Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This country’s prestigious colleges and universities have a serious race problem.
At the University of Missouri, student athletes have walked off the sports field in solidarity with other students of colour protesting numerous racially intolerant incidents, including Black students enduring racial slurs on the streets and a residence hall being defaced with feces in the shape of a swastika. At UCLA, a student was photographed attending a Halloween party in Blackface, only the latest of such incidents that occur annually. Multiple lawsuits alleging North Carolina Central University, University of Illinois, and St. Mary’s College created racially discriminatory environments for faculty and students of colour. University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members were videotaped in Marchsinging one of the frat’s traditional songs that describes a lynching, and SAE frat members reportedly subjected a Black student to racist slurs at Duke University.
At Yale University, SAE members threw a “Whites Only” party last week with students reporting on social media that a person posted at the door of the party turned away visibly minority Black and Latino students, as well as someone rejected as “gay”, and openly said the party was only admitting “White girls”. Just days later, Professor Erika Christakis (Master of Silliman College) emailed Silliman residents with a jaw-droppingly tone deafdefense of offensive Halloween costumes. In her digital screed, Christakis lamented university “censure” of racist behavior, and argued that Halloween should be a time when offensive transgressions should be celebrated. She questioned if it was really “appropriative” for a White child to engage in racial cross-dressing as Mulan (yes), and if she was engaging in fetishism when she purchased a sari — because it was “beautiful” — on her last trip to Bangladesh (also, yes).
In a head-spinning display of White privilege, Christakis wrote: “Am I fetishizing and appropriating other people’s cultural experiences? Probably. But I really like them, too.”
Quoting her husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a faculty member at Yale, Erika Christakis wrote:
Christakis’ email propelled Yale into mainstream news headlines as students took to the streets to confront Nicholas Christakis over the email. They also staged a mass demonstration before Yale’s first Black Dean of Students, Jonathan Holloway, issuing an emotional plea for him to do something, anything, about on-campus racial hostility.
It’s tempting for those of us on the outside of the Ivory Tower to conclude that the simmering racial debate at Yale is all about a frat party and an insensitive faculty email. It’s not. The protests at Yale, University of Missouri, and other schools are pulling back the veil that has obscured for far too long how our institutions of higher education are openly hostile to today’s students of colour.
Most of our nation’s most prestigious schools can trace their roots to a time of unabashed exclusion, when only White, male, upper-income students were permitted entry. Time has seen an unbearably slow march towards racial and gender integration. Princeton University did not graduate its first Black undergraduate student until 1947, more than two centuries after the school’s founding. Yale did not enroll its first female students until 1969.
The protests making headlines at Yale University right now are about the continuing project of racial integration in higher education. More specifically, they highlight a lasting problem for colleges and universities: that racial tolerance requires more than the mere presence of a non-White student. After centuries of inaccess, our most prestigious schools have now opened their doors to students of colour, but they have extended those invitations without having entertained the far more difficult conversation about how to make those students feel truly welcome at institutions built upon a foundation of racism.
Today, students of colour live on campuses, and attend classes, surrounded by the scars of our schools’ more intolerant past, which now only serve to remind students that we do not truly belong. I remember being struck at Cornell by the campus’ historic Willard Straight Hall Student Union building – the center of non-academic student life – which was originally built with a segregated entrance for female students. The Union also contains a bank in the foyer that was installed following the landmark 36-hour takeover of the building by Black students in 1969 to protest an act of racial terrorism committed against a Black female co-op the night before. The bank’s presence at Willard Straight Hall is a silent condemnation of the struggle for Black liberation: it exists less than two hundred feet from another bank branch found in the campus store, and on-campus legend says that the bank was installed to discourage any future takeovers of the building by ensuring the act would be a federal crime. Cornell’s extensive gardens still bear the name Cornell Plantations, with nary a thought given to how this might impact the school’s Black students.
Most of the founders of our Ivy League schools benefacted from chattel slavery, but rarely do schools challenge how preservation of that history can be painful for the school’s contemporary Black students. At Yale, a portrait of Elihu Yale that hung in Woodbridge Hall until 2007 included the school’s founder being waited on by a collared Black slave (see Snoopy for more exposition on how images of Black slavery are used to create visual power dynamics in early and contemporary art). One of Yale’s 12 residential colleges is named for James C. Calhoun, a vocal proponent of chattel slavery during the abolition movement.
These structural reminders of racism (and sexism) persist (and are often vocally defended in the name of “preserving history”) while initiatives aimed towards helping students of colour combat the psychological impacts of campus intolerance are undercut. Affirmative action programs – necessary for higher education access for students of colour – face a new hearing before the Supreme Court this year, and some believe the conservative leaning of the Court’s current justices may lead to the dismantling of these diversity programs. Few campuses offer a community or cultural centre that creates a “safe space” for students of colour; those that do exist are profoundly underfunded. I wrote last week about the pending demise of Asian American Studies Programs at the University of Michigan, and how it’s time to step the fuck up in support of Asian American Studies and all other ethnic studies programs.
Our colleges and universities are supposed to be institutions of higher learning, yet for students of colour, we expect learning to take place for students adrift within an undercurrent of hostility. Stories of alarming racial intolerance and outright hate crimes filter out of the Ivory Tower on an almost weekly basis, and they have for decades; yet, as a nation, we treat these stories as isolated incidents, and turn a blind eye to the larger trend of racial intolerance that has plagued students of colour since the moment of our entry through the gates of these campuses.
Erika Christakis’ email last week reveals why: our most prestigious colleges and universities remain fortresses of White privilege where the most difficult racial conversations have failed to permeate into these schools’ upper echelons of leadership. Christakis’ email is telling with regard to the attitude schools take towards its students of colour. Christakis prioritizes the right to free speech over how that speech might be used to commit acts of overt racism towards students of colour; she urges the victims of such hatespeech to simply “ignore it”. This is, indeed, the traditional approach that colleges and universities have taken towards acts of racial intolerance on their campuses: whether a burning cross, or a noose, or a fecal swastika, or racist Halloween “play”, or structural celebrations of chattel slavery. Schools tell us to ignore these dehumanizing incidents, while they simultaneously embrace the delusion that respectful academic discourse can occur in a space where students of colour experience daily dehumanization and disrespect.
We endure campuses where the right of students to commit acts of heinous racism is valued more by school leadership than the hurt we feel because of it. We endure such a campus climate, because our schools were built upon a foundation of intolerance towards non-White students, and because we have undertaken few of the efforts needed to challenge that tradition of hatred.
Our institutions of higher education, indeed, have a race problem: they have imported the bodies of students of colour in pursuit of campus diversity, but they have not done the much more difficult and radical work of inviting in our hearts, our minds, or our souls.
At Courtney’s funeral, they decided to acknowledge the reality that redefined their lives: Their bright, beautiful daughter, just 20, who played the French horn in high school and dreamed of living in Hawaii, had been kicked out of the Marines for drugs. Eventually, she overdosed at her boyfriend’s grandmother’s house, where she died alone.
“When I was a kid, junkies were the worst,” Doug Griffin, 63, Courtney’s father, recalled in their comfortable home here in southeastern New Hampshire. “I used to have an office in New York City. I saw them.”
Noting that “junkies” is a word he would never use now, he said that these days, “they’re working right next to you and you don’t even know it. They’re in my daughter’s bedroom — they are my daughter.”
When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.
“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
Mr. Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 26 years, speaks to some of these parents regularly.
Their efforts also include lobbying statehouses, holding rallies and starting nonprofit organizations, making these mothers and fathers part of a growing backlash against the harsh tactics of traditional drug enforcement. These days, in rare bipartisan or even nonpartisan agreement, punishment is out and compassion is in.
The presidential candidates of both parties are now talking about the drug epidemic, with Hillary Rodham Clinton hosting forums on the issue as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina tell their own stories of loss while calling for more care and empathy.
Last week, President Obama traveled to West Virginia, a mostly white state with high levels of overdoses, to discuss his $133 million proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. The Justice Department is also preparing to release roughly 6,000 inmates from federal prisons as part of an effort to roll back the severe penalties issued to nonviolent drug dealers in decades past.
And in one of the most striking shifts in this new era, some local police departments have stopped punishing many heroin users. In Gloucester, Mass., those who walk into the police station and ask for help, even if they are carrying drugs or needles, are no longer arrested. Instead, they are diverted to treatment, despite questions about the police departments’ unilateral authority to do so. It is an approach being replicated by three dozen other police departments around the country.
“How these policies evolve in the first place, and the connection with race, seems very stark,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which examines racial issues in the criminal justice system.
Still, he and other experts said, a broad consensus seems to be emerging: The drug problem will not be solved by arrests alone, but rather by treatment.
Parents like the Griffins say that while they recognize the racial shift in heroin use, politicians and law enforcement are responding in this new way because “they realized what they were doing wasn’t working.”
“They’re paying more attention because people are screaming about it,” Mr. Griffin said. “I work with 100 people every day — parents, people in recovery, addicts — who are invading the statehouse, doing everything we can to make as much noise as we can to try to save these kids.”
An Epidemic’s New Terrain
Heroin’s spread into the suburbs and small towns grew out of an earlier wave of addiction to prescription painkillers; together the two trends are ravaging the country.
Deaths from heroin rose to 8,260 in 2013, quadrupling since 2000 and aggravating what some were already calling the worst drug overdose epidemic in United States history.
Over all, drug overdoses now cause more deaths than car crashes, with opioids like OxyContin and other pain medications killing 44 people a day.
Here in New England, the epidemic has grabbed officials by the lapels.
The old industrial cities, quiet small towns and rural outposts are seeing a near-daily parade of drug summit meetings, task forces, vigils against heroin, pronouncements from lawmakers and news media reports on the heroin crisis.
New Hampshire is typical of the hardest-hit states. Last year, 325 people here died of opioid overdoses, a 68 percent increase from 2013. Potentially hundreds more deaths were averted by emergency medical workers, who last year administered naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, in more than 1,900 cases.
Adding to the anxiety among parents, the state also ranks second to last, ahead only of Texas, in access to treatment programs; New Hampshire has about 100,000 people in need of treatment, state officials say, but the state’s publicly financed system can serve just 4 percent of them.
