We're Doomed if We Cannot Support our Black and Brown Geniuses

by Leah C.K. Lewis

Irving, TX, teen Ahmed Mohamed was taken out of school in handcuffs and suspended for three days after bringing his homemade invention, a clock, to show his teachers. While his treatment displays Islamophobia, his arrest is reminiscent of the insanity of Kiera Wilmot’s experience when the then 16-year-old’s biology project prompted her arrested. Kiera faced felony charges, a conviction, and a 10-day suspension.

Although no charges were filed against him and the case has been dropped, Ahmed’s arrest reminds us of the disparities in treatment and opportunities for children of color in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and the obstacles they face before they even have a chance to pursue their passions in science, technology, engineering, and math. Sadly, Mohamed “vowed never to take an invention to school again.” Parents and guardians must not permit children to be hindered in such ways and must confront any attempt to squelch their children’s talents.

After Kiera and Ahmed’s unjust treatment, it would be detrimental and too easy to adopt a posture that questions, “Why would children of color, particularly Black children, pursue an area in which they are already underrepresented when they face criminalization for doing the very things they are supposed to do in the field?” We must not fall prey to such a defeatist attitude. This is the very objective of white supremacists whose sole aim is to stop the intellectual and creative exploration and success of people of color. The earlier we adopt attitudes that succumb to the pressure of xenophobia and oppression, the greater the propensity of lifelong failure and stagnation.

Kiera and Ahmed faced two diametrically opposed forces. First, there is the family of intimates within their community that encouraged their scientific interests and pursuits. The second, was the larger system that sought to humiliate them by criminalizing their intellectual prowess in the STEM fields.

If we are honest, this story of delimiting African American excellence occurs in every field including athletics, arts, and entertainment — those fields where it is presumed we have easy access, and even dominance. The thing about sports like football and basketball is that we have outstanding numbers as players, but meager statistics as owners, front office personnel, and coaches. One of the greatest ways to hinder a person's social and personal development is to thwart their ability to exercise their gifts and interests. To criminalize their talents is to drive the last nail in their metaphorical coffins.

In the cases of Kiera Wilmot and Ahmed Mohamed, their accusing teachers, administrators, and the local police failed them. In Kiera’s case, add the prosecutor’s office and judge to the list. These “authority figures” failed Kiera, Ahmed, and children like them by broadcasting that African American and Islamic excellence places you at risk of public humiliation and criminalization. Discouraging Black children in STEM (and any other areas of expertise) rather than helping them pursue their interests has the potential to keep our children underrepresented in STEM (and other) fields.

We cannot tolerate abuses of power that ultimately hinder not only our children, but also the greatness of this nation. It would not surprise me if, in the years to come, we witness extraordinary advances in science from Kiera and Ahmed.

Things are already going well for them. After their encounters with the legal system, a third force interceded in their lives—the spirit of human goodness. They received invites to NASA’s Space Camp and the White House, respectively, following international exposure given their arrests. Each prodigy continues to demonstrate their resilience and determination. Neither has allowed ignorance and bigotry to hinder their upward trajectories.

Photo: WTPS - Vernon Bryan / The Dallas Morning News / Corbis

Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., D.Min. (ABD) is among other good and wonderful things, a graduate of Howard University School of Law where she was trained to be a social engineer for righteous causes. A frequent contributor to ForHarriet.com, follow her on Twitter @HumanStriving. #IStandWithAhmed

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