Racial Disparity in Student Discipline Isn’t All About Race

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Black students are suspended from school at substantially higher rates than white ones.

 

That’s indisputable.

 

When teachers send kids to the office, when principals issue detentions and suspensions, the faces of those students are disproportionately black or brown.

 

So what does that mean?

 

Are minority children more badly behaved than white ones?

 

Or is it an indication that our public schools are overrun with racist teachers and principals?

 

Those appear to be the only choices in Trump’s America.

 

There’s either something desperately wrong with children of color or the majority of white staff at public schools can’t handle them.

 

But the reality is far more complex, and no matter who you are, it will probably make you uncomfortable.

 

The problem is that there are variables the binary choice above doesn’t even begin to explain, and chief among them is child poverty.

 

In short, there are an awful lot of poor kids in America. And children living in poverty act out more than those living in middle or upper income brackets.

 

It’s not that these kids are inherently bad. They’re just coping with the stress of an impoverished life style by claiming whatever attention they can – even negative attention.

 

And since children of color are disproportionately more impoverished than white kids, it just makes sense that more of them would act up.

 

It should come as no surprise that living with economic deprivations translates into behavioral problems.

 

I’m not saying poverty is the only factor. I’m not saying that white teachers and administrators don’t engage in bias and racism. But it isn’t all one or the other.

 

Both are factors in this equation. And others variables as well.

 

To truly understand the problem, we have to give up the easy answers and the blame game and come together to find real, workable solutions.

 

SUSPENSIONS

 

About 15.5 percent of American school children are black, yet they make up 39 percent of students who are suspended from school, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first study on the issue.

 

The study used data from 95,000 schools compiled from the federal Civil Rights Collection.

 

Particularly alarming is the fact that almost the same disparity exists in our prison system, where nearly 38 percent of inmates are black.

 

Researchers concluded that this disparity persists in both rich and poor schools, so the primary cause is racial bias.

 

However, the study was also used by the GAO as a means to put pressure on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she considered whether to rescind 2014 civil rights guidelines from the Obama Administration. The report was part of a political move to force DeVos to keep using guidelines meant to ensure that students are not discriminated against when punishments are handed out or schools would risk being found in violation of civil rights laws.

 

The problem is that the study is undeniably partisan and politically motivated.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with its motivation. It’s just that we can’t let a single well-intentioned political action falsely impugn the nation’s teachers and public schools.

 

It IS important to keep the Obama era guidelines on civil rights violations. We DO need to be aware of possible incidents of discrimination against minorities in our schools and work to rectify these issues.

 

However, we can’t let this change the facts. The issue is whether poverty or race has a greater impact on racial discrepancies in student discipline. Are a greater percentage of black kids suspended mainly because of prejudice or is it more a symptom of their poverty?

 

And the answer can’t depend on whether it makes an odious person like DeVos squirm or smile.

 

POVERTY

 

The problem with answering this question comes from the various definitions of poverty we employ.

 

If we define poverty for students as those eligible for free or reduced lunch programs (a determination based on household income), then more than half – 51% – of public school children are poor.

 

But if we take the more conservative formula developed in the 1960s based on food expenses as a part of a family budget, poverty estimates shrink.

 

According to the Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) which uses the more conservative definition, childhood poverty in the U.S. breaks down as follows: 10% of white kids (4.2 million), 27% of Latino children (4 million), 33% of Black students (3.6 million), 12% of Asian children (400,000) and 40% of Native American children (200,000).

 

And those figures are rising. There are 1.2 million more poor children in the U.S. today than there were in 2000.

 

However, there is real reason to assume these figures don’t capture the whole picture. After all, in just the last 30 years, food expenses (up 100%) have not risen as dramatically as other costs such as health care (up 500%), housing (up 250%) and college tuition (up 1,000%). So any real-world definition of poverty would include substantially more children than just those who qualify under these out-of-date federal guidelines.

 

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes, “If the same basic methodology developed in the early 1960s was applied today, the poverty thresholds would be over three times higher than the current thresholds.”