Since New Hampshire holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, residents have repeatedly raised the issue of heroin with the 2016 candidates.
Mrs. Clinton still recalls her surprise that the first question she was asked in April, at her first open meeting in New Hampshire as a candidate, was not about the economy or health care, but heroin. Last month, she laid out a $10 billion plan to combat and treat drug addiction over the next decade.
She has also led discussions on the topic around the country, including packed forums like the one in Laconia, N.H., where hundreds of politically engaged, mostly white middle-class men and women, stayed for two hours in a sweltering meeting hall to talk and listen. One woman told of the difficulties of getting her son into a good treatment program, and said he eventually took his own life. Another told Mrs. Clinton of the searing pain of losing her beloved son to heroin.
Many of the 15 Republican candidates for president have heard similar stories, and they are sharing their own.
“I have some personal experience with this as a dad, and it is the most heartbreaking thing in the world to have to go through,” Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, said at a town hall-style meeting in Merrimack, N.H., in August. His daughter, Noelle, was jailed twice while in rehab, for being caught with prescription pills and accused of having crack cocaine.
Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, tells audiences that she and her husband “buried a child to addiction.” And Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey released an ad here in New Hampshire declaring, “We need to be pro-life for the 16-year-old drug addict who’s laying on the floor of the county jail.”
Some black scholars said they welcomed the shift, while expressing frustration that earlier calls by African-Americans for a more empathetic approach were largely ignored.
“This new turn to a more compassionate view of those addicted to heroin is welcome,” said Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who specializes in racial issues at Columbia and U.C.L.A. law schools. “But,” she added, “one cannot help notice that had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.”
Now, all the political engagement around heroin has helped create what Timothy Rourke, the chairman of the New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, says is an impetus for change, not unlike the confluence of events that finally produced a response to the AIDS epidemic. “You have a lot of people dying, it’s no longer just ‘those people,’ ” he said. “You have people with lived experience demanding better treatment, and you have really good data.”
A More Forgiving Approach
Among recent bills passed by the New Hampshire legislature in response is one that gives friends and family access to naloxone, the anti-overdose medication. Mr. Griffin, a few months after his daughter died, was among those testifying for the bill. It was set to pass in May but would not take effect until January 2016 — until Mr. Griffin warned lawmakers that too many lives could be lost in that six-month gap. At his urging, the bill was amended to take effect as soon as it was signed into law. It went into effect June 2.
Other parents like him have successfully lobbied for similar measures across the country. Almost all states now have laws or pilot programs making it easier for emergency medical workers or family and friends to obtain naloxone. And 32 states have passed “good Samaritan” laws that protect people from prosecution, at least for low-level offenses, if they call 911 to report an overdose. A generation ago when civil rights activists denounced as racist the push to punish crack-cocaine crimes, largely involving blacks, far more severely than powder-cocaine crimes, involving whites, political figures of both parties defended those policies as necessary to control violent crime.
“Both the image and reality is that this is a white and often middle-class problem,” said Mr. Mauer of the Sentencing Project. “And appropriately so, we’re having a much broader conversation about prevention and treatment, and trying to be constructive in responding to this problem. This is good. I don’t think we should lock up white kids to show we’re being equal.”
So officers like Eric Adams, a white former undercover narcotics detective in Laconia, are finding new ways to respond. He is deployed full time now by the Police Department to reach out to people who have overdosed and help them get treatment.
“The way I look at addiction now is completely different,” Mr. Adams said. “I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way. They are committing crimes to feed their addiction, plain and simple. They need help.”
Often working with the police, rather than against them, parents are driving these kinds of individual conversions.
Their efforts include attempts to recast addiction in a less stigmatizing light — many parents along with treatment providers are avoiding words like “addict” or “junkie” and instead using terms that convey a chronic illness, like “substance use disorder.”
Parents are involved in many ways. To further raise awareness, Jim Hood, 63, of Westport, Conn., who lost his son, Austin, 20, to heroin three years ago, and Greg Williams, 31, of Danbury, Conn., who is in long-term recovery from substance abuse, organized the Oct. 4 “Unite to Face Addiction” rally in Washington. Featuring musicians like Sheryl Crow, it brought together more than 750 groups that are now collaborating to create a national organization, Facing Addiction, devoted to fighting the disease of addiction on the scale of the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
“With heart disease or cancer, you know what to do, who to call, where to go,” Mr. Hood said. “With addiction, you just feel like you’re out in the Wild West.”
Ginger Katz of Norwalk, Conn., has equally lofty goals. After her son, Ian, 20, died of a heroin overdose in 1996, she founded the Courage to Speak Foundation to try to end the silence surrounding addiction, and she has developed a drug-prevention curriculum for schools.
For Doug and Pam Griffin Courtney is still their focus; her pastel bedroom is as she left it, with the schedules of meetings of Narcotics Anonymous taped to what she called her “recovery wall.”
“We’ve pretty much given up what used to be our life,” Mr. Griffin said.
But in addition to grieving and testifying at hearings and forums, the Griffins take calls day and night from parents across the country who have read their story and want to offer an encouraging word or ask for advice. They are establishing a sober house, named after Courtney. And they host a potluck dinner and church service once a month on Sunday nights at the First Baptist Church in nearby Plaistow, where they held their daughter’s funeral, for people with addictions and their families.
At last month’s service, more than 75 people filled the pews, including the family of Christopher Honor, who was Courtney’s boyfriend. He was also addicted to heroin. Last month, almost a year after her death, Chris, 22, died of an overdose — the 23rd overdose and third fatal one this year in Plaistow, a town of 8,000 people.
Chris’s mother, Amanda Jordan, 40, wanted to attend the Sunday night service last month, but it was just two weeks after she had buried Chris, and she worried it might be too soon to go back to that church, where Chris’s funeral was held. She sometimes thinks Chris is still alive, and at his funeral she was convinced he was still breathing.
She was afraid she would fall apart, but she and other family members decided to go anyway. During the service, her son Brett, 18, became so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave, rushing down the center aisle for the outside. Ms. Jordan ran after him. Then a family friend, Shane Manning, ran after both of them. Outside, they all clutched one another and sobbed.
“I’m a mess,” Ms. Jordan said after coming back inside and kneeling in front of a picture of Chris. In addition to yearning for her son, she had been worried that the Griffins blamed her for Courtney’s death. But at the church, they welcomed her. In their shared pain, the families spoke and embraced.
Ms. Jordan, one of the more recent involuntary members of this club of shattered parents, said that someday, when she is better able to function, she “absolutely” wants to work with the Griffins to “help New Hampshire realize there’s a huge problem.” Right now, though, she just wants to hunt down the person who sold Chris his fatal dose. “These dealers aren’t just selling it,” she said. “They’re murdering people.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article erroneously included one drug among the prescription opioids contributing to 44 deaths each day from overdoses. While OxyContin is a prescription opioid, heroin is not.
When “Glee” TV star Cory Monteith died last year at age 31 after a heroin overdose, the tragedy was underscored by an element of disbelief.
He was young, affluent and white — the exact opposite of the stereotype of an inner-city user. Drug abuse experts had to expend considerable effort to explain that, in fact, Monteith was the new face of heroin.
“He is what a heroin user looks like,” Caleb Banta-Green, a University of Washington research scientist who specializes in drug abuse, emphasized at the time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose death brought another wave of shock.
Now comes a new analysis, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, which confirms that there’s been a dramatic shift in the demographics of heroin use in the United States.
In the 1960s, the typical user was an inner-city teenager, likely as not a minority, whose habit started with heroin. Fifty years later, new heroin users in America are more likely to be white suburban men and women in their 20s who get hooked on prescription opiates and then turn to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get.
“Our typical image of a heroin user is a ‘dirty junkie,’” said lead study author Theodore J. Cicero, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “This is not the current heroin user.”
Cicero and his colleagues analyzed data from an ongoing study that included nearly 2,800 heroin addicts entering substance abuse treatment in centers across the U.S. In addition, they conducted intensive interviews with 54 addicts about their experiences and motivations related to using heroin.
In the 1960s, nearly 83 percent of users were boys and men, with a median age of 16.5, who lived in urban areas and started using heroin as their first opiate, the study found.
Before the 1980s, whites and other races were equally represented. But in the last decade, nearly 90 percent of new heroin users were white. New users now are typically older, with a mean age of 23, and they start their addiction with prescription narcotics like Oxycontin, only to progress to heroin.
“This has become a mainstream problem,” Cicero said. “This is now affecting white children living in the suburbs.”
That’s clear to Dr. Jason Jerry, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Cleveland Clinic, who treats heroin patients. He wasn’t involved in the new study, but he said it accurately underscores the shift he’s seen. “The crackdown in prescription narcotics has pushed more people over to heroin,” he said.
To be sure, prescription opiates cause 16,600 deaths a year, according to federal figures. That compares to about 3,000 deaths a year from heroin. But as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder noted in March, heroin overdose deaths climbed by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, flagging what he called “an urgent and growing public health crisis.”
Cynics might suggest that surging heroin use and rising numbers of overdoses have only drawn such high-profile attention because it’s becoming a middle-class issue, Cicero noted. “When it was an inner-city problem among minorities, it wasn’t a problem,” he said.
The new study should serve as a caution to those who still view heroin use — and opiate addiction — through the lens of old stereotypes. For instance, parents of teenagers should monitor prescription painkillers carefully and keep them away from kids because such early use can easily escalate, the experts said.
“The typical path to heroin nowadays starts with prescription narcotics,” Jerry said.
Last night brought lots of good news to me. Sawant took a considerable lead in her race, the biggest transportation levy in Seattle’s history passed like it ain’t no thing, and it was announced that one of the great shames of the city, the barbaric gum wall in Pike Place Market, is going to be cleaned on November 10.
The wall has been accumulating gum for 20 years straight, and it’s estimated that each of its bricks is covered with 150 bits of gum. How can the city allow such a horrible thing to happen? There is only once answer: Because it’s popular with white people. Only that group of Americans could get away with this kind of nonsense.
