Science, racism, and clockwork

When a high school freshman is passionate, curious, and talented enough to make a working clock on his own time, it doesn’t follow that he is arrested for it. That sentence bears an unfortunate resemblance to the premise of a dystopian young adult novel.

On September 14, Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth grader in Texas, brought a clock that he had built himself into school to show his teachers. During one of his classes, it beeped, and his teacher asked to see it. She told him that it looked like a bomb, and soon afterward, the police arrived, handcuffed Ahmed in front of his peers, and took him to the police station.

The way I see it, the clock wasn’t what got Ahmed arrested that day at school. Neither was his ambition or his interest or his capacity to overachieve. His teacher probably did not call the police because she thought that the clock actually was a bomb. I mean, it beeped. Congratulations. So do cell phones and microwaves and electric toothbrushes.

And then there’s the fact that the police officer, after laying eyes on Ahmed, said, “That’s who I thought it was.” Was that because the police officer knew about Ahmed’s outstanding scientific achievements? Unlikely. Was it because he knew that Ahmed was the only student dedicated enough to build a legitimate clock at his house? Probably not.

Something is suspicious. Why was it that before the police arrived, the nervous teacher allowed Ahmed to hold onto his device, which she apparently believed had destructive capacity? Why did the police officers drive Ahmed to the station with the “bomb”-clock in the car? There is no sensible answer to either of these questions. But there is a difference between being sensible and making sense, and there does happen to be an answer that makes sense.

Racism is a lot like clockwork. In fact, it is systematic to the point of being endorsed by influential people. Whether it’s a teacher responsible for educating the next generation, or a police officer whose duty is to enforce and maintain justice, racism can disguise itself as logic. If we all take a second and rewind, it becomes very difficult to imagine this turn of events unfolding had Ahmed looked different. If he were white, rather than of Sudanese descent, would his clock still have looked like a bomb? Would the principal still have taken him out of class to be arrested, or would it instead have been to discuss presenting his masterpiece to the student body?

Racism is infectious. In Ahmed’s case, the racism that he experienced spread to his creations, his passion, his knowledge. It impacted his accomplishments, and became impossible for him to escape.

Racism is a monster. It is an ignorance-propelled monster that inhibits everything good for which our society strives to be known. It promotes a lack of freedom and injustice for some, rather than “freedom and justice for all.”

Racism is a lot like clockwork—except that it actually is, in effect, a bomb.

 

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