Judge Edwards Delivers Inaugural Dr. Norman A. White Lecture at SLU School of Social Work

It may turn out that the shock of Ferguson and events in the streets of St Louis following the Stockley decision and even on the campus of SLU have a mostly beneficial impact in the long run. That’s because these events took away our ability to keep looking at these issues as ‘someone else’s, over there.’

— Judge Jimmie Edwards, Director, Department of Public Safety, City of St. Louis, presenting the School of Social Work at St Louis University’s Inaugural Dr. Norman A. White Lecture, March 26, 2018.

Saint Louis University honors the life and legacy of pioneering criminologist Norman A. White, Ph.D., with a lecture and awards ceremony series in his name. The Dr. Norman A. White Lecture presents speakers who embody the spirit of and commitment to social justice possessed by the late SLU faculty member. Dr. White was an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University from 2004 to 2017. He was a nationally-recognized activist and scholar. He died suddenly in December of 2017. 

Here are excerpts from Judge Edwards’ remarks:

The late Dr. Norm White presenting while Judge Jimmie Edwards looks on at the Ignatian Solidarity Network Teach-In, November 2016.

Norm was a great inspiration and role model. When he died suddenly in December, I was asked to comment for an obituary, and I called him a ‘quiet giant.’ His gentle demeanor sometimes concealed his fierce passion for children’s rights in St Louis, especially in our public schools. He fought to keep children in school through alternatives to suspension, and he was very instrumental in promoting trauma-informed teaching initiatives for children ‘immersed in risk’, as he called it.

We meet at a time of turmoil for Missouri, and for the nation. We in Missouri, particularly those of us in the St. Louis region, have borne the stigma of racial Injustice in this nation since the name ‘Ferguson’ came to stand for Injustice, racial oppression, and the sometimes-violent reaction against it.

Then Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and now Sacramento, and the nation is slowly coming to realize that there is no shorthand for the shameful legacy, no ‘over there’ where those other people have troubles that we don’t have to face in our own communities.

I want to suggest that neither Ferguson or Missouri nor the United States is unique in manifesting something that holds back the progress of every city, every region, every organization, every nation. And that is implicit bias. It’s here in this room right now, and it will probably long exist at some level in our individual and collective subconscious.

What is implicit bias? It’s a developmental process that leaves most with subconscious negative attitudes about people or groups of people based only on their differences from us race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or gender orientation to name a few. Typically, we develop these attitudes about people who are not members of our own group, but implicit bias can also be directed to people who look and think like we do.

The many educators in this room know that teaching is changing, toward more ‘transformational’ learning – which is more collaborative, and away from ‘traditional’ or ‘transactional’ education –which has been based more on individual reward and punishment. Our training and diversity has been largely transactional. We need to start talking about implicit bias in a more transformative way. What do I mean by that?

  • We can set up intentional communities such as trust circles and partner networks and lunch-and-learn meetings to connect with people from racial, ethnic, and orientation groups that are different from our own. A university system is ideal for this. Notice I said a university system…not just the School of Social Work. Cross-discipline is an important element of diversity, too.
  • We can expose disparities and critical opportunity domains, including classrooms, in human resources offices, the courts and the halls of justice facilities, but also lift up examples of people who have overcome barriers to opportunity. To begin this, we need to thoroughly reexamine our institutions with fresh eyes, removing our assumptions, and then monitor, measure, and market programs for diversity leadership and eradication of biases. It is important to celebrate and merchandise our successes.
  • We must train and retrain multiple audiences, including teachers and students – from elementary school to graduate school – as well as employers, judges, politicians, and religious leaders, about the causes and consequences of implicit bias. Some of us may think we’re well-versed because we went through diversity training last year or currently teach a chapter or two about inclusion. But it’s essential to continually update and modernize our approach.
  • Beyond this awareness training, we must take the next step and educate ourselves to become agents of change to improve opportunity for all people in the society. We must continually evaluate our communications more critically for evidence of racial and ethnic bias. We must make this broad-based effort sustainable and self-perpetuating. It’s not a one-and-done effort, but a lifelong, global challenge to diminish and finally eradicate implicit bias in future generations.
  • And most importantly we must carefully, critically, and honestly examine our own personal attitudes for evidence of implicit bias.

In my 25 years is a Circuit Judge in St Louis I came to understand that there is nothing like the power of education to lift people out of their circumstances and to change their lives. In my mind, education is the key to success. It is the key to so many of life’s rewards. Education is the difference between a job and a career. In my experience as a judge, I can tell you that I didn’t see too many people in those orange jail jumpsuits handcuffed with college degrees in my courtroom. Most importantly, with education comes the ability to dream to have hope.

Judge Jimmie Edwards Director, Department of Public Safety, City of St. Louis

However, as the city’s juvenile judge from 2007 through 2012, I saw too many children who had no hope or dreams. The opportunity to rise above their circumstances through education had been denied them. Instead, they were caught in a cycle that we have come to call the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline. It is here that we see the most insidious impact of implicit bias – when it has metastasized from the unconscious attitudes of Whites to how we see ourselves as African-Americans. Cut off from school, we are cut off, too from hope, skills, a place in the social structure; we are outcasts.

3 years ago, a national study by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA reported that black elementary school children are more likely to be suspended in Missouri than any state in the nation. Missouri also had the greatest disparity between how often black and white students get out-of-school suspension for infractions.

Fortunately, since then, with pushes from Norm White and many of others of us, the St. Louis area districts took steps to use in-school suspension as an alternative to sending students home, but we’ll have to wait to see if we can reduce the racial disparity of these suspensions.

Here’s an example of how implicit bias plays out [in schools]. In a study, researchers asked teachers to grade essentially identical papers from a test class. At the top of each paper was the name of the supposed student author. Some names were designed to ‘sound black’ and some to ‘sound white’ – Lakeshia Washington and Susan Schucart, for example. By a significant margin, the teachers scored papers lower when the student named sounded black. These teachers would probably tell you that they harbor no racial discrimination, and they mean it. What’s happening here is that unconscious, implicit bias lowers your expectations for students of color and stimulates subtle differences in the way they behave toward those students – less praise and recognition and more discipline, for example

To top it off, most of the students come from generational poverty. Norm White understood this in his push for trauma-informed education. You in the School of Social Work understand that poor families must focus nearly all their attention on solving immediate, concrete problems. Families in generational poverty don’t have dreams. Reacting to and solving concrete problems is a skill, but it’s far different from preparing and practicing to make good choices, learning to be accountable for those choices, and developing the power to build a better future. Children in generational poverty grow up not knowing how to dream without the hope that good choices today can lead to a brighter future.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that implicit bias afflicts only the poor, the most at risk, the most vulnerable. It is present in inner city public schools, but also at our great universities. It holds us back at the top of corporations and in the halls of government. It resides in big cities, midsize communities, and rural villages all around the world.

You know, it may turn out that the shock of Ferguson and events in the streets of St Louis following the Stockley decision and even on the campus of SLU have a mostly beneficial impact in the long run. That’s because these events took away our ability to keep looking at these issues as ‘someone else’s, over there.’ They shocked us into having to own these challenges. They confront us with the fruits of hundreds of years of unequal opportunities, the stark realities of economic inequality, and the racial discrimination that still exists no matter how hard we try to deny it or wish it away.

The task before us will take time and hard work, but it is solvable. Step-by-step we can turn St. Louis into a role model for reversing a historic course that leads only to destruction and charting a new way toward hope and progress and freedom and equality for all.

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