In reality, sticking something you chewed in your mouth onto a public wall is horrible no matter what color you are. But if you are white, it culturally has the aspect of being cute (read the story of its beginnings). For this reason, I have always seen that wall as the wall of white privilege. If white people felt strongly negative about it, and the practice was popular with, say, black people or Arab Americans, then believe me, there would be no fucking gum wall in Seattle.
Since last week, Americans have been discussing the brutal attack on a 16-year-old Black female high-school student by a White South Carolina school resource officer. Some have demanded accountability of Deputy Ben Fields, a.k.a. “Officer Slam,” while others have defended him, including students who organized a walkout. Many people across the racial spectrum have chastised, excoriated, and blamed the teen for being brutalized—saying that she brought it upon herself. What has largely gone unspoken here is that this one horrific example that happened to be caught on video—by another student (Niya Kenny, who was arrested) is set in one of so many criminalized school settings, and we are witnessing yet another Black youth being denied her childhood.
We have seen this scenario play out repeatedly, the way Black children’s emotional lives are repeatedly denied, how they have no protections, no presumption of innocence, no right to bodily integrity. And they are being arrested to facilitate the flow of Black and Latino bodies straight into the nation’s prison pipeline.
The nature of today’s schools, particularly those inhabited by Black and Latino children, is all too clear in that viral video. The eerie silence from the students shows us a classroom devoid of life and the exuberance associated with high school. As the officer terrorizes their classmate, the other students sit in silence, eyes downcast. You can almost feel and smell their fear during the officer’s attack, wondering if he had introduced himself and his bullyclub pedagogy in previous weeks. Even the teen sits in silence as she’s yanked and thrown by the officer. No screams. No crying. It appears as if she’s almost intuitively submitting to the injustice of the moment.
The behavior of the students at Spring Valley tells us that they are no strangers to witnessing and/or experiencing this kind of violence—via “Officer Slam,” in their homes and neighborhoods, or via news coverage and nonstop social-media videos of Black people being attacked and sometimes killed by White cops.
It reveals a lot about a culture that renders Black children’s pain, trauma and grief illegible. This is part of a long racist heritage of denying Black children access to the category of childhood and innocence. When Officer Slam threw that child across the room he sent the message to Black children everywhere:“You ain’t shit!”
Then the sheriff blames the student. The media played that footage over and over again, with some referring to the teenage girl as “a woman.” They blamed her for having reflexes when she responded to being yanked out of her chair by a brute. That’s because whiteness needs to exonerate itself by placing blame and all social ills at the feet of the Black child’s body, even though we all know good and goddamn well that if a Black officer had thrown a White child across the room, the country would be having a very different conversation.
Watching her be thrown around like a rag doll triggered my personal memories of childhood abuse.
When I was around 5 or 6 my adoptive Black mother used to pick me up and throw me across the room when she got angry. I could only hope that I landed the right way and didn’t hit my head or break my neck. At the nearly all-Black private Bethany Lutheran School I attended in Trenton, New Jersey, she gave my White teachers and principal permission to hit me if I acted out in class. Most of the other Black parents did the same. Teachers slapped us in the face, on our butts, or snatched us inside the coat closet, pulled down our pants and whacked us with long wooden rulers. And if our offenses were especially egregious, they called our parents who sometimes showed up to the school wielding a belt or freshly picked switches. I’ll never forget the time my music teacher threw a handful of pink pencil erasers in my face at close range. I’ll spare you the details of what I fantasize about saying to her if I ever see her on the street.
Everywhere I turned—home, school, church, the hair salon, the barbershop—the message was that everyone could whoop me because they didn’t want “the White man” to whoop me.
The words that were spoken by the other students at Spring Valley are equally telling. One of her classmates said, “She doesn’t have anybody.” “She doesn’t talk to anybody.” “She’s always quiet.” Someone noted that she was a recent transfer student. Those descriptions, coupled with the way she braced that assault with quiet resolve, made me wonder if there was a deeper story, if she was already bringing a set of traumas into the classroom with her. Traumas and pain that the school is unwilling or incapable of addressing, especially if the police are on speed dial.
While there have been multiple and conflicting reports, it appears the girl is currently in foster care. This is not surprising and is part of the story. Not because it proves she is “bad” or growing up in a dysfunctional environment that led her to “act up,” although that is clearly the narrative being peddled. It reflects a societal disregard for the lives of Black girls. Her being tossed aside and thrown out as a disruptive piece of trash, is emblematic of the societal values toward marginalized kids, whether with foster care or the school-to-prison pipeline that sees little value in their humanity and future. Schools, foster care, prisons, and police encounters teach this lesson over and over again. And if we weren’t doing wrong, then the onus is on us to “behave” and respond in such a way to minimize the chance of being slammed, attacked, arrested, or killed.
The nonstop stress and emotional trauma of being in foster care is essential here. It must be easy to cast judgment from your picket fence for those who say: “IF she just did …”
After eight years of abuse I finally ran away from my adoptive parents’ home and ended up in foster care. Every day at school was hard when I was in foster care. I was case number 114343. I felt ashamed about being an adoptee, a victim of child abuse, ashamed of the scars on my body, ashamed that I had to live in youth shelters and in the homes of strangers, and ashamed that I had to travel from one placement to the next, like a refugee, with my belongings packed in garbage bags. I was teased, isolated, frustrated, exhausted, and anxious about an uncertain future. If I had a cell phone, maybe I would have found refuge there. Instead, I had to deal with the drama inside my foster homes and residential facilities where other traumatized kids fought each other. I didn’t have access to my own belongings much less privacy.
I lived in places where they locked the refrigerators. Put alarms on our doors. Sometimes the mostly white staff members treated us like we were criminals, even though we were victims.
As each day went by, I wondered when my social worker would show up at school with my belongings in those garbage bags, tossing me to the next placement. Sometimes I missed weeks of school. My teachers often were often unaware of why I was absent because social workers didn’t always communicate with school administrators. I was mad all the time; who wouldn’t be mad? Some days I stormed out of class. Other times, I just sat there giving zero fucks about solving for “x” or “y” or how to conjugate a verb in French or how to regurgitate historical facts about how great famous White people have been. I didn’t want to be bothered because I had no control over my world. I felt powerless, invisible, unheard, and constantly on edge.
The South Carolina student’s reported refusal to give up her cell phone is understandable to me. Children in foster care don’t have much property or many lifelines. There is so little that you can call your own, much less control. You’ve already been abused, abandoned, violated and made to feel like a number rather than a child. Rather than a human. You have to deal with the shame and embarrassment of the violation and circumstances that landed you in the system. Your trauma is likely to be misdiagnosed and rather than receiving adequate counseling, too many children in foster care are given psychotropic meds, with no caring adults to monitor their response to the drugs, potential side effects or even if they’re helping at all.
The culture of dehumanization and the lack of empathy within the foster-care system is why it is becoming the breeding ground for the juvenile and adult prison industry. As the child welfare workforce is dominated by White women who, like White (and self-hating Black) teachers, principals and resource officers, carry implicit biases against Black people, even the grieving and traumatized Black children in their care. There is a mismatch between the student population, which is rapidly browning, as well as the foster-care population, and those paid to teach and keep children safe.
And that, coupled with a widening racial empathy gap and the fact that few people are considering the emotional lives of these children, leads to the situations we are seeing today. When Black and Brown children come into the foster care system, they are traumatized, often abused, but their behaviors are not contextualized as symptoms of grief, trauma and loss. In a culture that demonizes children of color, that refuses to see them as innocent, as young people who have pain and trauma and emotional lives—they are then criminalized. What happened in that South Carolina classroom is the perfect case study that bears this out. Rather than hear voice, respect and validate her anger and pain, and empathize with her trauma, the response was to brutalize and drag her into the punitive system.
Black children in general are not afforded the right to have freedom over their bodies and expression. They are not afforded the privilege of evolving through the primitive stages of childhood. They are not allowed to have or express emotions, to have moods, to act out, have an attitude or make mistakes without the fear of being brutalized, locked up or killed.
In these moments, the news media wants to push for yet another “racial conversation.” Yet a prerequisite for a meaningful conversation and substantive change: empathy for Black people. This is clearly missing.
Research at the University of Milan-Biocca examined why Black people’s pain is underestimated. “It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black—in terms of social status and hardship—may be behind the bias. In additional experiments, the researchers studied participants’ assumptions about adversity and privilege. The more privilege assumed of the target, the more pain the participants perceived. Conversely, the more hardship assumed, the less pain perceived. The researchers concluded that people assume that, relative to Whites, Blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.”
Add to that the fact that, “starting at around 7 years of age, American children (mostly White) believe that Black kids feel less pain than their White counterparts,” according to a study from the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Medical professionals don’t outgrow this belief.
Colorlines reported on a study published in Jama Pediatrics that found that doctors are less likely to give Black children painkillers in the emergency room than their White peers—even when they are suffering from agonizing conditions. The report, “Racial Disparities in Pain Management of Children With Appendicitis in Emergency Departments,” found that across all backgrounds, 57 percent of children who arrived in the ER with acute appendicitis were given pain medication. Despite the fact that experts agree that appendicitis is a condition that requires opioids (such as fentanyl and morphine) for pain relief, just 41 percent of the children received them … Only 21 percent [of Black children] were given opioids, versus 43 percent of White patients. Overall, the researchers found that Black kids with acute appendicitis only have a 12 percent chance of receiving proper pain management.
A 2011 study found that White people do not feel the same level of empathy for Black people experiencing physical pain that they do for people of their own race. And other studies have uncovered racial bias in medical care for people of color. It’s a phenomenon so widespread that the government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative counts eliminating that health inequity as one of its goals.”
In absence of empathy or even recognition of Black pain, it is no wonder that Officer Slam is empowered to keep our ‘kids safe;’ it is no wonder that everyone from Raven Symoné to Fox News feels no shame in blaming Black kids for their own pain. The consequences are clear.
If nobody is considering, or looking out for, or thinking about how to protect vulnerable Black children—who represent all of the promise and peril of our future as a community and a nation—then we can expect to keep seeing these disturbing videos, struggling to process these horrific attacks, straining to maintain our own balance in precarious times. If Black children are indeed a major part of our future, then we have much to learn and many changes to make in how we view, treat and care for them. We must invest in their emotional well-being and demonstrate to them that their lives don’t just have meaning when they become hashtags.