 

And the GAO study used the conservative 1960s threshold.

 

It underestimated how poor our nation, families and children have become.

 

Consider: in the past 20 years as wages have stagnated, median household expenses increased by 25 to 30 percent. As a result, 3 out of 5 Americans today spend more than they earn – not on useless frivolities – but on essential needs.

 

It’s estimated that over three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

 

People are working more hours for decreasing wages and benefits. A Princeton study concluded that 94 percent of the nine million new jobs created in the past decade were temporary or contract-based instead of traditional full-time positions.

 

In 2016, the poorest 50% of American adults had an average net worth (home and financial assets minus debt) of just $7,500. To make matters worse, only a year previously it was $9,000. The difference all went to the top 1% who gained an average of $1.5 million during that same year.

 

These facts have real world consequences for every level of society – especially how our children behave in school.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

It seems clear then that the scope and effects of poverty have been underestimated by the GAO report and others who wish to emphasize the effect of racism and bias.

 

Again this is not to say that racism and bias are misrepresented or unimportant. It’s a question of how much – not an either/or situation.

 

The fact of the matter is that poverty has a more pervasive impact on student discipline because students of color experience it at greater rates than white kids.

 

This is mainly because of the way poverty affects students’ home lives – an area that has a much greater influence on education than what goes on in the school, itself.

 

For instance, children who don’t know how to “play school” – to navigate the expectations, routines, social situations and academic demands – don’t learn as much as those who do. In fact, this may be a partial reason why children of color don’t do as well academically as kids from other groups. Certainly biased standardized assessments and the high stakes decisions made based on these tests play an even larger role. But at least some of the gap may be caused by lost opportunities due to behavioral issues.

 

Sadly, children who act out in class usually do the same at home. We must ask then: are parents present when this happens? Do they have similar standards of misbehavior? Do they know how to correct misbehavior when it happens?

 

Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that many parents aren’t able to be present for their kids.

 

They are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary to eliminate behavior problems before their children go to class. They don’t have the time to set up routines, expectations, rewards and punishments, etc. And even when they do attempt to do these things, they have less ability to get it right because their attention is focused on putting food on the table, providing clothing and shelter, etc.

 

This is not because these people are bad parents. In fact, they are good parents who are doing the best they can. But this is a symptom of a deformed society that requires a disproportionate investment of time from the poor for the essentials that is not required of those in higher income brackets.

 

This is not something unique to black and brown families, either. It is a feature of millions of white households as well – but the demographics of poverty cluster these impacts disproportionately on children of color.

 

HOME LIFE

 

There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.

 

Some would put blame squarely on the increasing prevalence of one-parent households. I think this is deceptive, though, because many one-parent households are stronger and more stable than two parent ones. It really depends. But it makes sense that households with two parents – where one adult can lean on the other for support – are often more stable than those without this feature.

 

This may be an area where black children have a disadvantage since according to census data the percentage of white children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of black children. While 74.3 percent of all white children below the age of 18 live with both parents, only 38.7 percent of African-American minors do the same.

 

There is also the issue of parents who aren’t just absent during the workday but absent altogether. People of color also are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to white people – even when convicted for the same crimes. This is not to say that black people commit more crimes, but that they are more harshly punished for them than whites – they have higher conviction rates and serve longer sentences.

 

This has consequences for children of color. It adds to the prevalence of grandparents and/or other siblings or foster caregivers filling that parental role. Again, these households can be exceptionally strong and stable. But there is less support, more struggles and the increased possibility that children’s behavioral home foundations may be less robust.

 

RACIAL TRAUMA

 

People of color also experience racial trauma compounded from our national history of slavery, racism and prejudice. Black and brown people today are still dealing with the effects of generational slavery. This is one of the reasons they are disproportionately poor – they did not have the chance to gather wealth over successive generations as white families did.

 

Moreover, the culture of black people was disrupted by the slave trade. Genealogies, legacies, traditions, faiths, etc. were stolen from them by the slave industry. Parenthood, as we know it today, was forbidden to black people. Is it any wonder that they have struggled to regain what was taken from them by white society?

