So You Want to Talk About Race (12 page)

BOOK: So You Want to Talk About Race
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Argument 2: If an employer
is racist or sexist, you can just sue them.
Here’s the thing, an employer can make up just about any excuse for why they did not hire someone, did not promote someone, or fired someone. Unless you can prove malice, unless there is a paper trail of racism or sexism, it is incredibly hard to get a judge to find in your favor. In “no fault” states, an employer can fire an employee for just about
any reason and it is the responsibility of the employee to prove discrimination. Furthermore, when most employers demand confidentiality about salary, it’s hard for employees to even know that they are being discriminated against in their wages. But when we see far fewer women and people of color being interviewed, hired, and promoted in certain fields, we know that there is a problem that needs to
be addressed.

Argument 3: Affirmative action teaches people of color and women that they don’t have to work as hard as white men.
Sigh. Here’s the basic truth: the vast majority of affirmative action goals aim for a representative number of people of color and women. This means that if there are 10 percent black people in the area, the ultimate goal (not quota) would be around 10 percent black
employees or students. The goal is simply equal opportunity for female applicants and applicants of color. Why would a representational number of people of color be so much less competitive than a representational number of white people? Is it really only direct competition with white men that motivates women and people of color to work hard?

Argument 4: Affirmative action is unfair to white
men because it causes them to lose opportunities to less qualified women and people of color.
As with argument 3, remember that these are representational goals, of which we are falling far short. When you say that a representational number of women or people of color cuts out more deserving white men, you are saying that women and people of color deserve to be less represented in our schools
and our companies and that white men are deserving of an over-representational majority of these spots. We see the disparities in jobs and education among race and gender lines. Either you believe these disparities exist because you believe that people of color and women are less intelligent, less hard working, and less talented than white men, or you believe that there are systemic issues keeping
women and people of color from being hired into jobs, promoted, paid a fair wage, and accepted into college.

Argument 5: Affirmative action doesn’t work.
This is not true. While affirmative action may not have been the racial panacea that some had originally hoped, it has been one of the most successful programs for helping combat the end-effects of racial discrimination in education and employment
that we’ve tried. Multiple studies have shown that affirmative action programs increased the percentage of people of color in jobs in the public sector and drastically increased the number of people of color in colleges and universities. And while the arguments around affirmative action often come down to race, white women have been by far the biggest recipients of the benefits of affirmative
action.

Yes, affirmative action, when fully implemented, can make a measurably positive impact on the socioeconomic outlook for women and people of color who are in the position to benefit from it. Is it the final answer we’ve been waiting for to end racial oppression? Absolutely not. In truth, even if implemented across the public and private sectors, even if vigorously enforced, affirmative
action will never be more than a Band-Aid on a festering sore as long as it’s still just trying to correct the end effects of systemic racism. If there is some critique of affirmative action that I’m inclined to agree with it is those posed by academics like Michelle Alexander in
The New Jim Crow
. The argument against affirmative action that holds the most water for me is that when affirmative
action is viewed as “enough” it can be detrimental to the fight for racial justice. We must never forget that without systemic change and without efforts to battle the myriad of ways in which systemic racism impacts people of color of all classes, backgrounds, and abilities, our efforts at ending systemic racial oppression will fail. We must refuse to be placated by measures that only serve a select
few—and affirmative action does only serve a select few. We must never forget that people of color who will never want to go to college, who will never be able to go to college, who cannot work, who choose not to work, who choose to work in the public sector—they all deserve to be treated as human beings free from racial bigotry and persecution. We must remember that there are other, huge crises
affecting communities of color that also need to be
addressed with urgency (like the mass incarceration of black and Hispanic men in America). But the work to truly end systemic racism, while crucial, is a long and hard road. And while we are fighting that battle, many people of color are being crushed by a racist educational and employment system and their children are inheriting that same disadvantage
as they try to enter into higher education and the workforce. Affirmative action can help with that. Even if we were to flip a switch today and end all racism and racial oppression, millions of people of color would still be disadvantaged by racial oppression of yesterday, and that would need to be addressed with policies like affirmative action that seek to replace opportunities previously
denied unless we feel like leaving an entire generation in the dust and hope that their children will be able to rise from those ashes.

We have to fight for our future, we have to work for change, but we also need to help people now.

| eight |
What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

A
CCORDING TO THE LETTER FROM HIS SCHOOL THAT
his mom forwarded to me, Sagan was having a very bad day. He had pushed one teacher, struck two others. He had refused to listen to instructions and he refused to stay in his classroom. He was mimicking a gun with his hand and pointing it at students. Sagan had assaulted teachers and threatened students
and would be suspended from school. A school board member was arguing that charges should be filed against him.

