Jackie Sartoris

Jackie Sartoris

Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I knew no one who wasn’t white. Sure, there were African American kids in high school, but I never knew more than their names. Our firm grouping into black and white seemed an amicable choice.

Another grouping was more important when I attended college and then took a job in New York City: men and women. I love exploring new places by walking around, but west Philadelphia and New York City required me to also pay attention to whether I was safe, a new and unwelcome reality.

The city department hired eight new Ivy League graduates. It was an odd credential, required by a supervisor with no college degree. We were book smart — and utterly clueless. The long term clerical staff didn’t just help us learn our way around the city bureaucracy, they collegially shepherded us through an introduction to the five boroughs.

Until April 19, 1989. My daily subway companion, the New York Times, covered the Central Park Jogger story for weeks. The young woman, white, unnamed, was terribly beaten and stabbed, and expected to die. Real estate mogul Donald Trump ran full-page ads in all the City papers, demanding a return of the death penalty, “hate” for “misfits,” and the end of civil liberties. The speedy arrest of five young black teenage boys for the presumed homicide was a relief, I thought. I was wrong.

The clerical staff — almost all of them African American — did not believe the guilt of those five boys. The one management-level black woman with whom I was particularly close didn’t either. They were adamant. I, and the other largely white “professional” staff, we were incredulous.

Those teenagers were from “good homes,” but they’d confessed. On videotape, in writing. They’d confessed to running through Central Park, committing minor offenses in a group, for hours. They’d confessed to the rape. To what the police called “wilding.” Because no human term could describe the savagery of the beating and rape of the jogger. To believe in their innocence was to believe that the whole system was somehow corrupt.

That is exactly what my black colleagues believed. It was such a bleak world view, and completely new to me. I remember sitting at my desk, a colleague hovering over me, scowling, “You’re not so smart after all, you college people. You know nothing. And you understand even less.” I couldn’t see her truth. But, she was right.

In the months that followed, the Central Park Five recanted their confessions, their anguished parents pointing to procedural missteps, including hours and hours of deceptive interrogations of minor children. None of the physical evidence in the jogger case pointed to a single one of the kids. Contrary to all policy, the names of the kids, just 14 years old, appeared in the papers. In response, the black press printed the name of the jogger, infuriating many. The Five were convicted in the press before the jury found them guilty. They served the years of their young adulthood in prison.

Our workplace was fractured. The comradery replaced by stony silence between black and white staff. I followed a job opportunity here a few years later. Maine shocked me with its whiteness, but even more when I listened to the Franco parents of my students describe their experience of discrimination growing up. The need to divide and hate is awfully strong.

In 2001, a prisoner who’d raped at least four other women, killing one of them, confessed to being the Central Park rapist. All of the physical evidence supported his solo role. Nothing but the confessions implicated the Five.

Despite the District Attorney’s concurrence, despite the convictions vacated by New York’s Supreme Court, the New York City detectives stood by their investigation. For a decade, the City fought a civil suit for damages, paying only upon the election of a new mayor.

I didn’t want to see the discrimination that runs through the system. Initially I bristled at the idea of “white privilege.” People in Maine are the poorest in New England — what privilege? And then remember my colleague. Even when a white person struggles, they are still better off than in those circumstances and black. The data doesn’t lie.

Philando Castile, despite no criminal history, was pulled over 52 times before dying behind the wheel of his car last week. In the moments after the shooting, as he lay dying, no one even tried to help him, even as the officer realized his mistake.

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In truth, I’d rather not see it. Most of us would rather not see it. But we look away, and fail to act, at our peril.


Jackie Sartoris lives in Brunswick.

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