 

Finally, there are the effects of Jim Crow and racial discrimination after the end of slavery. Black people have continually been told they had the same rights and opportunities as white people but when they went to claim these alleged boons, they were beaten back. This has had the effect of turning some of them against the very idea of many of the behaviors they see exemplified by white people.

 

Some students of color don’t want to behave like the white kids because they want to assert their blackness. There is among some of them an internalization of negative behaviors as black and positive ones as white. This misdirected self-determination results in racial pride for acting up regardless of the academic consequences.

 

RACISM AT SCHOOL

 

Of course by the same token there is certainly bias, prejudice and racism among white teachers, administrators, faculty and staff.

 

The fact that our public schools are mostly staffed with non-black and non-brown people, itself, ensures that bias will be prevalent in our schools. It is vital that we increase the percentage of black staff – especially teachers – in our classrooms. Though this will require the elevation of the profession of educator to attract teachers of all backgrounds.

 

The problem is that white people often don’t understand black culture or even recognize how much white people have been enculturated to accept stereotypes and bias as the norm.

 

This has a direct impact on school discipline. Many discipline policies are written to unduly target students of color. I’m not saying this is necessarily intentional – though it may be in some cases – but that these policies result in discipline discrepancies.

 

Many of these are dress code policies. How many schools criminalize the wearing of black hair in certain ways or the simple hooded sweatshirt? Hoodies, for example, are a preferred manner of dress for many students of color and really cause no harm to academics or social interactions. But administrators and/or school boards ban them – why? It’s just another way to police black bodies and minds.

 

These sorts of practices are everywhere in our schools and take reflection to undo. For instance, I found myself guilty of this same thing for years in my classroom when some of my black students started compulsively brushing their hair at their desks. These were mainly boys with short hair who were trying to get a wave effect their peers considered stylish.

 

At first, I found this incredibly annoying – the sound of constant brushing as students were doing their work. But then I realized that these students WERE doing their work. The brushing in no way interfered with academics. It didn’t bother anyone except for me and perhaps some of the white students.

 

Simply allowing cultures to express themselves should not result in disciplinary action. And since I’ve permitted the behavior, I’ve had less reason to discipline my students and no negative impact on academics.

 

SOLUTIONS

 

Most analyses of this problem stop with blame.

 

Who’s responsible for this? And once we have an answer – and it’s usually one very simple answer – then we’ve done all we set out to do.

 

In the case of the GAO report, once again the blame was put on everyone’s favorite scapegoat, public schools and teachers. But this is not earned given how much poverty was overlooked. The reality is that the responsibility for the problem is multifaceted with much of it stemming from cruel economics.

 

The solutions to the issue, if we are ever to really try to do more than just point fingers, must address a variety of ills.

 

First, we need to monitor and help public school staff to be less biased.

 

We need more teachers of color without a doubt, but this will never happen until all teachers are better paid, have stronger labor protections, autonomy and prestige. On top of that, there should be additional incentives to attract teachers of color. It’s hard for white teachers to notice their own biases unless there is someone in the building who can see them more clearly and offer advice. Just making the staff more multicultural will make white teachers more reflective of their own practices.

 

Of course actively pointing out prejudice is extremely difficult for co-workers to do by themselves. In addition, white teachers need cultural sensitivity training. And not just them. Since no educator comes from all cultures, everyone could use frequent reminders of how to be more inclusive, impartial and fair to students from various backgrounds.

 

Next, we need to broaden our idea of what discipline is. Every infraction doesn’t need a detention or suspension. We can enact interventions like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution and other positive procedures that actively teach kids how to deal with their emotions and better behave.

 

In short, we’re teaching kids what they should have learned at home, but like so many things in our society, it’s left to the schools to get it done. I bring this up not to shame anyone but to remind society that any expectation that schools can fix this problem by themselves is laughably naïve – but someone has to try.

