Conservatives Just Don't Understand That Racism Runs Deep in American Education

Behind the push to roll back school discipline protections lies a dangerous dismissal of bias in classrooms.

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Betsy DeVos and company are at it again. The DeVos-led Department of Education is currently cooking up ways to get rid of the 2014 Obama-era guidelines for K-12 public school discipline, which was aimed at ameliorating discrepancies based on race, class and disability when it comes to how students are punished in school.

In November, conservative think tanks Center of the American Experiment and the Fordham Institute helped coordinate a meeting at the Department of Educationwherein teachers critical of the 2014 guidelines testified about their experiences with violent students in their schools. Such testimony is being collected by conservatives to argue that the guidelines represent not only a sort of governmental “PC police” but that they are also actively making U.S. schools more unsafe by muzzling how teachers are able to discipline their students.

For a time, education reform used to be a bipartisan or nonpartisan enterprise for improving student achievement,” writeRobert Pondiscio and Max Eden of the Fordham and Manhattan Institutes, respectively, in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “But much of the movement has morphed into an arm of the social-justice industrial complex, dedicated to causes du jour from the travel ban to transgender bathrooms.”

In addition to disparaging the humanity of immigrant families and transgender people as if their lives are no more than a liberal fad, Pondiscio and Eden go on to reference the school-to-prison pipelinein scare quotes, arguing that education reform activists’ concern about racism in schools is a “refus[al] to admit the possibility that differences in poverty and family structure play a role.” This type of argument is a shorthand for the “culture of poverty” argument expounded in the infamous Moynihan Report during the 1960s, which controversially explained black poverty and family instability as in large part a cultural defect of the black family structure, found in the figure of the overbearing black mother in particular.

Conservatives’ latching onto such an explanation allows them to gloss over black oppression as the logical historical outcome of being enslaved, denied intergenerational wealth-building opportunities through that enslavement (and on the contrary, growing the wealth of white families through forced and unpaid labor), disenfranchised from jobs and housing, and exposed to manifold other forms of violent anti-black terrorismthat have punctuated black life in America since black people were brought to this nation’s shores against their wills.

Pitting education reformers against teachers, Pondiscio and Eden claim in a false dichotomy that “[s]ocial justice reformers … limi[t] teachers’ subjective disciplinary judgment ... blind[ing] themselves to reality as a school spirals dangerously out of control.”

In contrast, Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA and a former teacher for a decade, tells AlterNet that the 2014 guidelines are crucial for addressing the implicit bias that exists in schools, even among well-meaning teachers, just as such bias exists throughout society.

“Stereotypes are in the air we breathe,” says Losen. “Not because we want [them] to [be], but because in every depiction [in media], we have not escaped the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and after that, the criminalization of black youth and the negative characterization of black males.

“What we find from research is that these negative stereotypes permeate our thinking in ways we’re just not aware of. And that’s not to blame teachers or slander them… it’s to acknowledge that the playing field is not level.”

Derek Black, professor of law at the University of South Carolina, voices a similar position, saying, “School suspension rates have skyrocketed over the past four decades and the lion’s share of the increase has been on the backs of poor and minority children.

“In most districts across the nation,” explains Black, “African American students are suspended and expelled at anywhere from two to six times the rate of white students. And it is not because they misbehave so much more. Studies consistently show that even when engaging in the exact same type of misbehavior, minorities are more likely to punished, and punished more severely, than white students.”

These types of inequalities are what the Obama-era guidelines sought to remedy as a response to the reality of systemic racism, classism, and ableism, systems of oppression that conservative ideologues attempt to downplay or outright attack in their arguments against the guidelines.

Addressing the conservative claim that investigating the disproportionate punishment of students with disabilities and students of color will turn schools into dens of violence, Curtis L. Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, wrote recently, “[T]he [Obama-era] guidance … does not inform school districts that they must refrain from suspending students who behave in a dangerous manner toward students, staff, or themselves.” According to Decker, “It does not dictate to states or schools how they should structure their programming. Schools may choose to implement the recommendations found in the guidance or not.”

“What it does do,” argues Decker, “is support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow all our nation’s students to learn and thrive.”

Losen has come to a similar conclusion, saying that in Los Angeles, “teachers were not complaining [about] the change in policy; they were complaining that they weren’t getting enough training in restorative justice. They wanted more of the change, not less of the change.”

Such teachers, according to Losen, are more interested in shifting existing school resources, especially those related to professional development and classroom management.

Many conservative researchers’ refusal to recognize the reality of the unequal playing field for students of color, says Losen, “informs their take on any kind of research,” with the result being that they often rely on cherry-picked evidence to support their claims. The Obama-era guidelines are in fact supported by major research studies, such as a 2016 Yale study that found that black male children are more likely, as early as preschool, to be closely observed by teachers in the expectation they will misbehave.

Such constant and disproportionate monitoring from the beginning of one’s life, Losen says, “can erode trust in the institution if you’re a black male and you start to pick up on the fact that you’re being watched all the time and being profiled all the time.

“Eventually as you become a young adult you’ll become more aware [of the discrimination], and that will breed resentment and mistrust.”

The notion that schools are “spiraling out of control” due to dangerous students too often functions as part of the assumption of black male criminality, a pattern that has been documented in the field of education. Ann Arnett Ferguson, in her 2001 book Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, refers to this process as “adultification,” whereby “black children’s … transgressions are made to take on a sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naïveté.

“The discourse of childhood as an unfolding developmental stage in the life cycle is displaced in this mode of framing school trouble,” Ferguson writes. In other words, young black students, especially boys, are seen as being on the same level as adult criminals. Ferguson gives as an example a white teacher who—shortly after the 1992 LA riots in response to the acquittal of the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King—called black students “looters” after they failed to return books she loaned them and described the situation as “just like the looting in Los Angeles.”

History has shown time and time again, from Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, that this adultification of black boys can have fatal consequences. Yet black children—including girls, who, according to a 2017 study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty, are perceived by adults as “less innocent and more adult-like” than white girls starting at age 5—deserve to learn, feel safe and thrive in educational environments where they won’t be punished at higher rates than their white peers due to racist assumptions about their lack of innocence and predilections for criminality.

At the core of conservative attacks on the 2014 guidelines is an attack on the reality of the implicit bias that continues to permeate classrooms across the country, and it must be vociferously challenged at every turn.

In the end, says Losen, “If you know there’s a better way to do something, and you know what you’re doing is fundamentally unsound, it behooves the district to change those policies. 

“Anything else is immoral.”

Shannon Weber is a New England-based writer, researcher and editor whose work has appeared in venues from Teen Vogue and Patheos to international sexuality studies journals. She is a former professor of women's and gender studies and has taught at Tufts University, Brandeis University, Northeastern University, UC Santa Barbara, and Wellesley College. 

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