As Slater’s book follows Sasha, a genderqueer teen who is set on fire for wearing a skirt, and Richard, the African American teenager who commits the assault, it becomes clear that discrimination is front and center in both teen’s narratives. Throughout The 57 Bus, the characters are continually marginalized and victimized because of their gender, race, class, and sexuality, and Slater repeatedly draws attention to this unfortunate social reality. As a book geared towards young adults, The 57 Bus makes plain this prejudice in an effort to begin a dialogue between young people and overcome common biases. Ultimately, Slater seeks social justice—the righting of public wrongs perpetuated by ignorance and silence—and these efforts are reflected in her portrayal of discrimination in The 57 Bus.
Many characters within The 57 Bus are discriminated against and victimized because of their gender or sexuality. Karl, Sasha’s father, is severely beaten by two unknown men while jogging because he is mistakenly identified as gay. “Let me suck your prick,” one man says before violently assaulting him. The men leave Sasha’s father unconscious in the street, and the police are never able to find the assailants. The men’s intentions were clear, however: they caused Karl physical harm because they believed him to be of lesser social standing based on their false assumptions and homophobia. Debbie, Sasha’s mother, recounts being sent home from school in 1968 for violating the dress code. Her skirt was deemed too long, ironically, by a dress code that also banned girls from wearing jeans and miniskirts. Because of her gender, Debbie was forced to adhere to ridiculous, and unrealistic, rules. Lastly, after Richard is arrested for the attack on Sasha, he admits to police that he is “homophobic,” and that he “doesn’t like gay people.” Of course, Sasha is agender, not gay, meaning Richard’s words betray not only his prejudice but also his ignorance. Each of these examples illustrates the widespread discrimination present in society against people based on gender and sexuality.
The 57 Bus also examines the discrimination that Richard faces on account of his race, further underscoring the broad scope of prejudice within American society. After Richard is arrested for the attack, he is immediately charged as an adult—something Slater suggest is in part due to his race. Slater reports that, according to the Department of Justice, “cases against black youths are more than twice as likely to be directly filed in adult court than cases against white youths.” This statistic implies that Richard is tried as an adult—which will ensure a much stiffer punishment—because he is black, and thus subject to deep-seated assumptions of African American criminality. Richard is ultimately sentenced to seven years in state prison for Sasha’s assault. Slater points out that in 2012, “just one-third of white youths were sentenced to adult or juvenile state correctional facilities” and “two-thirds were given probation or sentenced to serve time in county jails.” For youths of color, these statistics are reversed: “Two-thirds served time in state facilities, while one-third received probation or jail.” According to Slater, a shocking 58 percent of incarcerated black teens serve their time in adult prisons, highlighting the presence of institutional racism within American society. While Richard is awaiting trial, a group of young white college students target and bully a fellow black student in a case that makes national headlines. The white students call the young man “three-fifths,” a reference to the original clause in the Constitution which considered black citizens slaves, and they hang a Confederate flag in their dormitory and write the N-word and the walls. They even “clamp a bike lock around his neck” and forcibly confine him to his room. These three white offenders, the youngest of them just seventeen years old, are charged with only misdemeanor battery and hate crimes. “Girl, they got misdemeanors,” Richard’s cousin marvels. “Nobody got charged with any felonies. Three white boys on one black boy.” While Slater certainly acknowledges that Richard’s crime is terrible, these examples suggest that Richard’s punishment is more reflective of the systemic and institutionalized racism present in American society than it is of his crime itself.
Slater’s very different portrayal of Sasha and Richard illustrates their undeniable similarities—they are both real people who are profoundly affected by discrimination within American society. While The 57 Bus does not inspire much optimism that this discrimination will change anytime soon, Slater lends valuable insight and education into these marginalized identities. With The 57 Bus, Slater offers readers, especially young readers, a vicarious experience, hopefully resulting in empathy and increased understanding of those they perceive as different.
Discrimination and Social Justice ThemeTracker
Discrimination and Social Justice Quotes in The 57 Bus
Oakland, California is a city of more than 400,000 people, but it can still feel like a small town. Not small geographically, of course. The city sprawls across seventy-eight square miles, stretching from the shallow, salty estuary at the edge of San Francisco Bay to the undulating green-and-gold hills where bobcats and coyotes roam. What makes it feel small is the web of connections, the way people stories tangle together. Our lives make footprints, tracks in the snows of time. People know each other’s parents or siblings, their aunties and cousins. They go to school together, or worship together. They play sports on the same team, or work in the same building. The tracks cross. The stories overlap.
Gravity works backward here—the money flows uphill. The wealthier neighborhoods in the hills boast good schools, low crime, and views of the bay. Thanks to the Bay Area’s high-tech boom, long-vacant historic buildings downtown are filling with start-ups, boutiques peddling handmade jeans, and nightspots serving seven-ingredient cocktail. But little of this good fortune spilled over into the flatlands of East Oakland, where Richard lived. This is where the bulk of the city’s murders happen—two-thirds of them, in 2013. The schools are shabbier here; the scores are lower. There’s more trash on the streets, more roaming dogs, more liquor stores, fewer groceries stores. The median strips are ragged with weeds.