 

At the macro level, we need to take steps to reduce and eliminate poverty.

 

This is one of the richest countries in the history of the world. Surely we can find ways to better share that wealth to the benefit of all. If parents don’t have to work multiple jobs to survive, they are more able to teach, model and discipline their own kids. And when parents are present in children’s lives, those kids don’t have as great a need for attention. It would certainly cut down on negative attention seeking behaviors.

 

In addition, with schools at the center of neighborhoods, we can have more adult education classes for parents. This would be not just courses on how to effectively raise children but on job skills and lifelong learning. After all, parents who value learning raise kids who do, too.

 

Finally, we need to enact antiracist policies at the local, state and federal level to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) prejudice of all kinds. We need integrated schools and neighborhoods. We need more antidiscrimination policies. We need to end mass incarceration and selective enforcement of the law. And we need some form of reparations to black people for the generations of racism they have had to endure.

 

I know these are big goals. But they are the only way to make a just society for everyone.

 

We cannot continue to blame our school system for reproducing the society that created it. Education is aspirational and strives to better itself. But it cannot reach that goal alone.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Dear White Supremacists: There Will Be No Race War

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This one goes out to all the white boys.

 

No.

 

Not ALL the white boys.

 

Just the ones who think being “white” and being a “boy” means the world owes them something.

 

Cause I’m white, too, and I know it doesn’t make me any better than anyone else.

 

But not you.

 

You think your lack of pigmentation is a special sign of your supremacy. As if being pale was synonymous for God’s chosen.

 

Well let me tell you something, white boy. God didn’t choose you. You did.

 

What you take for superiority is just a misguided attempt at self-esteem.

 

I’m a snowflake? YOU’RE the snowflake. Same color. Same consistency. In the first warm breeze, you’ll melt.

 

I’m talking to YOU, white boy. All of you.

 

All those melanin-starved faces wearing matching eggshell t-shirts and fat-ass khakis.

 

All those brave, young men holding Tiki torches and an inflated sense of self worth.

 

All the protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, so fearless they can spray mace on those they disagree with, so bold they can throw punches so long as they know the police won’t hold them accountable, so courageous they can drive a car into unarmed counter-protestors, so brave that they can’t even call themselves what they are: Nazis, the Klan, white supremacists.

 

You hide behind “Alt Right” as if the rest of us can’t figure out who you really are.

 

Surprise! We see you!

 

We see your twisted lips, scrunched eyes and flaring nostrils. Your hood-starved heads and sweat-gelled haircuts. Your hate warped faces spouting reheated leftovers from WWII.

 

My grandparents fought people like you.

 

They dressed in army green and hopped the ocean to pound people like you into the ground.

 

They took your goose-stepping forebears and blasted them into bits. They buried your intellectual precursors under the ashes of their eternal Reich.

 

And for my grandfathers’ sacrifice, I rarely had to deal with people like you, myself. Not outright.

 

It’s not that people like you didn’t exist. Your attitudes and beliefs still percolated just beneath the surface of so many frustrated white boys.

 

The difference was that they were too smart to actually give voice to the darkness in their hearts.

 

It didn’t stop them from acting on it. They just wouldn’t admit why.

 

Segregation, red lining, broken windows policing, and a plethora of others. It was all polite, all deniable, all just the colorblind way we do things around here.

 

But that doesn’t really work anymore, does it?

 

Times are changing.

 

The face of America is changing. And it’s increasingly brown.

 

It’s got curly hair and unexpected features. It’s fed by different foods and nourished by different beliefs and customs. And it’s often called by a name that doesn’t derive from Europe.

 

People are starting to speak up. They’re starting to call you out.

 

And you don’t like it.

 

More than that you’re scared. Terrified.

 

It’s all going to end. The lie you told yourself about being special.

 

So you huddle together with others just like you, shivering and crying and blowing snot onto each others shoulders pretending that it’s a rally for white pride. It’s really just the world’s biggest pity party for boys too scared to be men and own up.

 

You’re brave when you’re in numbers, aren’t you? With numbers or with a gun.

