Gruff white hands yanked my arms behind my back and secured my black wrists in handcuffs. Yet, I held firmly to my belief: I am more than just a statistic. Startling numbers have snapped at my heels my entire life. And on this day, being guided into the back seat of a police car, I still knew: I am more than just a statistic.
As a child growing up in a Chicago projects, I was painfully aware that the odds were against me – against all of us. In quiet ways, in scream it from the mountain top ways, adults in school, on the news and even in the community made it known that born in the projects meant die in the projects. Few of us would get out. My mother was the first person to let me know that I was more than a statistic.
The first statistics we learn as black children is that we are far more likely to drop out of school than white children. And those who do not drop out lag years behind in academics and language development. Fortunately, in my mother’s house where studying was mandatory and failure was not an option, I realized I would never be defined by abysmal figures that relentlessly foresee a bleak future for me.
Even though mainstream society, at times, characterizes me by statistics, my belief enables me to handle such moments with dignity and restraint. I recall the college advisor who insisted my freshmen schedule include math and reading labs – without opening my academic file. She saw before her a dark-skinned child in need of remediation.
“Don’t be ashamed to admit you need help,” she urged compassionately, putting her white hand on mine.
“Have you looked at my high school transcript, my ACT scores?” I questioned repeatedly. “I’m sure I don’t need remediation having graduated from a college preparatory high school.”
My advisor couldn’t see past the statistics that said black children are ill-prepared for college. My file sat untouched on the table until I opened it.
“Oh, I see,” she conceded with a nervous laugh.
Years later, as a young teacher who sat fuming in a police station while handcuffed to a bench, I refused to lay victim to yet another statistic: the disproportionate rate at which African Americans are incarcerated. As much as that officer tried to rattle me with a fabricated report that I was a suspect in a jewelry store robbery, I knew that my parking in a no parking zone would not be the end of me.
“I am not a statistic!” I wailed into the dark night after the officer released me with a disingenuous apology.
We African-Americans are saddled with statistical knowledge that can be paralyzing. Disheartening numbers are bandied across the air waves about our drop out rate, unemployment rate, incarceration rate, and death rate. I hope all the black and brown children in America realize we cannot be defined by statistics! This I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.