“I don’t want for people to think of me as a he, and when they say he, not only does it reinforce in their brains that I am a he, it also reinforces in the brains of the people who are listening,” Sasha explains. “It doesn’t really directly affect me, at least to hear it—it’s more like, Huh, that’s not right. And when people use the right pronoun, it feels validating.”
It was tough sometimes, watching Sasha navigate a world that didn’t even have a category for them. Occasionally, Debbie wished Sasha would ease up a little—resist correcting well-meaning relatives who said he instead of they, for example. But there was something admirable about it, too, Karl pointed out. Knowing how shy Sasha was, he admired Sasha’s newfound willingness to speak up, to stand out, to be seen.
Of course, you rarely notice when you come to the fork in the road. It just feels like another day. A day when you didn’t go to school because you were sick or your baby sister was sick, or you didn’t study for that test so why bother taking it, or your clothes looked ratty and you were tired of hearing about it, or someone was looking for you and you needed to lay low for a few days, or any of a hundred other reasons that made not going to class seem like a better choice than going. Only once you stopped going it just seemed too hard to start again. Days rolled into weeks. Weeks into months. And then at some point you realized you’d entered the future. The one you never planned on. The one where everything was going to be that much harder.
These were big dreams in her part of town. Of the roughly six hundred African American boys who started Oakland high schools as freshmen each year, only about three hundred ended up graduating. Fewer than one hundred graduated with the requirements needed to attend California state college or university. The odds of landing in the back of a police cruiser, on the other hand, were much better. African American boys made up less than 30 percent of Oakland’s underage population but accounted for nearly 75 percent of all juvenile arrests.
That’s how everyone knew Richard—as the funny one, the one who made people smile. He pulled pranks like putting ketchup on people’s faces while they slept or ambushing them with water balloons when they’d just woken up. He would do anything for a laugh—put on one of his female cousin’s sexy cropped sweaters, for example, or post a selfie on Instagram of himself dressed in a bra and a wig, gazing into the bathroom mirror with a sultry expression. I’m a THOT for Halloween, the caption explained.
Sasha’s bus ride to and from Maybeck High School took an hour and involved as many as two transfers, but Sasha didn’t mind. They had always loved the bus. Loved the intersecting lines of transit routes on the map, the crisp procession of times on the schedule. In their spare time, they drew maps of new bus, subway, and streetcar lines, or read up on historical public transit systems.
“That boy was on fire, wasn’t he?” a man remarks as Sasha pushes through the back doors to the sidewalk. Behind him, Sasha’s mustached rescuer paces the aisle. “Call an ambulance,” he croaks. He goes to the door of the bus and calls to Sasha, who roams the sidewalk with a cell phone, charred legs. “You need to call an ambulance, man.”
“A passenger on an Oakland, Calif., public bus received burns to his legs after his kilt was set on fire,” UPI wrote. The word kilt seemed to have gotten lodged in the minds of reporters. It was in every report, as if Sasha had been on the way home from bagpipe practice. The Daily Mail, in the United Kingdom, even illustrated the report with a photo of a kilt, explaining a kilt is “the national dress of Scotland.”
“A super-predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim without giving it a second thought,” he explained. And he warned that the numbers of these “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” teens were growing. By the mid-2000s, he predicted, their numbers would double or even triple, unleashing a tidal wave of violence across the nation. “As many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black males,” Dilulio wrote in 1996 article entitled “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours.”
“I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake. Not only did I hurt you but I hurt your family & friends and also my family & friends for I have brought shame to them and our country and I shall be punished which is going to be hard for me because I’m not made to be incarcerated.”
“People have different habitats,” he explained. “Some people have it better than others. They grew up in good neighborhoods. Their family has jobs. They have good income. They don’t understand. Their life is so good, they think everybody’s life is good. They don’t understand the struggles people go through. I don’t know where you grew up at, if it’s like a low-income area, where there’s lots of violence and crime. But if you grew up in a low-income area and all you see is crime and drugs? If you have family that does crime? You see it. It has an impact on you. If you’re around it a lot, it’s hard to do good.”
Donald Williams Jr., an African American freshman at San Jose Sate University, had been relentlessly bullied by the white students he lived with a four-bedroom dormitory suite. The white kids, also freshmen, had insisted on calling Williams “three-fifths,” a reference to the clause in the original US Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining population for representation in Congress. They clamped a bike lock around his neck and claimed to have lost the key. They wrote Nigger on a whiteboard and draped a Confederate flag over a cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley in suite’s living room. They locked him in his room. And they claimed it was all just a series of good-natured pranks. In the end, three eighteen-year-old white students were expelled for what they did to Williams, and a seventeen-year-old was suspended. The three who were expelled were also charged in criminal court. The charge: misdemeanor battery with a hate-crime enhancement, which carried a maximum penalty of a year and a half in county jail. A jury eventually convicted all three of battery but acquitted one of the students of the hate-crime charge and deadlocked the others.
“Actually,” [Andrew] said, “I’m starting to identify a little bit as—I don’t even know the word I want to use yet. I like androgynous. I like genderqueer.” What held him back? Fear. Fear of other people’s judgements, their questions, their hostility, their fascination. “Because I fall neatly within the binary, I feel comfortable right now,” he explained. “But if I were to radically shift my appearance in a way that more androgynous, I don’t know how comfortable that would be for me. I mean, I’ve already been asked enough questions about my genitals. I’m just done with that.”