 

Then you can say whatever you want. You can pretend whatever racial fantasy will protect your fragile little egos.

 

You’ll whine and boast and imagine you’re winning some kind of war for survival. But we know what you’re really doing.

 

You’re on your knees. You’re begging for a confrontation.

 

You’ll do anything to provoke it.

 

It’s your only hope.

 

Push them. Prod them. Insult them until they fight.

 

Bring them down to your level.

 

Prove your moral superiority by stoking a race war.

 

Because you can battle human bodies, but you can’t stop ideas.

 

You can’t triumph over equality, empathy and love.

 

You can’t stop the tick of time. You can just hope to reset the clock.

 

Well, I’ve got bad news for you.

 

There will be no race war.

 

Not now. Not ever.

 

Oh, there may be fighting.

 

You’ll try to make it happen. But it won’t be white vs. black.

 

It won’t be race vs. race.

 

It will be your minority of cowards and fools vs. the majority of the rest of us.

 

Do you really think people like me will fight on your side?

 

Do you think I’ll stand by you just because the shade of my epidermis matches yours?

 

Hell No!

 

I’ll fight with my black brothers and sisters if it comes to it.

 

I’ll fight on the side of equality, fairness and love.

 

I’ll do like my grandfathers and smash you into the ground. We all will.

 

But I’d rather not fight at all.

 

There need be no violence.

 

And there won’t be.

 

Unless you force it.

 

You see, you can’t make a race war happen.

 

All you can do is unite the rest of us against you.

Standardizing Whiteness: the Essential Racism of Standardized Testing

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“As a method of social production, as well as social reproduction, standardized testing has had serious cultural implications, not the least of which has been the eternal question of American identity. Consistent with notions of American identity, standardized testing, as an opposition to a cultural other, represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness.”
-Andrew Hartman

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
-Toni Morrison

We talk about standardized testing as if we don’t really understand what it is.

We say we want No child left behind!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures some students MUST be left behind.

We say we want Every student to succeed!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures every student will NOT succeed.

It would be absurd if not for the millions of children being forced to endure the harsh reality behind our pretty words.

It’s not these ideals that are the problem. It’s standardized testing.

Researchers, statisticians, and academics of every stripe have called for an end to high stakes testing in education policy. Parents, students and teachers have written letters, testified before congressional committees, protested in the streets, even refused to take or give the tests. All to deaf ears.

The federal government still requires all students in 3-8th grade and once in high school to take standardized tests.

But these assessments are graded on a curve. A certain amount of students are at the bottom, a certain amount are at the top, and most are clustered in the middle. This would be true if you were testing all geniuses or all people with traumatic brain injuries.

It doesn’t matter how smart your test takers are. There will always be this bell curve distribution. That’s how the tests are designed. So to talk about raising test scores is nonsensical. You can raise scores at school A or School B, but the total set of all test takers will always be the same. And some students will always fail.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Standardization, itself, has certain consequences. We seem to have forgotten what the term even means. It’s defined as the act of evaluating someone or something by reference to a standard.

This socket wrench is a good socket wrench because it most closely resembles some ideal socket wrench. This McDonald’s Big Mac is good because it resembles the ideal McDonald’s Big Mac.

That’s what we’re doing to people – children in fact. We’re evaluating them based on their resemblance to some ideal definition of what a child should know and what a child should be.

But children are not socket wrenches nor are they Big Macs. It is not so easy to reduce them to their component parts and say this is good and that is bad.

When you try to abstract them to that point, it is impossible to remove various essential factors of their identity – race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Nor would it be admirable if you could, because you would have abstracted to the point where the individual is no longer visible or valued. A child raised in poverty is simply not the same as a child from a privileged upbringing. A child from a culture that values cooperation is not the same as a child from a culture that values individual achievement. And that’s often a good thing.

But when you define a standard, an ideal, you make certain choices – you privilege some attributes and denigrate others. Since the people creating the tests are almost exclusively upper middle class white people, it should come as no surprise that that is the measure by which they assess success.