Harsh discipline isn’t colorblind.
In 1920, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: “There is no place for black children in this world.” Almost a century later, that remains true. Too often, to grow up black in the United States is to live in a perpetual state of vulnerability to the brutality of racism: People fear you, and you know there is no safe place for you. For many white children, the future is one of hope and endless possibilities. How can black children have hope, how can they dream, when they’re unable to feel safe, secure and loved by society?
The daily incidents are startling reminders of how far we have to go to secure a post-racial future. Black kids have been slapped on a plane for crying, verbally assaulted by racists on a school bus, terrorized at a birthday party by armed white men carrying Confederate flags, had their hair cut off in front of the class by a teacher, called “feral” in a viral, racist social media post, and assaulted by police at poolparties.
That precariousness in black children’s lives was on display again with this week’s viral video of a white cop brutally assaulting a black student in a Spring Valley, S.C., classroom. Many angry black viewers have been vocal on social media, reflecting a weary frustration: Just how much more of this are we expected to take?
In reality, though, this is not an isolated incident. This kind of harsh discipline has been the reality of growing up black and quasi-free in the United States for more than a century. What happened in Spring Valley isn’t an isolated individual attack on a black child; it’s an example of what our racist society does to black children far too often.
Like a growing numberof schools across the country, Spring Valley High School in Richland County, S.C., has opened its doors to the police, with Ben Fields, a 34-year-old, hulking senior deputy in the sheriff’s department, patrolling its hallways as the school’s resource officer.
Despite lawsuits against him for excessive force, Fields had been entrusted by the school to protect students and make sure the learning environment was safe. But no one protected the 16-year-old black girl whom he grabbed by the neck and threw to the floor while she sat silent at her desk. No one protected her from being dragged and tossed across the floor like a ragdoll, forced into handcuffs and arrested.
Fields was called to the classroom to discipline the student, who — depending on which account you listen to — was either verbally disruptive, chewing gum, quiet or not bothering either her classmates or teacher. In other words, she was behaving like a normal teenager. But in the video, it appears she was treated like a criminal, a piece of trash that needed to be tossed aside without any regard for her feelings or rights. (Fields, meanwhile, will reportedly be fired on Wednesday.)
South Carolina is one of 19 states that still allow children to be whacked with wooden boards in schools for minor infractions, such as chewing gum, being late to class, talking back to a teacher, failing to do homework, violating the dress code, going to the bathroom without permission or more serious transgressions such as fighting. And like so much discipline in the United States, that punishment is often meted out disproportionately to black children. According to a survey from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, black children made up 18 percent of our nation’s students but accounted for 35 percent of reported cases of corporal punishment in 2012. A 2014 report from Indiana University’s Equity Project found that black students are likely to be disciplined more frequently than their white peers, even though there’s no significant difference in behavior between the groups.
That’s often true whether it’s white adults or black adults hitting children. In April 2014, the Nation reported on the small town of Lexington, Miss., a state where 64 percent of all paddled students are black. There, the magazine found that most wielders of the paddle and vocal defenders of the practice are black educators. In Holmes County, a poor district where 99 percent of the students are black, white and black educators alike hit kids in day care and pre-school with pencils and rulers. Elementary and high school employee handbooks in that county call for the wooden paddle to be up to 30 inches long, half an inch thick, and from 2 to 3 inches wide. The teachers, according to the Nation, tell misbehaving students to “talk to the wood or go to the hood,” which means choose between being paddled or suspended from school.
The ACLU found that while corporal punishment rates in public schools have declined over the last 30 years, a disproportionate number of black students continue to be hit by teachers and principals. Data from the Education Department show that, as with suspensions and expulsions, black children are far more likely to be targeted for paddling than white students.
Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, examined school-based paddling and concluded that it not only negatively affects children, but also serves as the first stage in what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline. His team found that students of color, especially black girls, are far more likely to be paddled than their white peers.
“So many of the problems in discipline disparities are the result of this idea of what is perceived to be threatening,” Parker told me. “People respond to black children differently and are more likely to read behaviors as being disrespectful and insubordinate. Teachers are more likely to punish black children because they are not aware of their own biases and how those biases affect the ways they interact with students.”
Parker’s examination of records from Mississippi schools found that white students tended to be paddled for infractions, such as drugs, vandalism or bringing weapons to school. Black students were punished for things like rolling their eyes, talking back, questioning a teacher or excessive noise.
“These are behaviors that involve someone’s perception of disrespect, and they are not divorced from race,” he said. In that context, hitting can be seen as not only acceptable, but necessary.
In 2014, the Children’s Defense Fund reported that more than 800 children were being hit each day at school, totaling close to 200,000 instances of corporal punishment a year. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch report that school paddlings send thousands of students to seek medical treatment for welts, bruises and broken bones. The long-term effect of this so-called tough love, according to the report, is that many children are becoming angry and lashing out at teachers and other students, rather than improving behavior. Some students become depressed, withdrawn or disengaged from school as a result; others seem resigned to the constant violence, accepting it as a fact of their daily lives.
As the Spring Hill video demonstrates, black girls are common targets. Earlier this year, the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies released a report that found girls of color face much harsher school discipline than their white peers, citing numerous examples of excessive disciplinary actions against young black girls.
The most recent federal data cited in the report reveals that nationally black girls were suspended six times more than white girls, while black boys were suspended three times as often as white boys. In New York, there were more than 10 times as many disciplinary cases involving black girls as those involving their white counterparts, and the number of cases involving black boys was six times the number of those involving white boys, though there were only twice as many black students as white students.
Our states require school employees to report suspicions of child abuse at home. So why do so many of them allow and even encourage the same employees to hit children with wooden boards, placing them at risk for physical and psychological harm?
We imagine schools as places free from violence, where children are supposed to learn how to think, how to communicate, how to interact socially, and grow intellectually so they can become good citizens. So why are so many of them also places of metal detectors, paddles and aggressive cops who will toss a student across the room for being a teenager while black?
And yet the immediate response from some to the South Carolina incident — including Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott — has been to blame this child for being brutalized by a grown man.
No wonder that so many of our kids grow up expecting to be victims of brutality. No wonder that the kids in that classroom sat quietly, eyes downcast and frozen with fear as their classmate was attacked. The daily message from cops, principals, teachers and even from parents who tolerate this system by granting administrators permission to paddle their kids is clear: The world can beat you, attack you — even kill you — and it’s possible that nobody will dare, or care enough, to intervene. Everyone can assault you. You have no right to bodily integrity. No right to freedom of expression. You are never innocent; you are perceived as hostile, dangerous, and a threat to be beaten into submission. There is still no place for black children in this world.
The video of a school police officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, brutally throwing a black student across the room after she refused to give up her phone is a visceral reminder of how school discipline can fall more harshly on black students.
Starting even before kindergarten, black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled. They’re more likely to be referred to law enforcement or even arrested. And even when they’re breaking the same rules, studies have found black students are punished more often and more harshly than their white peers.
1) The gap between discipline for black and white students starts in preschool
Black students make up about 18 percent of preschool enrollments. But they’re far more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Nearly half of all preschoolers suspended more than once during the 2011-’12 school year were black, according to a 2014 report from the Education Department.
Even when preschool programs don’t lead to better grades for students later, studieshave generally found that kids who attend are less likely to have behavioral problems in elementary school. So sending preschoolers home for acting out means kicking out the students who could benefit the most.
And suspending and expelling 3- and 4-year-olds is more common than you might think. A 2005 study from Yale University found that kids are suspended more frequently in pre-K than they are in K-12 education. The study also concluded that black children in public preschool programs were suspended at twice the rate of Latino and Caucasian children, just as the Education Department found.
2) Black students are suspended or expelled at higher rates throughout their school years
The disparities that start in preschool continue into K-12 education. Black students, who make up 16 percent of the population, are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. In the 2011-’12 school year, 20 percent of black boys enrolled in school were suspended, as were 12 percent of black girls.
Teachers and administrators argue that sometimes it’s necessary to suspend students because they’re disrupting class and making it harder for other students to learn. But the evidence for that proposition is lacking. A study of suspensions in Kentucky schools found that students in the schools that suspended students most frequently had lower test scores in reading and math — and that was true even for students who hadn’t been suspended. The relationship held even after controlling for school violence, poverty, and other factors that could affect schools’ use of suspensions as discipline.
3) Black students are far more likely to be arrested at school
When police get involved in school discipline, students start down the “school-to-prison pipeline”: Their disciplinary infractions at school turn into a criminal record. The number of school resource officers, police officers assigned to schools, has been growing fast since the 1990s.
Schools hired these officers due to concerns about school shootings and, in some places, gang violence. But a school with a school resource officer is also much more likely to refer kids to the juvenile justice system, even after controlling for outside factors, such as poverty. And nationally, the kids who are referred are disproportionately black, according to data from the Office for Civil Rights.
Some judges are pushing back at the creep of the criminal justice system into school. A juvenile court judge in Georgia testified before Congress in 2012, saying school “zero tolerance” policies — which sent kids to the court system on their first offense — were overloading the system and making it impossible to concentrate on, and prevent, more serious crimes.
4) Differences in behavior can’t explain the disparity
A common reaction to the discipline disparities is to suggest that something other than race is at work — that they’re a function of poverty, or that black students are simply more likely to misbehave. But analyses of the data have found that isn’t true. Black students and white students are sent to the principal’s office at similar rates; states report they commit more serious offenses, such as carrying weapons or drugs at school, at similar rates; and when surveyed about their own behavior, they report similar patterns. Even in cases in which black students do disproportionately act out — a 2008 analysis found twice as many black boys as white boys reported bringing a gun to school — they’re more likely to be punished than white students who committed the same infraction.
A study by researchers at Villanova University found that the percentage of black students at a school corresponded with how frequently that school suspended and expelled students. Strikingly, there was no relationship between how often schools suspended students and how much violence and drug activity the schools actually reported. When it came to how often schools doled out punishment, students’ race appeared far more significant than their actual behavior.
