbert’s claim their son was in a staring contest with a girl in his class, they were playing mutually and the girl was laughing. The girl later told her parents she felt scared and intimidated by this ‘staring contest’, an investigation was conducted and Tolbert along with another boy was suspended for one day.

The Tolbert’s believe that since the kids were playing a suspension is an unnecessarily harsh punishment that could stain their son’s permanent record. A judge upheld the St. Gabriel’s decision two weeks ago, and the story went viral.

Let us be clear, there is a racial element to this incident but it runs deeper than ‘reckless eyeballing’.

Most outlets offering commentary on the “Staring While Black” incident cite the local Cincinnati Fox 19 affiliate story which reported that the girl is white; Tolbert is black and there were no details on the other boy who was suspended. This was either fairly shabby reporting on the part of Fox or poor editing because very important details of the story were not only left out, but in some cases just plain wrong.

By simply digging a little bit further into the story, other very important details emerge that were missed in the first rush to add “Staring while Black” to the lexicon of black harassment.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer the little girl in question is Asian, not white. In addition, the other 12 year old boy involved in the ‘staring game’ who was suspended is white. In fact, the Enquirer specifically states that many social media outlets and commentators have “wrongly stated the races of the students involved”.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t racial overtones to this incident but “7th grade Black Boy and White Boy suspended for Staring at Asian Girl” as a provocative headline certainly requires a lot more unpacking than what had been plastered across the internet that week.

What’s worse, because of this bad reporting the true injustice of the incident, a little black boy being denied due process, was missed.

Let us be clear, there is a racial element to this incident but it runs deeper than ‘reckless eyeballing’.

In the weird racial hierarchy that is America, white Americans deem Asians to be ‘higher’ than blacks, and thus in an interracial conflict White Americans will often ‘gift’ Asians (the model minority) a temporary white status when adjudicating interracial conflicts.

We’ve seen this before, with other races. George Zimmerman became an ‘honorary white guy’ just long enough to have a jury take his word over the evidence of a dead 17 year old Trayvon Martin.

In other words if it’s a he said she said between a black boy and an Asian girl, and white people are the final arbiters - the black boy is going to lose.

However a white boy was punished in the same fashion for the same behavior, a key point that can’t be overlooked. Consequently the problem is as much the process as it is the punishment.

It is unconscionable, and very racially suspect, that an investigation that could result in a child getting suspended could be conducted over two days without parents being informed.

After 7th grade teachers ‘investigated’ the incident Tolbert was forced to write an apology admitting to his wrongdoing and then he was handed a one day suspension. His parents were not informed of the initial incident, the ‘investigation’ or their son being forced into writing a confession until their son came home suspended.

Complain all you want about helicopter parents and entitled kids, but a parent is a child’s best and sometimes only advocate. It is unconscionable, and very racially suspect, that an investigation that could result in a child getting suspended could be conducted over two days without parents being informed.

You don’t have to stick a 12 year old in a dark room with a lone swinging lightbulb to get this ‘confession’ -- any 12 year old could be coerced into saying or admitting anything by their teachers, who they generally trust.

Black kids getting railroaded in public education is a true crisis, and that can happen whether their eyes are on a white woman, an Asian woman or “the prize”.

In the end, we don’t know all of the details of this case, and given that minors are involved perhaps we shouldn’t. While little Tolbert has no previous demerits for behavior maybe he was doing something weird or inappropriate that morning.

This incident did happen during snack time in a closed off area, so maybe the little girl was intimidated and laughed out of nervousness not because she was ‘in’ on the joke.

It’s also possible that this same little girl, who earlier in the year poured milk on another student, is just a bratty tattletale who likes getting people in trouble. It’s also possible both narratives are true.

In the end the most important thing is that despite our justifiable frustration with systematic racism, we need to identify the party responsible and get the facts straight before ringing the alarm bells online.

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