“Her son assaulted two staff members,” the email said. The staff member documenting the incidents also noted that Sagan’s mom, Natasha, was not apparently interested in discussing the matter with him at the moment. It really seemed like she just couldn’t be bothered.

I was reading
this letter at first thinking, wow, Sagan really is a threat to his school. Multiple assaults and disruptions, all in one day. A suspension seems, if anything, light. I began questioning why Natasha, whom I had run into on a few previous occasions at community gatherings but did not know very well, had been so dismissive when confronted by school officials with her son’s violent behavior.

It
wasn’t until I got to the bottom of the email, when the school staff member described having Sagan draw what happened that day and they indicated that he had drawn a number “5” on his drawing of himself, that I realized that I had misunderstood what was very wrong indeed—not with Sagan, with the school.

Why was Sagan drawing a “5” on himself? Because he was only five years old.

When I talked
to Natasha a few days after the incident, she was still reeling. Her son Sagan, portrayed as a violent, out-of-control kid in the school email, had never been in trouble at school before. But his day had started out poorly, and as the discipline continued with each outburst, he acted out more and more. There’s no indication in the many paragraphs documenting the incidents that any staff members tried
to redirect Sagan’s energy or ask him why he was upset. Each of the four staff members he encountered that day simply ordered him to stop doing what he was doing, and instituted some sort of punishment when he didn’t respond the way that they wanted.

When his mom came to pick him up early from school due to a prearranged appointment that the school had already been made aware of, she was being
honest when she said that she did not have time to talk with staff right then. When the staffer tried to shock her into staying by blurting out that her son had “assaulted” multiple staff members that day, Natasha was appalled. As a mother, an educator, and a black woman, she was fully aware of what “assaulted” can mean when you are describing the behavior of black boys.

I am the mother of two
boys and I remember what five looks like. I know from experience that five-year-olds are just learning self-control and empathy, and the slightest stressor—a coming cold, a missed breakfast, lack of sleep—can turn a five-year-old into a monster. I have been hit by five-year-olds. Many parents and caregivers have. It is not okay, and there are consequences—usually a time-out followed with a long
discussion. But it is not assault. Why? Because I’m a thirty-six-year-old adult who is not going to be irreparably harmed by the blows of someone barely out of toddlerdom, and because I understand that young children are… well… young children.

Nobody asked if Sagan was feeling well, nobody asked if Sagan was frustrated or sad or uncomfortable about something. Nobody took the time to figure out
how they could help this boy (the only black boy in his entire class), nobody asked what they could do to help Sagan rejoin his class and be able to learn alongside his fellow classmates.

He was simply suspended. He was denied education. Five months into his kindergarten year and Sagan had already learned that his teachers did not want him in class, that he was too “bad” to be educated. Luckily
for Sagan and his mother, they did not follow up on the school board member’s recommendation and press charges against the five-year-old for “threatening” students with his finger gun. Natasha was eventually able to convince the school to lift Sagan’s suspension, after pleading, arguing, and threatening to sue. She is still not sure how she is going to get Sagan to love school again. But at least
she was able to keep the system from swallowing her son completely, for now.

O
UR PUBLIC-SCHOOL SYSTEM SEES BLACK AND BROWN
children as violent, disruptive, unpredictable future criminals.

This may seem like the hyperbole of an angry black woman, but when I look at the way in which our black and brown students are treated in schools, it is the only conclusion I can come to.

Black students make
up only 16 percent of our school populations, and yet 31 percent of students who are suspended and 40 percent of students who are expelled are black. Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Seventy percent of students who are arrested in school and referred to law enforcement are black. In the 2011–2012 school year alone, 92,000 students were arrested.
1

When I look at these numbers, there are two possible explanations. I can assume that our black and brown children
are
violent, disruptive, unpredictable future criminals who are not deserving of the same access to education as white children. I can assume that there is something fundamentally wrong with black and brown people, something fundamentally broken that is sending our kids out of school
and into prison.

Or, I can assume that the school system is marginalizing, criminalizing, and otherwise failing our black and brown kids in large numbers.

I am a black woman, who was at one time a black child, who is raising brown children, who has known and loved countless other black and brown children, who believes that children of any color are amazing gifts of unimaginable possibility to
be cherished and protected. I know that we are not broken.