A 2002 study found black students are more likely to be disciplined for subjective offenses, such as defiance or loitering; white students are more likely to be disciplined for more clear-cut reasons, such as cutting class, smoking, and vandalism. And a sweeping 2012 study of discipline policies in Texas backed this up: Even after controlling for 83 other factors, black students were 31 percent more likely to be suspended for discretionary reasons, rather than because they committed infractions where suspension was a mandatory punishment. That suggests some form of implicit bias is at play that leads to harsher punishment for black students than for others.
5) The disparities are particularly striking in the South
Thirteen states in the South are responsible for the majority of black students’ in-school and out-of-school suspensions nationwide, according to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania.
The differences were particularly striking in schools with very few black students. The smaller the black student population, the more likely those black students were to make up a disproportionate share of suspensions and expulsions.
Schools in the South are also more likely to still use corporal punishment, which also falls harder on black students. In the 19 states where corporal punishment at school is still allowed, black students are paddled more than white ones. But the racial dynamics are complicated. As the Hechinger Report explained in an article from Mississippi, black students are often being paddled by black teachers and administrators, and the punishment is in many cases supported within the community.
6) Black girls are punished at even more disproportionate rates
Boys of all races are disciplined more frequently than girls. But black girls are suspended more frequently than girls of any other race, and more frequently than white, Hispanic, or Asian boys, according to the 2014 report from the Office of Civil Rights.
A report looking at discipline policy in two big urban school districts — New York and Boston — found similar trends. In New York, 90 percent of all girls expelled in one year were black. In Boston, 63 percent were. No white girls were expelled during that school year in either city.
7) Dark-skinned black girls are punished more than lighter-skinned peers
There aren’t just racial disparities in discipline rates — there are also disparities in how black students are disciplined that appear to be literally based on skin color. Research from Villanova University in 2013 found that darker-skinned black students were more likely to be suspended than black students with lighter skin. This was particularly true for girls, who seemed to be driving the overall disparity: Darker-skinned black girls were suspended three times more often than lighter-skinned girls.
Write comments, questions, thoughts about Stevenson or other readings on war on drugs. Looking for 200 words here. Give specifics
When it comes to rationalizing the mistreatment of people of color, there are few who manage to do it better, or more consistently, than syndicated columnist Mona Charen.
So, for instance, when officers from the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit were acquitted of any wrongdoing after killing Amadou Diallo — whose wallet they mistook for a gun, leading them to fire 41 rounds his way, 19 of which found their mark — there was Charen ready to leap to their defense. Although she admitted the event had been “sad” and even “tragic” (words she would have no doubt found putridly inadequate had the victim been a nice Jewish boy on his way home from Yeshiva, or a WASP hedge fund manager on his way home from a hard day at the office), to hear Charen tell it, it was almost unavoidable in the case of Diallo, the African immigrant. After all, Diallo was a black man in a dangerous neighborhood, and given generally higher black crime rates, police are understandably afraid of black people. So yes, Charen agreed, Diallo had likely died at least in part because “he looked like so many of the young men in that neighborhood who are seriously dangerous,” but that was just the price he would have to pay for the “high crime rate of American blacks.”
Then there was her Thanksgiving day essay in 2008, in which she brushed aside any lingering regrets for the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, noting that it was merely “the usual course in human affairs,” and simply a matter of “the more technologically advanced civilization” winning. No big deal.
And when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own home in July 2009, for daring to become belligerent with the Cambridge cops who presumed he didn’t belong there — belligerence that, it should be noted, does not constitute disorderly conduct according to Massachusetts law — Charen was at it again. This time, she lambasted President Obama for his rather tame (and factual) suggestion that there has been a “long history” of blacks and Latinos being stopped disproportionately by police, calling it a “left-wing fable.” After all, she noted, “Blacks and Hispanics also commit a disproportionately high percentage of crimes,” so even if the president were correct, we ought not worry about it much. The mistreatment is justified. Oh, and according to Charen, the president’s statement itself amounted to “reverse racism” — a charge so utterly bizarre as to defy explanation, seeing as how it suggests that merely mentioning the history of racism makes one an anti-white bigot.
Now, true to form, dear Ms. Charen has returned to the well of white denial and rationalization, with her most recent column (September 5, 2011), in which she attacks the New York Times for its supposedly biased coverage of a pending lawsuit against the NYPD. The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges a pattern of racial profiling in citywide stop-and-frisk policies, and recently a judge ruled that the suit had sufficient merit to go forward, despite attempts by the city to have it dismissed. Apparently by reporting that fact — even though the Times included statements from police officials responding to the allegations of profiling — the paper is somehow guilty of liberal bias. After all, according to Charen, given the much higher rates of criminal violence among blacks and Latinos in New York City, it only makes sense that police would stop and search a disproportionate number and percentage of them, relative to whites. By failing to provide the data on relative racial crime rates in the city, the Times, in Charen’s view, is deliberately misleading their readers, and going on a “racial profiling goose chase.” Charen then proceeds to provide the data herself — or rather she produces data provided to her by conservative policy analyst and writer, Heather MacDonald — and suggests that since blacks and Latinos commit such a massively disproportionate share of violent crime, you would have to be a fool to show the least bit of concern about the racial disparity in stops and frisks.
Although I have previously written several essays about the fundamental illogic of the right-wing position on racial profiling — and although law professor David A. Harris has thoroughly eviscerated every attempt to justify the practice in his meticulously researched book on the subject — the regularity with which such pedantic rationalizations for racial bias bubble up requires that I do it again, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the utter anti-logic of conservative thinking on this subject, and their basic inability to interpret data. And, to be perfectly frank, because making Mona Charen look foolish, though painfully easy to do, is fun.
The Facts About Stop-and-Frisk and Crime in New York City
First, let’s begin with the facts we know, and which are not in dispute.
Beginning in the 1990s, under the Mayoral Administration of Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD adopted a number of new policing strategies intended to address the problem of crime. Among these were the use of computer-modeling to track crime and then predict where future crime would likely occur, the deployment of additional officers to those “hot spots” identified by the COMPSTAT system, and a “broken windows” philosophy of policing, which holds that if minor infractions and quality-of-life rule violations are enforced aggressively, the result will be a reduction in more serious crimes as well. Although crime certainly dropped in New York City following the adoption of these strategies, it also fell nationwide, including in many large cities that did not deploy such strategies, making it difficult to claim that the new methods per se had been the cause of the crime drops in New York.
Additionally, the NYPD began widespread stop-and-frisk operations at this time, so that whenever officers felt they had reasonable justification to suspect someone of criminal wrongdoing, they would stop and question them. Then, if these interactions led to further suspicion, they would frisk the presumed perp for illegal contraband such as weapons or drugs. In the first few years after the program’s inception, roughly 85,000 or so persons in the city were being searched annually. By 2009, even though the crime rate had dropped substantially in the intervening years, the numbers of stops had exploded to over 580,000. Last year, they topped 600,000. And consistently, since the beginning, about 85 percent of persons stopped by police and searched, have been black or Latino.
On the one hand, conservatives are right to chide those on the left who claim naively that this fact alone, in and of itself, proves racism in the the NYPD, since folks of color comprise only about 65 percent of the city’s population. Obviously, the population percentages of various racial groups are not the only factor that would logically be relevant to a law enforcement practice, since law enforcement is supposed to aim its efforts at lawbreakers, not random people. As such, the right is correct when they note that the relevant demographic information is not the percentage of whites, blacks or Latinos in a given community, but rather, the percentage of crime in a given area being committed by whites, blacks or Latinos. So let’s take a look at that.
As for crime in New York, there is no argument that the rates of violent criminal wrongdoing in the city are much higher among blacks and Latinos than among whites. About that, Charen is correct, and it forms the basis of her defense of the NYPD. According to data from the NYPD for 2010, victims of violent crime who report their victimization to police, overwhelmingly indicate that their attackers were black or Latino. So, for instance, according to victim and witness reports, 91.5 percent of murder suspects in the city are black or Latino, as are 86 percent of rape suspects, 94 percent of robbery suspects, 87.5 percent of aggravated/felonious assault suspects, 85 percent of misdemeanor assault perps, and nearly all shooting suspects. Meanwhile, only about 5 percent or so of violent crime perps, according to that same data, are white (as opposed to about 35 percent of the population of the city).* So perhaps Charen and the conservatives are correct: perhaps the disproportionate rates at which blacks and Latinos are stopped by the NYPD makes sense. Indeed, to the extent such practices might remove dangerous criminals from the streets, it could even be seen as a pro-black and brown folkspolicy, ultimately helping the very communities hardest hit by crime. Perhaps the NYPD is the new NAACP?
But no. Despite the seeming logic of such a claim, given the raw data, there are a number of problems with the quick jump to this conclusion so readily and happily made by Charen, MacDonald, and other defenders of the NYPD. These flaws have been meticulously demonstrated by scholarly research on the subject, going back over a decade, and most recently by Jeffrey Fagan, a Professor of Law and Public Health at Columbia University, in his expert report, prepared for the court in the current and pending case.
Deceptive Data: How the Right Misuses Crime Statistics to Justify Racist Policing
The claim that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies are a key element of effective crime control seems laughable once you actually look at the numbers produced by the policy. From 2004-2009, out of 2.8 million stops made by the police, fewer than 6 percent resulted in an arrest of any kind — a rate that is actually lower than that which has been produced in other jurisdictions using random checkpoints. When it comes to finding guns, drugs or stolen property — among the principal goals that defenders of the practice cite as justification for it — the stops are even more inadequate, with guns being found in only 0.15 percent of all cases, and drugs or stolen property recovered in only 1.75 percent of all stops. In the heavily-policed Brownsville community of Brooklyn, arrests occur in fewer than 1 percent of all stops made, and out of 50,000 stops in the community just since 2006, only 25 guns have been recovered: that’s a hit rate of about one-twentieth of a percent.
Among the reasons for such pathetic “hit rates,” Fagan notes that a disproportionate share of all stops are justified on police incident forms on the basis of vague and subjective reasons, such as an individual making “furtive movements,” being in a “high crime area,” or for other unspecified reasons. In those cases, which represent roughly half of all stops made, the hit rates are even worse than in the larger sample. In other words, as a crime-control tactic, stop-and-frisk is inefficient at best, downright irrational at worst. Officers are apparently suspecting people of criminal activity on the basis of clues and signals that are proving to be ill-informed. Yet rather than rethink their assumptions, they continue to use the same reasons for their racially-disparate stops year after year.