Is it any wonder then that poor kids and children of color don’t score as well on these tests? Is it any wonder that upper middle class white kids score so well?

We’ve known this for almost a century. Standardized tests do a poor job of assessing intelligence or knowledge. Those things are too complex and the tests are too simple. If you’re evaluating something equally simple like basic addition and subtraction, these tests can work alright. But if you’re trying to get at something complex like critical thinking or creativity, they end up doing little more than prizing the way some people think and not others. In short, they elevate the thought processes most associated with rich white kids.

It doesn’t mean poor and/or black children are any less intelligent. It just means rich white kids have the things for which the test designers are looking. Some of this is due to economic factors like greater access to private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, coming to school healthy and more focused. However, a large portion is due to the very act of taking tests that are created to reflect white upper class values and norms.

Think about it. Almost all the questions are field tested before they become a permanent part of the exam. Students are given a question that doesn’t count to their final score, but test makers tabulate how many kids get it right or wrong. So when most white kids answer a field tested question correctly and most black kids get it wrong, it still becomes a permanent test question because there are so few blacks relative to whites. Maybe it’s a question that references sun tan lotion, something with which darker skinned people don’t have as much experience. Imagine if a question referencing the hair care practices of  black people became a test item. White people would have difficulty with it because they can’t easily relate. But the field testing process doesn’t allow that because it normalizes whiteness.

So black kids stumble while white kids have an easier time. We even have a name for it: the racial proficiency gap.

Many well-intentioned progressive voices have bemoaned this problem and wondered how to solve it. But it’s not the scores that are the problem. It’s the assessments. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

That’s right. You cannot have such obvious, historical problems perpetuated year-after-year, decade-after-decade, and still think they are mere unintended consequences.

This is how the system was designed to work. This is how it’s always been designed to work.

If you were going to create a racist and classist school system from scratch, what would you do? How would you go about it?

You’d need the lower classes to have SOME mediocre education so they are able to do the menial work that keeps society running. But only so much. Education as a social ladder is all well and good as propaganda. But you don’t want that ladder to lead out of the basement for more than a few.

You need something that will create a hierarchy with people of color at the bottom and poor whites only slightly better off so they can feel ennobled compared to their darker subordinates.

You need a biased sorting mechanism – something that allows you to put students into privileged and unprivileged categories but that will look to all the world like it was doing so fairly. It would have to appear like you were choosing students based on merit.

You’d need something like standardized test scores.

This is how these assessments have functioned from their very beginnings.

When Carl Brigham and Robert Yerkes, U.S. Army psychologists during WWI, designed the alpha and beta intelligence tests to determine which soldiers deserved to be officers, they were creating a pseudoscientific justification for white privilege. They used biased and unfair assessments to “prove” that rich white folks were best suited to give orders, and the rest of us belonged in the trenches.

Brigham and Yerkes were drawing upon eugenics, also called “racial hygiene” or “scientific racism.” This was a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. Eugenicists thought positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.

“We should not work primarily for the exclusion of intellectual defectives but rather for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed,” wrote Yerkes.

THIS is the basis of standardized testing.

After the war, Brigham took the same principles to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T. – in principle the same exam still taken by 2.1 million teenagers every year to ensure they get into their chosen college.

The test was further refined by fellow eugenicist Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Together these three men created the foundations for the modern field of standardized testing. And make no mistake – its axiomatic principle is still that some races are genetically superior and others are inferior.

Or as Terman put it:

“A low level of intelligence is very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… They constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

After WWII, the eugenicist brand suffered from comparison to the Nazis who had been inspired by the findings of Brigham, Yerkes and Terman among others. In the post war years, we’ve discarded the overtly racist language but kept the assessments. Yet they still function the same way – sorting out blacks and the poor while prizing the rich and white.

This information is not secret. It is not kept under lock and key in some hidden military base somewhere. It’s accessible to anyone with Internet access or a library card.
We ignore it, because otherwise it would destabilize the current power structure – the corporate education policies that drive school practices in our country. We close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.