So the only conclusion I can come to is the same conclusion that numerous scholars, activists, even educators have come to: we have a serious problem with how our schools are educating and disciplining black and brown children. And that problem is called the school-to-prison pipeline.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” is the term commonly
used to describe the alarming number of black and brown children who are funneled directly and indirectly from our schools into our prison industrial complex, contributing to devastating levels of mass incarceration that lead to one in three black men and one in six Latino men going to prison in their lifetimes, in addition to increased levels of incarceration for women of color.

The school-to-prison
pipeline starts with the high level of suspensions and expulsions mentioned earlier. The disproportionately punitive levels of school discipline toward black and brown children does more than impact a student’s year. Psychologists attest that overly harsh discipline destroys children’s trust in teachers and schools, along with damaging their self-esteem.
2
Students suspended from school are more
likely to have to repeat that entire year, or they may choose to drop out entirely. Students arrested at school are more likely to be arrested again in the future. Young boys whose fathers have served jail time are more likely to be deemed emotionally “unready” for school, repeating the cycle of trouble and disproportionate discipline in their classrooms.
3

Those of you in the educational fields,
or who know and love educators, may wonder if I’m insinuating that teachers who have dedicated their lives to educating our children are actually evil racists who hate black and brown children and are working to destroy them. I have known and appreciated many amazing teachers—some who made a positive impact on my life, some who’ve made positive impacts on the lives of my children. I am very aware
that teachers are underpaid, underappreciated, overworked, and often overwhelmed. When we look at the school-to-prison pipeline we must understand that while many teachers do contribute to the problems that black and brown children face, there are many other contributing factors to the disenfranchisement and criminalization of our youth in schools.

So what factors do contribute to the school-to-prison
pipeline? Here are some main contributors:

Racial bias of school administrators.
Our school employees are not exempt from the racist influences of our society. The image of violent black and brown youth impacts us all and it makes its way into school policy. Studies have indicated that race is really a deciding factor of how and whether students are disciplined. The punitive level
of school discipline—how harshly children are punished—is positively correlated with how many black children are in a school, not with, what many would expect, the level of drug or delinquency problems at a school.
4

Racial bias of teachers.
As discussed previously in this book, studies have shown that teachers are more likely to look for trouble in black and brown children and
to view the play of black and brown children as aggression.

Lack of cultural sensitivity for black and brown children.
Many teachers are unprepared to deal with the challenges that black and brown children are more likely to face—children who are more likely be arriving at school already disadvantaged due to the poverty and insecurity facing many families of color. The vast majority
of teachers are white females, and many are unfamiliar with and not trained to work with the different ways in which black and brown children—especially black and brown boys—can interact with each other and with adults. This lack of teacher communication skills, understanding, and resources in working with black and brown children may help explain why black children are more likely to be suspended
for subjective reasons, like being “disrespectful” to a teacher, while white children are more likely to be suspended for provable reasons, like drugs or violence.
5

The pathologizing of black children.
Many (likely underfunded and understaffed) schools who find themselves ill-equipped to work with black students who are having interpersonal issues in class are quicker to give students
a blanket diagnosis of learning disability than they would with struggling white students. This segregates black children from the general population of white students, abandoning them to our already strained and underperforming special education programs that are
not designed to meet the needs of kids who do not have developmental disabilities or true learning disabilities, but are simply a disciplinary
challenge. While black children are no more likely than children of other races to have developmental or learning disabilities, they are the most likely to be placed in special education programs. Students of color who have been labeled “disabled” are more likely (by 31 percent) to be suspended and expelled from school than other kids, a harmful marriage of both ableism and racism. One
in four black, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and mixed-race boys identified by schools as having a developmental disability was suspended in the 2011–2012 school year.
6

Zero-tolerance policies.
Fear of violent black and brown youth, compounded by high-profile school shootings primarily perpetrated by white youth, led to the rise of zero-tolerance policies in schools beginning
in the ’90s. The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 mandated a year-long suspension for kids caught bringing a weapon to school. A year-long suspension can be devastating to a child’s educational outlook. And as schools have broadly identified “weapons” as anything from guns and knives to camping forks and “finger-guns,” black and brown children have found themselves disproportionately affected by these
rules and suspended at increasing rates.
7

Increased police presence in schools.
Along with zero-tolerance policies came a rise in the number of police officers in schools, known as School Resource Officers (SROs). These officers have become an easy way for schools to delegate their disciplinary responsibilities to
a criminal justice system that has already shown quantifiable racial
bias. Data shows that, when controlling for poverty, schools with SROs have nearly five times the amount of in-school arrests as schools without SROs.

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