Interestingly, the racial disparities are even harder to explain when you consider what Fagan and a colleague discovered even as far back as the 1990s; namely, that as bad as the hit rates were overall for stops-and-frisks, they were actually far lower for persons of color. When searched, blacks and Latinos historically have been about a third less likely than their white counterparts to actually be found with illegal contraband or other evidence of criminal activity. Although the disparities in hit rates have been reduced since the 1990s, blacks stopped and searched are still nearly 10 percent less likely than their white counterparts to receive some kind of sanction (either arrest or a court summons) after being stopped by the NYPD. Far from suggesting that the cops are bending over backwards to be kind to African Americans, this fact suggests that still today, the police are quicker to suspect blacks for less legitimate reasons than they are whites, and thus, after searching them, less likely to actually find evidence of actual wrongdoing.
Furthermore, and as Fagan amply demonstrates, in what may well be the most rigorous statistical analysis ever performed on the subject of racial profiling, the correlation between police stops in a given precinct and reports of crimes in those precincts is generally pathetic. For violent crime, there is nosignificant correlation between reports of crime and the number or racial distribution of stops made, and the racial composition of a precinct alone actually predicts stops three times better than reported crimes. In other words, the fact that people of color commit the lion’s share of violent crime in New York cannot possibly justify the level of racial disproportionality in stops-and-frisks.
Of course, this makes sense when you consider that stops of this nature are a pretty inefficient tool for catching violent criminals. In those kinds of cases, police have more precise information to go on, and utilize more sophisticated methods of investigation than simply stopping people on the streets because of “furtive movements,” in the hopes of, let’s say, turning up last night’s liquor store holdup man. This is likely why only about 15 percent of stops by police since 2004 have been for the purpose of investigating violent crime, according to the NYPD’s own records: yet another reason why the Charen/MacDonald evidence on people of color and violent crime is irrelevant when it comes to understanding the disproportionality of police stops.
Rather than violent crime, large numbers of stops are written up as being related to a search for weapons or drugs (about 800,000 of the 2.8 million incidents), trespassing (another 325,000 or so stops), or for “unknown or unclassified” offenses (another half-million of the stops from 2004-2009). That blacks and Latinos commit violent crime at much higher rates than whites in New York, cannot possibly explain such wildly disparate rates of racial stops by police, as those stops (and indeed 85 percent of all stops) had nothing to do with the person stopped being suspected of a violent offense.
As for trespassing, the correlation between stops and reports of this offense, is only one-tenth as strong as the correlation between stops and the racial composition of the community alone. And as for drugs and weapons, stop rates are significantly but negatively correlated with reported drug or gun possession offenses in a given precinct. In other words, the rationale being offered by Charen and MacDonald for the stops (that people of color are committing more crimes and thus, racial disparity should naturally result in the stop rates) is exactly the opposite of reality when it comes to drug and gun possession offenses.
Although there is no clear data on drug possession or weapons possession rates for New Yorkers as a whole, there is data on Borough-level drug use and weapons possession for high school students in New York. So we can at least examine data on youth to get an idea of whether the disproportionate stopping and frisking of people of color by the NYPD is justifiable, based on the relative rates of offending in those categories. And once you take a look at that data, it becomes clear: drug and weapons possession rates are far too similar for young whites and young people of color to justify such racially disparate rates of stops.
According to 2009 data from the Centers for Disease Control, in Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island— the three New York City boroughs that consistently have a sufficient number of white public school students so as to allow for statistical comparisons — there are no significant differences between the rates at which white and black youth carry weapons in general, or guns, specifically; likewise, rates of drug use between the two groups either indicate no significant differences, or differences that suggest higher rates of use by whites.
Although the 2009 data from Brooklyn indicates higher rates of weapons possession and drug use for blacks than for whites, in almost every category of comparison, the sample sizes for white youth are simply too low for statistically valid comparisons or estimates. And even if we overlook the sample size problem, and accept the data at face value, the fact would remain that less than 4 percent of black youth in the borough are carrying a gun in a given month, hardly sufficient to warrant widespread assumptions about their possession of a firearm. Interestingly, the data from 2007, which had larger samples of white students — and thus allowed for more accurate side-by-side comparisons — showed no statistically significant differences between whites and blacks when it came to weapons or gun possession, and generally higher rates of drug use by whites; likewise, the data from 2003 (which also included a sufficient size white sample to allow for comparison), shows that while black youth were slightly more likely to carry a weapon than white youth, whites were equally or more likely than black youth to use, and thus possess, drugs.
In other words, the data on New York City’s youth provides very little statistical rationale for racially-disparate assumptions when it comes to such categories as weapons or drug possession: two key categories for which stops and frisks could at least theoretically be justified. Unless there is some reason to believe that the data for older New Yorkers differs dramatically from the data for youth — so for instance, unless whites in their twenties and thirties just suddenly stop doing drugs or carrying weapons, while black and brown adults continue to do so — it is hard to then justify the disparities in stop and frisk rates between whites and blacks at any age group. This is all the more true when you consider the data on drug use for adults nationally (which is likely mirrored in New York), all of which points to roughly equivalent rates of drug use (and thus, possession) between whites and blacks. Finally, given the hit rates for uncovering drugs or stolen property (defined in the Fagan research as “contraband”), it is clear that racial disparity cannot be justified in these areas: from 2004-2009, blacks searched were actually 15 percent less likely than their white counterparts to be found with contraband on them, and Latinos were 23 percent less likely than whites to possess such items when searched.
Overall, even when you control for the various non-racial variables that could explain the disproportionate stopping of blacks and Latinos by the NYPD (such as local crime levels, the demographics of the community, or the level of police saturation due to higher crime, all of which could logically explain some portion of the higher levels of contact and stops, even if there were no racial bias operating), Fagan’s analysis shows that police are still far more likely to stop people of color than would be expected. For some categories of suspected crime, simply being black or Latino will make one more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped and frisked, even after these other factors have been taken into consideration. Indeed, even in mostly white neighborhoods, people of color are disproportionately stopped and searched, especially for suspected weapons possession or “trespassing.”
The Cost of Racist Ignorance: How Profiling Hurts Us All
It should be understood, however, that the problems with the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies are not merely academic, legal, or even ethical concerns. There is a practical concern as well; namely, the utilization of racially-disparate stops by the police can actually make effective crime control more difficult and detract from more promising methods for addressing the very real problem of criminal victimization.
One thing about which all persons — whether on the right or left — should be able to agree is this: even though crime rates have dropped substantially over the past 20 years, the prospects of criminal victimization are still terrifying, and understandably so. As such, we all have an interest in addressing the problem of crime, none more so than lower-income persons of color who bear the brunt of such disproportionate rates of victimization. And no doubt, such folks would, in most cases, support increased police presence in their communities. However (and it’s a big however), that police presence cannot operate in an adversarial and combative way, stopping hundreds of thousands of people of color for ill-defined reasons simply because they happen to be in a “high crime area,” as is so often the justification offered for stops by the NYPD. Such practices can only erode support for law enforcement and make cooperation with police in solving crimes less likely.
Currently, for instance, when people are stopped by the NYPD, even if there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing uncovered (which is the case in roughly 94 of 100 stops), the names of the persons stopped are entered into a database, ostensibly for use in solving future crimes. As such, it is no exaggeration to say that in some New York City neighborhoods, virtually every black male is in the police database as a potential perp, even if they have never been found to have committed any crime. Such practices as this, in effect, presume that although the people stopped today may be innocent, eventually they will be guilty of something, so we’d best get their names on file now. That such a practice would never be tolerated in the suburbs (or in any white community) should be obvious. And that such a practice will almost by definition create enmity between the black and brown public and the police should be apparent as well. How such strained relationships can possibly help reduce crime in the long-run remains a mystery about which Charen and her ilk seem unconcerned.
Meanwhile, although the stops-and-frisks produce very few arrests and even fewer guns, other effortshave paid far greater dividends. For instance, the NYPD operates a program that pays cash rewards for information about persons with illegal weapons, and another that utilizes undercover investigation teams, working with confidential informants to make gun buys from traffickers and other street criminals. Unlike the stop-and-frisk efforts, these have paid off substantially. In one 18-month period from 2002-2003, the cash reward program resulted in the seizure of 455 guns and 757 arrests, from a total of 1234 anonymous tips, while the undercover gun buy initiative, and related investigative strategies utilizing CIs, recovered nearly 500 additional guns in 2002. One operation in a Brooklyn public housing project in early 2003 netted 65 guns and 36 arrests — far more successful than the stop-and-frisk initiative. Research in Chicago and Detroit has also found that focused undercover stings — which are quite a bit different than stop-and-frisk efforts — can reduce the flow of new guns to criminals by nearly 50 percent during the time of the sting operations.**
Sadly, these kinds of programs — the kinds that actually work — are likely to suffer, the more the NYPD relies on widespread stops and frisks. By sowing resentment and mistrust among the city’s lower-income black and brown communities, potential informants may become reluctant to work with police, for fear that they would become targets themselves. In order to produce good CIs, police need positive relationships with the community; but with largely rookie cops being turned loose on many of the city’s highest-crime communities, and treating everyone in them as a potential criminal perp, it’s hard to see how those relationships can remain constructive over time.
Sadly, it is utterly predictable that persons like Mona Charen and Heather MacDonald will continue to rationalize the mistreatment of black and brown folks, evidence notwithstanding. MacDonald has made a name for herself trying miserably and amateurishly to debunk racial profiling, and Charen is, well, Charen: someone who has never once managed to decry an act of racism perpetrated against a person of color without — as in the case of the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Texas — turning the discussion around to supposed black hatred of white people. But despite their own denials and prevarications, the rest of us should be clear as to just how dishonest and/or fundamentally ignorant they really are.
