Black History Month | Lesson on stereotypes
by Carolyn Kaberline
When people don’t interact with others of different races and cultures, it’s easy for them to hang on to stereotypes, said Joseph Johnson, Shawnee County District court judge, as he spoke to an all-school assembly at Perry-Lecompton High School in honor of Black History month. He also stressed the importance of education, not just to remove stereotypes but to find a place in the world.
Johnson, the first African-American to be appointed a judge in Shawnee County as well as the first black public defender in the state of Kansas, knows all about stereotypes. Although he noted that the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka came about in 1951, the effects of segregation were still in place when he went to school. In fact, schools remained segregated until 1968 when Johnson was a junior in high school in Florida.
“Because of this segregated society that I grew up in, I wasn’t exposed to white people from the mingling standpoint,” Johnson explained, adding that because of segregation both sides had some pretty strange ideas.
“I thought all white females were blonde and so did all the brothers,” he said, “because all the white females we saw were blonde. We didn’t know anything about the dyeing hair business.” On the other hand, he said the whites thought all blacks were fast. “They thought we could all run. I had white guys come up and ask me how they could get out of the starting blocks faster. And I’d say ‘Who are you talking to? I’m not on the track team.’ ”
Johnson said that one good thing about education is that it helps remove stereotypes. “You don’t just have to rely on what you’ve heard,” he explained. “You can actually look into it for yourself and that’s what I’d encourage you to do.”
Johnson also encouraged students to get the most out of their education as it’s “about the only good thing in our country that’s free. That’s why I’d encourage you to take advantage of it. I can assure you that you can go very few places without it.”
Although he did mention that some people such as Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton might be able to do without an education, he admonished that “if you don’t have a rich father with hotels, you’d better get an education.”
Johnson also mentioned that he is concerned about what he has seen during Black History month in relation to the rest of the year.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to set aside a month to recognize the contributions of a part of the population of this country?” he asked, adding that he looks upon it as a refresher course so we don’t “slide back to where we were which would be a tragedy for this country.”
To make his point, Johnson asked a student in the audience to join him at the front of the theater. Once there he asked the student to imagine he’d graduated from college and his mother was on her way to visit him in his future home in New York City. Before she could get there she was stopped in a southern state and charged with transporting cocaine. Her bond was set at one million dollars, and when she goes to court, she and her son are the only white people in the court—the judge, the court appointed lawyer, all jury members, police officers, and witnesses—are black.
“Even though one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, most people would feel she couldn’t get a fair trial,” Johnson said. However, he explained that up until 1951, “blacks were not allowed to serve on juries in 31 states. In addition, there were no blacks on the bench. Yet when we have blacks charged with crimes in this country, and the jury is all white and the judge is white and the prosecutor is white and all the law enforcement officials involved in the case are white, everyone gets upset when the young black man says ‘this isn’t fair.’ We’re just like you are. We can see it too. So when you judge people and you hear about African-Americans not having the same appreciation of the legal system, understand the history of the development of that lack of appreciation.
“If you start out with a system that precludes people from getting a fair voice, precludes them from being treated fairly, that precludes them from participating, it’s hard overnight for them to say ‘I believe in this system.’ ”
Johnson went on to say that it’s easy for people “to hand you information through the television and the Internet, and if you’re ignorant it’s easy to take tidbits and run with them. It’s the intellectual who looks beyond them.”
Johnson pointed out that each year, four million kids start out in ninth grade. Twenty-five percent of them will drop out and not graduate. He admonished those in the audience not to be part of that twenty-five percent or they’d run the risk of being those that continue stereotypes.
“African Americans are no more apt to commit crimes than whites,” Johnson noted, adding that percentage-wise there are fewer blacks on welfare than whites, especially when all the subsidy programs are considered.
Johnson also explained that the recent laws on voter fraud continue stereotypes and discourage certain groups from voting. “Twenty-three percent of African Americans don’t have photos,” he said, adding that students in college can’t use student IDs to vote and may be discouraged from voting if they have to send home for birth certificates and such.
“Be careful how you compartmentalize people as human beings,” Johnson reiterated as he asked students to not waste their time in school, but to get the most out of it that they could.
“Keep everything in perspective. You’re here for a reason. You don’t want to be one of those that perpetuate stereotypes.”
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