Ahmed Isn’t the Only One: Teen Clock Maker Just the Latest Face of Schools’ Race Problems

Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest in Texas for building a clock is part of a larger trend of racial and ethnic discrimination.

(Photo: Twitter)

Sep 16, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Encouraging the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists may be a national priority, one the White House has said is “critical to America’s global leadership.” But that didn’t stop a suburban Dallas school from arresting 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim teenager of Sudanese descent, on Monday. His crime: building a clock from scratch—a clock that teachers and school administrators assumed was a bomb.

The incident has sparked international outrage, with hundreds of thousands of people using the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed on social media. It has also turned the spotlight on Islamophobia in the United States, as well as the stereotyping and racial prejudice students experience.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2020 the majority of kids in the U.S. will be from racial or ethnic minority groups. Ahmed’s situation exposes “how often kids from urban, rural, and/or immigrant communities—basically anyone not suburban middle class—are discouraged from pursuing STEM and the arts,” said Danielle N. Lee, a black biologist who studies animal behavior and blogs at Scientific American.

Teachers discourage kids “with faint praise, ignoring their creativity and effort,” said Lee. “They create clubs or activities they know are beyond their price point or bus route. Or make the academic requirements so stringent that only an absolutely perfect kid—or one with enough family resources to buffer mistakes—can participate.”

RELATED: 8 Dirty Secrets About the Racial Divide in America’s Schools

The incident began on Monday when the freshman, who fell in love with robotics in middle school and regularly tinkers with electronics at home, proudly took his clock to his school, MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, to show his engineering teacher.

“He was like, ‘That’s really nice,’ ” Ahmed told The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday. “ ‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’ ”

Ahmed stowed the clock in his backpack, but it beeped while he was in English class, so the enthusiastic teen inventor brought it up to the front of the room to show his teacher.

“She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he told the paper. “I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me.’ ”

The teacher wouldn’t let Ahmed take the clock back, and by sixth period, he found himself pulled out of class and escorted to a room where school administrators and police officers were waiting to interrogate him. He was threatened with expulsion and pressured to admit he had designed a bomb.

Police officers arrested and cuffed Ahmed, who was wearing a NASA T-shirt at the time, and escorted him out of the school in full view of his peers. “We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” police spokesperson James McLellan told the paper. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”

On Wednesday, Irving police Chief Larry Boyd said that charges would not be formally filed against Ahmed and that he had been handcuffed “for his safety and for the safety of the officers,” reported The Dallas Morning News. “The follow-up investigation revealed the device apparently was a homemade experiment, and there’s no evidence to support the perception he intended to create alarm,” said Boyd.

“He just wants to invent good things for mankind,” the teen’s dad, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, told the paper. “But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated.”

A Twitter account for Ahmed was set up on Wednesday morning. He shared an image of himself thanking his supporters and acknowledging the racial implications of what happened to him.

Police and school officials denied that the teen’s racial or ethnic background had anything to do with his arrest. However, given the national emphasis on STEM, Ahmed’s teachers could have assumed that the teen was following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, who both tinkered as teenagers. That they didn’t, say critics, is evidence of the racial double standard that seems to exist: If you’re a student of color, experimenting and tinkering is seen as dangerous; for white students, it means you’re a genius.

Some folks are tweeting images of themselves with clocks as an expression of solidarity.

Others are sharing a meme comparing the praise heaped on a white 13-year-old in the U.K. who created a nuclear fusion reactor to the way Ahmed was treated.

Another image being shared shows a white child openly carrying a gun in Texas next to an image of Ahmed being cuffed.

Lee, who is conducting postdoctoral research at Cornell University and is a TED Fellow, has been recognized by the White House for her efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in the sciences. She knows firsthand why the prejudiced way students from diverse backgrounds are treated needs to change. “All of the black and brown scientists I know in my field—ecology, biology—have experienced some sort of law enforcement interaction while doing their work,” she said.

“The cops were called on me so often they finally left a note with dispatch to explain to people that I was not trespassing,” said Lee about her time doing doctoral fieldwork at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “It’s just frustrating and deflating how often people seem confused when a brown person explains they are doing science, not engaging in criminal activity—but they just don’t get it, because, well, they don’t connect science and curiosity to brown faces and bodies.”

Indeed, in 2013, Kiera Wilmot, a black 16-year-old girl in Florida, was expelled from school, arrested, and charged with two felonies after an experiment (she mixed aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner) that she was working on before school exploded. After a public outcry from advocates including Lee, the charges against her were dropped. Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam subsequently funded a trip to the U.S. Advanced Space Academy for Kiera and her twin sister.

In Ahmed’s case, on Wednesday Zuckerberg invited the teen to come visit Facebook. President Obama tweeted an invitation to the White House.

Other celebs have stepped up to advocate for Ahmed. Anil Dash created “Help Ahmed Make,” a simple Google Docs–based campaign in which people can write in how they’d like to help the teen. “Note: A great way to help is by suggesting things that encourage forming a community of makers, expanding beyond Ahmed to the others who he will inspire to also be makers, and ideas that can help change the culture of Irving to be more welcoming to innovators of all kinds,” the form reads.

Bobak Ferdowsi, the Mohawk-sporting systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on the Mars Rover, tweeted his support and pointed out that if he’d been treated like Ahmed, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

Lee believes the greater science community needs to connect with and support Ahmed—and kids like him—before incidents such as this take place. “Tinkering at home is great, but part of the problem he experienced is a lack of community support beyond his family of his interests,” she said. “Extracurricular clubs, especially those sponsored by science societies or universities, have some clout that offers a cocoon of protection to vulnerable kids like Ahmed and Kiera. Having some lettered individuals vouch for kids like them matters.” After all, “people from underserved and underrepresented communities often lack the social and political capital to avoid legal ramifications,” she continued.

Invites to Facebook and the White House aside, Ahmed’s family seems to be thinking about the legal ramifications of the actions of the teacher and school administration. On Wednesday morning, the teen posted a picture of himself and his family on the way to visit their lawyer.