* It should be noted here that the actual black and Latino shares of these respective crimes in NYC could be somewhat lower than these estimates suggest, and the white shares could be somewhat higher. This is because the data from the NYPD only represents those crimes where the race of the suspected perp is known or reported to them by victims or witnesses. However, research has long found that blacks and Latinos (especially blacks) are more likely than whites to report crime. Since people of color are mostly victimized by other people of color, and whites are mostly victimized by other whites, this difference in reporting would tend to underestimate the share of all crimes committed by whites and overestimate the percentage committed by blacks and Latinos. However, with that said, it is unlikely that the differences represented by those crimes that are not reported to police, or where the race of the perp is unknown would dramatically alter the bigger picture: people of color do indeed have disproportionate crime rates, relative to whites, due to the economic conditions that have long been found to be highly correlated with crime, and which also tend to be experienced disproportionately by people of color in the U.S.: namely, concentrated poverty, crowded housing, high population density, and disorganized/decaying urban landscapes.
** I want to be clear here: I realize that even these efforts, as effective as they may be, can still prove problematic. If stings or other investigative techniques are carried out by overzealous or corrupt law enforcement officers (as has certainly been documented in more than a few instances), the erosion of Constitutional liberties may end up being the cost of such efforts — certainly an unacceptable trade-off. And I also realize that given the racial and class biases in the justice system, from the point of investigation to prosecution to sentencing, even these otherwise valid techniques can contribute to an overall system that is highly flawed and in need of significant reform. That said, when it comes to the stated goals of conservatives — to get guns and drugs off the street and catch criminal perps — it is still worth noting that the methods they endorse for doing that fail in comparison to less heavy-handed (if yet still sometimes troublesome) approaches.
“You hate white people.”
I’ve been charged with bigotry on a fairly consistent basis since I began writing about cultural issues. People get defensive and need to label you when presented with ideas they find uncomfortable. Ideally, it’s best to engage people on their terms and lower defenses before asking them to think critically about ideas they hold dear. I try to do that, but I don’t defer to ignorance or soften what I say when it has to be said. I do try to avoid crass generalizations or assumptions.
But I avoid saying “some white people.”
Writing about race online is an open invitation for hateful emails and tweets from Twitter trolls trying to bait you into some kind of cyber confrontation. One of the most common grievances I’ve heard is that I “think all white people are racist.” This kind of retort is a tactic meant to purposely obscure the points that I make regarding white supremacy in American culture. But every time I get one of those arrows fired at me, it fortifies my belief that I can’t soften my stance. I can’t retreat to “some white people.”
When discussing racial issues, we cannot pretend that all bigotry is equal. It renders the discussion empty to reduce it to personal meanness or problematic individuals. This is a cultural problem and it should be addressed as such. Every Halloween, white people routinely don blackface. Now, does that mean that every white person does so? Of course not. But, it’s unnecessary for me to point out that fact when the behavior is so routine that it indicates a deeply ingrained cultural belief. For the same reason that we say “America has an obesity epidemic,” we have to say white people have a race problem. Saying “some Americans are obese,” helps us all feel better and decide that we’re “not the problem.” But, when you present the problem as something that is widespread and entrenched, it communicates a certain societal urgency. This is who we are and we have to make wholesale changes to address it.
Saying “some white people” only makes it easier for an individual to say “that’s not me” and deflect. They can tell themselves “I have Black friends.” They can tell themselves “I don’t say the N-word.” They can tell themselves “I voted for Obama–TWICE.” And, they can decide that the problem is somewhere “over there.” Racism is never “me.” It’s never their friends or family. As long as white Americans are comfortable deflecting, white supremacy remains strong in this country. When I say “white people,” it’s to make sure everyone understands that this is a societal issue that is centuries-old. The “Colored Only” signs of the Jim Crow era were just the later manifestation of a supremacist ideology that forged the entirety of the modern western world and was exported throughout the globe via imperialism. You being buddies with a Black guy at work does nothing to address that reality. You have to view it through a larger lens. The entrenched white supremacy that conditions us to cross the street when we see a Black guy coming is also what makes a Black student more likely to get suspended and Black crime to be prosecuted with more vigor and zero tolerance.
Just this week, the New York Times published a piece regarding the resurgence in heroin addiction among young white people over the last ten years. In the piece, entitled “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War On Drugs,” it is revealed that more and more white voters and politicians are looking to soften the approach to curbing the drug epidemic. No police battering rams in the suburbs like the ones that we saw breaking through doors in inner cities throughout the 80s and 90s. No ridiculously long drug sentences for possession or petty dealing. No stigmatizing reports about “heroin babies” a la “crack babies” and no presidential push to vilify heroin dealers. Because white parents and politicians empathize with young white kids. Just because you’re not burning a cross on a lawn, doesn’t mean you aren’t endorsing or enabling white supremacy and racist double standards. It doesn’t mean you see yourself when you see Black and other non-white people. Racism is more than intentional malice; it is cultural conditioning. Black lives didn’t matter so much to politicians who were passing down strict sentences that disrupted and destroyed Black families. They didn’t matter much to politicians when Black voters asked for reform and treatment, as opposed to aggression and incarceration. Because those politicians didn’t empathize with Blackness. But when a young, suburban white girl named Courtney Griffin overdoses, those who empathize with her need to understand why it happened and how to prevent it from touching them and those like them ever again. And those white folks who empathize have the political leverage to actually affect change in a way that is compassionate and comprehensive. When it’s Keshia from East New York, however, there is little-to-no empathy from those outside her community. If that community has no political leverage to seek similar compassion from the powers-that-be, Keshia’s death becomes ammo for politicians to “crack down” and increase their “war” on drugs. The language is different because the approach is different; and the approach is different because the spirit fueling it is different.
Whether or not you think “all white people are racist” is more or less irrelevant in the wider picture. It starts with individual behavior but it doesn’t end there; because the structural and institutional problems will still affect Black peoples’ liberties and mobility. The reason why white racism is bigger than bigotry is because that racism fuels so much of how we determine who has access to resources and influence in this country. White fraternities and sororities declaring via chant or email that they don’t want Black people isn’t just problematic because its socially exclusionary. It’s most problematic because those college kids are in the pipeline to power and influence in this country and they will one day be racist CEOS and politicians. They will be in positions of power and influence because of their race and background and they will bring their racist ideologies with them. I’d have to be quite naive to believe that they are a political or ideological minority.
So this conversation can’t be reduced or “softened” in language to make it more palatable for those who aren’t invested in addressing the issue being presented. I won’t say “some white people” to make you feel better about your compliance with and/or apathy towards white supremacy. I won’t pretend that all bigotry is the same or that me having white friends means that white supremacy is somehow diminished or selective. It’s everywhere. It’s in everything. It conditioned you. It conditioned me. And we can’t break it by pretending it doesn’t exist. We like to pretend we’re the ones who “get it,” but I don’t know if the average white person “gets” that.
And some white people aren’t really trying to get it.
Minority young men are considered by their white peers to be cool and tough; minority young women, on the other hand, are stereotyped as “ghetto” and “loud.”
OCT 21, 2013
Though I’m sure my name was a hint, I happen to be black. My parents are West African (Mali and Senegal to be exact), and I was born and raised in France. When I was 13, my family and I moved to a suburban community outside of Atlanta. The school I attended, though relatively diverse for Georgia, was majority white. I had an easy time there. I made friends quickly, a lot of them white. To this day, more than ten years later, my friend circle is still very much white, populated by the people I met at my mostly-white high school, or at my mostly-white university, or in my mostly-white neighborhood. I have always attributed my ability to fit into both multicultural and white environments to my personality and my immigrant’s need to adapt to whatever environment I’m in.
But recent research published in the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Education journal shows that my gender (male) was one of the determinative factors in the relative ease of my social integration. In an articlepublished last year, Megan M. Holland, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a recent Harvard Ph.D., studied the social impact of a desegregation program on the minority students who were being bussed to a predominantly white high school in suburban Boston. She found that minority boys, because of stereotypes about their supposed athleticism and “coolness,” fit in better than minority girls because the school gave the boys better opportunities to interact with white students. Minority boys participated in sports and non-academic activities at much higher rates. Over the course of her study, she concluded that structural factors in the school as well as racial narratives about minority males resulted in increased social rewards for the boys, while those same factors contributed to the isolation of girls in the diversity program.
In the case of the girls, the urban signifiers that gave the boys so much social acceptance, were held against them. While the boys could wear hip-hop clothing, the girls were seen as “ghetto” for doing the same. While the boys could display a certain amount of aggression, the girls felt they were penalized for doing so. Ispa-Landa, in an interview, expressed surprise at “how much of a consensus there was among the girls about their place in the school.” She also found that overall, the girls who participated in diversity programs paid a social cost because they “failed to embody characteristics of femininity” that would have valorized them in the school hierarchy. They also felt excluded from the sports and activities that gave girls in those high schools a higher social status, such as cheerleading and Model U.N., because most activities ended too late for the parents of minority girls. Holland notes that minority parents were much more protective of the girls; they expressed no worries about the boys staying late, or over at friend’s houses.
For the second time in as many sessions, the Supreme Court heard a case about affirmative action last Tuesday. Following last year’s Fisher v. Texas non-decision, the court will now be deciding whether states can ban the consideration of race in college admissions through ballot initiatives as the Michigan did in 2006. Based on the tenor of the oral arguments, some court watchers have predicted that the court’s conservative majority will now take the opportunity to further limit the use of affirmative action in admissions across the nation. As Garrett Epps noted last week, it is nearly impossible to have a measured conversation about affirmative action, an issue that splits even the most ardent liberals. However, there appears to be a general consensus that minority populations benefit from these programs. But very rarely do commentators stop to consider the diversity of that minority population, and even fewer consider what impact affirmative actions programs have on the disparate, intersecting groups who participate in them.
A couple of months ago, Ebony.com editor Jamilah Lemieux started the Twitter hashtag #blackpowerisforblackmen to discuss the little-talked about but deeply-felt existence of black male privilege. Tweets like “#blackpowerisforblackmenbecause the Black men’s problems are the community’s problems” and “#blackpowerisforblackmen bc although black women played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, we’re only told about MLK&other blk men” speak to a history of minimizing of the experience of black women. The hashtag, which attracted no small amount of blowback from black males, revealed the dilemma that many black women face: having to combat both racism and sexism. Like the research about the diversity programs, the conversation showed that what we sometimes instinctively think of as “the black experience” is complicated by gender. The ostensible purpose of affirmative action is to increase the presence of minorities in colleges and universities. But as the Supreme Court considers further limiting the scope of such programs, it is important to remember that unless cultural expectations about race and gender change, full educational integration will remain a pipe dream.
