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by Liz Dwyer
What's it like to be a black or brown student experiencing racial profiling in our public schools, and being pushed into the school to prison pipeline? The Tumblr "On Struggling," which describes itself as "a collective zine project by people of color with the intent of sharing personal narratives of struggle with culture, identity, white supremacy, mental health in our communities, modes of self-care and more," provides a heartbreaking view into the very real injustices going down.
On the post titled "TW::violence** TW** RACISM** “You Ain’t Shit" an anonymous author details efforts to get after school programs geared toward preventing teen dating violence and educating youth about "oppression, racism, classism, sexism, ableism, masculinity, healthy relationships, sexuality," and social justice going at a high school on Chicago's southwest side.
An initial meeting "with the school counselors, representatives from a local large "family services" org, the student advocate/dean (due to budgeting, he's both) and some other folks that deal with student activities," was an eye opener:
"I asked them about their sense of dating violence in the school and they said "There hasn't been none of that in about 3 years…" They looked at each other and all sorta shook their heads in agreement. They told me that all the "bad kids" are gone and I wouldn't have to worry bout that. "Where did they go?" I asked? "Dead, transferred out, or just gone," was his response. "The problems we have now are kids being lazy or making out in the hallways. That's what you can help them with. You can probably open this door right now and see some of that in the hallway." They all "um-hmm'd" at the same time and it was a consensus. All the bad kids are gone, and the ones left make out too much."
The nonchalance with which these adults label kids as bad and talk about them being dead, transferred, or gone, is chilling, but a return trip to the school cafeteria to recruit students into the program reveals the horrible truth of what happens to the so-called "bad" kids:
"I heard a student about 20 yards away from me that had just been thrown up into the cafeteria wall by a cop. The young person was almost a foot shorter than the cop and the cop was decked out in his uniform, vest, gun, night stick, tazer, etc. The cop repeatedly threw the kid in the wall and chest bumped him over and over again. The young person repeatedly tried to maintain his balance and defend himself, but the cop was winning this battle.
Before I knew it, my feet were carrying me over to the cop and the young person. I started yelling at the cop "STOP TREATING HIM LIKE THAT?! STOP TALKING TO HIM LIKE THAT!!” The cop at this point was yelling in the kids face, "YOU AIN’T SHIT. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU! YOU AIN’T SHIT" while spit flew from his mouth into the young person's face. The young person responded back the best he could with his own round of "Fuck You's"—but really it was a futile attempt to reclaim a bit of his dignity in a manufactured situation where his power had already been stripped from him the minute he walked through those metal detectors that morning. The cop looked as if he was about to break his arm over his head and eventually handcuffed him and pushed him out."
Defenders of such police behavior in schools attended by children of color, particularly schools in low income communities, frequently say that we need so-called zero tolerance policies in order to ensure that the kids who "want to learn" have a safe space to do so. Thanks to racial profiling and the resulting lowered expectations for black and brown children, too often school staff and campus police officers determine from the jump that black and brown students don't want to learn, are less capable of academic achievement, and are merely "bad kids" that must be handcuffed and removed.
Although the Obama Administration has called for a moratorium on these harsh discipline policies, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noting that 95 percent of suspensions are for things like students being disruptive, disrespectful, or late to class, what's key to remember is that a change of policy doesn't necessarily change the racist attitudes and behavior of the adults in the building. This incident at this school in Chicago happened after Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder made their announcement.
Melinda Anderson recently asked, "How long will we allow black and Hispanic children to be punished more harshly than white children for the same offenses? How long will we continue to let schools be the pipeline to prison for black and Hispanic youth?"
I'm a parent to two black boys, one of whom turns 13-years-old this week, so those aren't merely questions I'm turning over as an academic exercise. I know very well, as do the parents of Trayvon Martin, and the parents of any youth of color who's been stopped and frisked, that at any point in time, I could get a phone call telling me that one of my sons is now "in trouble." After all, as we saw with Kiera Wilmot, the Florida student expelled and arrested last spring for doing a science experiment, racial profiling in our schools negatively impacts even the so-called "good" black kids.
Sadly, in many communities of color, particularly if they're low income communities, acceptance of this racial profiling—a desensitization to a police officer yelling "you ain't shit," and cuffing students—is all too real. Indeed, instead of coming to the student's defense, other students and the school staff "went back to eating and functioning as if what had just happened was normal." One of the college interns working on the project, who'd graduated from another public high school in Chicago, even "said that when he saw what happened earlier in the day with the cop and the kid—he just brushed it off as normal. He was desensitized to it because it's what he grew up seeing all the time in his own high school’s cafeteria."
Now, try to imagine a similar scenario happening at a school attended by white students. It's pretty impossible to picture this going down—not to mention, outraged parents would complain to the school principal and/or the school board. If you throw white kids against a wall and tell them that they "ain't shit," at the minimum, someone's getting fired.
Until we as a society decide that it's unacceptable to treat any group of students in this way these students in Chicago, and elsewhere across America, are being treated, the sad reality is that it'll keep happening. As the "On Struggling" author notes, "MLK said he had a dream that one day his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. We ain’t there yet."
Black teenage student studying image via Shutterstock
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