Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
HE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE IS A COMPLEX ISSUE
, but it is easy to see that it is vital that we start talking about it more. So how do we address and confront the school-to-prison pipeline in conversation? Here are some tips:
Include the school-to-prison pipeline in your broader discussions of racial inequality and oppression.
Far too often, the school-to-prison pipeline is only discussed in academic and activist circles, but it is an issue that touches the lives of countless children of color—and their white friends. It is also deeply interconnected with issues that we do talk about often, like police brutality, mass
incarceration, and the wage gap.
Talk to your schools and school boards.
Even if you do not have black or brown children, you should be asking your schools what their disciplinary procedures are, what the rate of suspension and expulsion for black and Latinx students is, and what the racial “achievement gap” for their school is and what they plan to do about it. This should be
a top priority for all schools, but it only will be if we make it an issue they cannot ignore. (I and many other people of color prefer the term “opportunity gap” as that focuses on the cause of academic disparity shown in grades, graduation rates, and testing
scores—less opportunity for children of color to flourish in education than white children—instead of the end result. This also puts more
responsibility for improvement on the education system instead of on the shoulders of disadvantaged children.)
Recognize the achievements of black and brown children.
While I believe that exceptionalizing black and brown children (i.e., “Look, here’s a good one!”) can do more harm than good, the truth is that the everyday achievements of black and brown children are more likely
to go unnoticed, while their shortcomings are more likely to be called out. Recognize everyday wins, just as you would white children, not as rare exceptions or as othering “triumph over adversity” stories, but as expected achievements of children just as capable as any other.
Normalize black and brown childhood.
When you talk about children in general, pause that mental image.
Are you picturing a black or brown child? Whiteness is default in our society, and that goes for how children are depicted on television, in books, in movies, and in our minds. The memes we share online, the cute cards with pictures of kids we give as gifts, our cherubs, our child stars, the precocious kids in our family comedies—they are all almost exclusively white. We celebrate the complex lives
of white children, when they are good and bad, cute and exhausting. We see them as whole children. But children of color are rarely depicted that way, as complex individuals in their own environment. We don’t see how black kids play together in our movies, we don’t see how black parents raise their kids on our televisions. We
are, as a species, biologically and culturally predisposed to nurture
our children, but when our society only defines “children” as young people of a certain skin color, it can prevent some from seeing children of color as children to be loved and protected. I will never forget when twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by a police officer in a park for holding a toy gun on November 22, 2014. Cleveland Police Union President Steve Loomis later remarked in response
to the outcry and heartbreak over the death of a twelve-year-old boy, “He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” I can guarantee that to his mother, to his family, to his community—Tamir Rice was a child, a precious child, just like any twelve-year-old white boy is allowed to be.
language that stereotypes black and brown kids.
How often have you heard people talk of “thugs” or “hoodlums” or “gangbangers” and known almost immediately that they were talking about black and brown youth? Our children are criminalized in casual conversation every day. Their swagger is analyzed, the sag of their pants pathologized—we cannot let any of this slide. This is not just how random
strangers see our children, it’s how our teachers see our children, our police officers see our children, our juries see our children, and our politicians see our children. Challenge the stereotyping of black and brown youth, and the criminalization of black and brown youth culture. A swagger is not intent, baggy jeans are not intent, a bandana is not intent. This is culture, and any suggestion otherwise
Discuss deeper causes of defiant and antisocial behavior in black and brown youth.
If you find yourself in a discussion on the “problems of black and brown youth” don’t let it stay on the surface. When white kids get in trouble, we don’t launch into discussions of “what is wrong with white kids”—we ask things like, “What does this kid need? What is keeping this kid from
thriving?” Resist attempts to treat the behavior of black and brown children as both the cause and symptom of the problems they may be facing in schools.
Don’t erase disabled black and brown youth.
While black youth are more likely to be labeled as disabled when they are exhibiting social issues in school, once labeled, disabled black and brown youth are often left out of discussions
on the school-to-prison pipeline altogether. Disabled kids of color are the most likely to be made victims of overly punitive school discipline and criminalization. Further, once criminalized, disabled people of color are more likely to face brutality by police. Our special education programs are failing the vast majority of disabled children—especially disabled children of color, and this
must be addressed if we want to stop the criminalization of black and brown youth.
Challenge the legitimacy of white-centered education.
The truth is, so long as our children are being taught by white teachers, being taught by schools focused on the needs of white children, learning from textbooks teaching white culture, and taking tests designed for white students, our children
of color are going to have a hard time engaging with and succeeding in schools. We must
challenge the assumption that having our children succeed in a white supremacist school system is the best we can hope for, for kids of any race. We need to ask for truly diverse and inclusive education for all of our kids.