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Jonathan L. Wharton

Last month’s assault by an adult on 11-year-old Daniel Duncan in Deep River was a shock to many Connecticut residents. But it was also a reminder of how much racial bias remains in our supposedly progressive state. Daniel’s friend video-recorded Jameson Chapman injuring and pushing the child off his bicycle.

Chapman said that the boys bumped into him on the sidewalk, but what was caught on video was Chapman confronting biracial Daniel and yelling a question as to whether he was from Connecticut. Chapmen then told him to “get the f—k out of town,” knocking Daniel off his bicycle and into the street. He further confronted the boys a couple of more times at the nearby convenience store.

Last week, Daniel’s mother, Desiree Dominique, and several activists called for Chapman to face hate-crime charges in addition to third-degree assault and risk of injury to a minor. But the state attorney’s office has not responded to news media requests for comment, and proving racial bias can be difficult in court proceedings. There has to be intent and a demonstration that the accuser purposely targeted an individual based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Chapman was released on a $10,000 bond and is scheduled to appear before a Middletown court this month. So more details may come out then. He was also ordered not to have contact with Daniel or his friends.

Still, it saddens me that a child has to face outright racial bias, especially in Connecticut. We should be better, but prejudice remains an ongoing reality.

Social media and online responses to the video are particularly telling about ourselves. Some commented that a child should be scolded for riding on sidewalks. Others were surprised to see such an outward attack in a place like Deep River.  

What struck me is that many in our state are unaware of, or forget that we sometimes show our ugliness. Often prejudice, and racism especially is considered a larger problem in specific areas of our vast country when it’s also right here in our own backyard.

Growing up Black in West Hartford like I did, many might think that the city’s highly educated and progressive-minded residents could be without bias. Hardly. Both passive and overt microaggressions were regular occurrences. I had unfortunate confrontations with some neighbors, especially as a teenager on a bicycle. It was problematic enough when West Hartford residents inquired about where I lived, even as their neighborhood paperboy. But to have town police accuse me of stealing my own bicycle and ticket me for moving violations angered my mother enough that she confronted cops in court and got the charges overturned.

She was a paralegal and the daughter of a solo-practitioner community lawyer, and she made sure I also wore a suit and tie to court.

As a cyclist commuting and often training hundreds of miles a month, I faced additional risk and my mother regularly warned me not to travel through specific Connecticut towns. She spoke to local police and let them know that I lived in the neighborhood. She also asked White mothers in the neighborhood to follow me on my bicycle in their cars after I babysat past sunset. These mothers rallied to help her, help me, and watched over me as a Black teenager. In other words, many neighbors watched after a child.

And maybe that’s what it will take in Deep River. Daniel’s White friends were witnesses and provided video of the confrontation and supported him. Several local officials are stepping up to confront bias in their town and planning discussions with neighbors. But it will also require many of us to first acknowledge that there is prejudice in these towns we call home.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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