In 2011, Jada Williams, an eighth-grade student in Rochester, New York, wrote an essay based upon her reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
She compared her own experiences with the educational system to the nineteenth-century prohibitions against slaves learning how to read and write. In the words of Douglass, if he [the enslaved] knew how to read, “there [would] be no keeping him.” In Williams’ view not much had changed. Although she was living in a “different era and there were different people,” things were still the same – “the same old discrimination still resides in the heart of the white man.” She placed these teachers and her life at one end of the continuum and Douglass’ on the other. A century after Douglass, instead of being barred from being taught literacy skills de jure, Williams experienced a de facto ban from learning how to read and write. She was in school, but the classrooms were filled with white teachers who were unwilling to teach, tedious worksheets, poor classroom management, and frustrated students suffering from either boredom or confusion.
For white teachers to be able to be in a position of power to dictate what I can, cannot and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mis-management of the classroom and remain illiterate and ignorant; or better yet distracted because some children decide to misbehave because they don’t understand, and (sic.) ashamed to ask for help.
In this essay, she executed an impassioned and brave indictment of her white teachers for denying her and her peers access to a decent education. After illustrating the similarities, Williams wrote a call to action as her conclusion, one that encouraged her peers to hold teachers accountable and to become active learners.
Williams received two different responses to her essay. The Frederick Douglass Foundation, a conservative organization, awarded Williams their first Spirit of Freedom award. By contrast, her teachers and administrators disciplined her, instead of considering Williams’ analysis or perhaps investigating the validity of her argument as she hoped.
What ensued is emblematic of what many children of color experience today. Almost immediately, the staff labeled Williams a “problem” and “angry.” She received D’s, although prior to the essay she had consistently earned A’s. She received disciplinary threats and actions for behaviors such as “laughing in class.” This harassment finally forced her to transfer to another school. Eventually, Williams was pushed out of the district altogether. Although Williams’ essay may have been exceptionally poignant and candid, her experience with school discipline is not anomalous.
Throughout the United States, students of color, particularly Black and Latino youths, are more often suspended, expelled, policed, and arrested than their counterparts. Contemporary discipline policies, called zero-tolerance policies, were initially created to prevent students from bringing guns or weapons to school. Today, students are increasingly being suspended for behavioral “problems” such as truancy and disobedience.
These experiences of being criminalized, disciplined, and punished by school authorities negatively impact the students’ academic trajectories, life chances, and subjectivities. Unsurprisingly, Black and Latino youths are disproportionately represented in school discipline data. Their numbers mirror the disparities in incarceration rates.
Scholars and activists have examined prisons as violent institutions. For instance and most recently, sociologist Beth Richie argued that prisons help to produce, and are sites of, violence against women of color. Motivated by what has been called the “school to prison pipeline” (the theory that schools funnel children into prison), more activists, scholars, and researchers are examining the problem of racial disparities in school discipline numbers. The federal government has begun to intervene in school districts alleged to racially discriminate in discipline policies. Alternative school discipline/violence prevention practices and programs have been developed in order to curtail overreliance on suspensions and expulsions.
A number of these programs provide conflict resolution training, life skills development, and counseling services to marginalized youths. Other strategies include restorative justice programs that teach students about communication and accountability. Many of these alternative programs focus on teaching “at-risk” youths how to manage their feelings more effectively by employing “positive” mediums such as poetry or jobs skills development. The logic behind these violence prevention strategies, it seems, is that if children of color learn how to manage their behavior and feelings better, it is less likely that they will be disciplinary problems. While it is valuable that these programs may serve to alleviate tensions between youths, when done without a political purpose, these can have the effect of policing children’s feelings and temper a kind of rage that is actually necessary to incite political resistance.
Under a neoliberal context, which favors criminalization and incarceration over social welfare services and policies, support for discipline reforms can be considered a necessary shift in social and political priorities. Unfortunately, these violence prevention reforms are problematizing the children instead addressing a systemic problem. Under traditional school discipline policies, most students get into trouble for nonviolent behaviors and as a result of racial biases. Most of the efforts and even the popular ethos of society are more inclined to locate the problem with the children, their lack of guidance, their parents, their tempers, their culture, and their socio-economic status. Instead of implicating the social, political, and economic contexts that may propel children to act out or the racial/gendered phobic impulse to characterize the child as a problem and then legitimize punishing her, the child is the problem.
Few if any current discipline reform strategies identify school discipline policies and violence prevention policies as instruments of structural and institutional forms of violence. Even fewer examine racial and gendered violence as dimensions of the policies.
By focusing the gaze toward students, other forms of violence are obfuscated including the violence sanctioned by the schools and enacted by law enforcement. For instance, despite beatings and murders committed by police officers who have been deputized to assist with school discipline, school violence prevention and discipline policies, even when reformed, do not generally highlight police as instruments of violence. Discipline policies that target sexual harassment have not examined the explicit forms of sexual harassment performed by those that are authorized to regulate and discipline young people.
According to the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (2007), a 14 year-old female student reported that a ‘security guard accused [her] of having a knife…They took [her] to a room and made [her] take off [her] shirt and pants to check [her] bra. They didn’t call [her] parents or let [her] talk to a teacher [she] knew. [She] didn’t have a knife just like [she] told them’ (23).
Neither does violence prevention include efforts to address other forms of harassment, including sexual harassment, that students receive almost every day from some of their teachers and other faculty.
Put differently, as we focus on the problem of the student something disappears from our framework: In a society that is shaped by racial and gendered violence, schools, including their teachers, officers, and policies, have long been afforded the discretion to punish, police, and harass students of color. If there are students of color to police then the job implicitly includes this function. Whether the teachers and other staff consciously or unconsciously know or actually do it, they are authorized to perform this duty. In other words, alternative violence programs that do not center the problem of society replicate the violence of the zero tolerance.
What gets missed in the student-focused disciplinary approach is a structural concern: Many groups of color exist within a context where their lives simply do not matter. Little credit is given to the child who is trying to understand and navigate through this reality. Instead, when a child finds the words to aptly describe what she experiences, as in the case of Williams, she faces hostility from her teachers and administrators.
Racialized and Gendered Violence
At the same time that these communities of color are criminalized, disciplined, and punished, their various experiences with violence often fail to qualify as “violence.” Instead, sometimes the violence they experience simply does not matter. For example, although nearly 40 percent of all missing persons in the United States are people of color (33 percent of those missing are Black), critics report “that most media attention is reserved for white women.”
In particular, the layers of violence to which girls of color are subject,  especially those who are labeled defiant or problematic, are unintelligible and negligible. Many of the young girls of color, those who are formally and informally labeled as problems, are vulnerable to multiple layers of violence – institutional, state, and interpersonal forms of violence. These forms of violence are not limited to welfare policies, hyper-surveillance, and mass incarceration; they include sexual assaults and murders by community members, partners, and strangers.
There is also the violence of the social order that positions them to be the receptacles for racist and misogynistic projections. These fantasies are foregrounded in anxieties and insecurities that extend far beyond the girls and anything they could have possibly done wrong. Some young women of color, particularly Black girls, are rendered intolerable because they are imagined to embody the set of morals, ethics, and needs that threaten the sanctity of White civil society.
Among a number of offensive characterizations, the girl of color can be perceived as too angry, defiant, despondent, and critical. She is also imagined as a subject that illegitimately takes from society, its institutions, and good people. At the same time as she extracts resources from society, she is ungrateful for its generosity. Other times, she is too private, foreign, alienating, and unapproachable. She is dispensable. She simply does not play well with White people. She is aproblem.
The impulse to characterize her in these scathing terms complements the drive to neglect her, rendering insignificant the complexities of her existence and needs. Little or no attention is paid to her life, what it means or entails. Generally speaking, discipline policies and violence prevention reform are not meant to recognize these girls’ lives. They often invisibilize the girl of color whose life and subjectivity are affected by the interlock between layers of violence. Instead, discipline policies and their alternatives steer the gaze away from a society that sanctions and performs racial and gendered violence. Society and its schools compulsively organize around containing, disciplining, and reforming the girls of color it has problematized and criminalized. This is done in order to legitimize the hegemony of the social hierarchy and its institutions.
Williams’ story illustrates the need to examine racial disparities in school discipline policies. However, because her story is not anomalous and mirrors a historical and structural condition, the discipline policies and the efforts to reform them have to be contextualized beyond this moment. The problem is with an atemporal coercive society shaped by racial and gendered violence, which authorizes teachers, administrators, and other faculty, including law enforcement officials, to police, harass, and punish those it deems a problem.
In order to address the problems with school discipline policies and their effects, perhaps we should start with examining the racial and gendered forms of violence that undergird them.
 While Black youth make up 17 percent of the student population, they are 37 percent of the students who are penalized by suspensions and 43 percent of the students expelled (Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2012)
 See Sudbury, J. Global lockdown : Race, gender, and the prison-industrial complex. New York: Routledge and Richie, B. (2012). Arrested justice : Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York: New York University Press.
 For the sake of this essay, I use this term to include cis and trans gendered females of color. I currently use “woman of color” even though I am working examining the politics of “women of color.” I believe that a more nuanced analysis of this term is necessary, one that includes scales of differences within and between groups of Black and non-Black women of color, including the racialized ways in which gender is understood, performed but also denied and prohibited.
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.
Connie Wun, Ph.D., has worked as a high school teacher, sexual assault counselor and youth advocate. Her research interests include the politics of school discipline and punishment, racial and gender violence, psychoanalysis and critical theory in education.
Watch and offer your thoughts about film, and how it impacts your thoughts about Halloween. Push yourself and engage the film (make sure you talk about specifics from the film, providing details and examples from the film). Think about history, privilege,nostalgia, sense of innocence, racism, sexism in a global context, inequity, etc. – Outside EVENT. 400-500 words
And then watch these films. How do these compare to discussion of Chocolate and how does this make us think about Halloween and beyond