But it is.

“Standardized tests are the last form of legalized discrimination in the US,” said Education and Psychology Prof. Phil Harris.

With them you can give rich and middle class whites every advantage while withholding the same from students of color. And we don’t call it racism or classism because we pretend the whites earned their privileges by their test scores.

“We are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege,” said civil rights theorist Lanni Guinier. Test scores are the excuse for prejudicial and unjust practices that would be impossible without them.

For instance, if you really wanted to help someone who’s struggling, you might offer extra help. But low test scores are used as the reason for withholding that help. We actually use these invalid scores as a means of demeaning and firing poor black kids’ teachers – as if anything they could do could completely overcome biased assessments and poverty. In this way, we not only remove those already in place to help these kids, we ensure few people will volunteer to take their place.

And when you have a teacher shortage in these poor urban neighborhoods, you can use that to justify further deprivations. Instead of teachers with 4-year education degrees, you can hire lightly trained Teach for America temps – college grads who’ve taken no coursework in education beyond a six weeks cram session.

And if the parents of these children complain, you can open charter schools to pull a quick bait and switch. Make them feel like they have a choice when really you’re pulling the rug out from under them. You provide them with a school with none of the safeguards of a traditional public institution – no elected school board, no transparency on how tax dollars are spent, little oversight, a right to refuse any student they wish, etc. And when the school goes belly up, these kids will be pushed back to their former traditional public school that has had to make due with less funding and now can provide even fewer  services than it could before students jumped ship.

Using standardized test scores to judge not just students but whole schools, you can destabilize the entire system of public education. Charter schools and traditional public schools fight over ever-dwindling funding, one required to prove everything it does, the other able to do whatever it wants until it closes with little to no consequences for charter operators who take the money and run.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs Board that we can’t have “separate but equal” schools because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. But somehow that doesn’t apply to charter schools.

Somehow we’ve stopped caring about integration – one of the central victories of the Civil Rights movement! This plays right into the hands of the corporate education reformers. They have done everything they can to increase segregation because it makes it so much easier to privilege rich white kids and crush poor black ones.

They don’t want an equal mix of black and white, rich and poor in our schools. That would make it much harder to select against one class of student while boosting another.

They need to keep the races and classes as separate as possible. Charter schools help in this regard, but they would be insufficient without the help from many white families who flee from these “other” darker complected kids. It’s just another way to send more funding to white kids and less to poor black kids. They say it’s based on local property taxes. That way they can pretend it’s all fair and above board. Rich folks have a right to be able to give their kids the best, and if poor folks can’t afford to do the same, who do you expect to pick up the tab?

Oh! And let’s not forget setting “high academic standards” while all this is going on. They throw out everything that’s been working and come up with a Common Core of knowledge that all kids need to learn. Don’t include black and brown history, culture or the arts – just the stuff the business community thinks is valuable because they know so much about what’s really important in life. And have the whole thing written up by non-educators and non-psychologists and don’t bother testing it out to make sure it works.

Your rich white kids will have no problem jumping through these hoops. But your poor black and brown kids will stumble and fall – just as planned.

This is what has become of our public schools.

This is corporate education reform.

This is our racist, classist school system.

And it’s all based on standardized testing – a perfectly legal system of normalizing rich whiteness.

Whiteness: The Lie Made True

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“The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” – W. E. B. Du Bois

 

 

What color is your skin?

 

You don’t have to look. You know. It’s a bedrock fact of your existence like your name, religion or nationality.

 

But go ahead and take a look. Hold out your hand and take a good, long stare.

 

What do you see?

 

White? Black? Brown?

 

More than likely, you don’t see any of those colors.

 

You see some gradation, a hue somewhere in the middle, but in the back of your mind you label it black, white, brown, etc.

 

When I look, I see light peach with splotches of pink. But I know that I’m white, White, WHITE.

 

So where did this idea come from? If my skin isn’t actually white – it’s not the same white I’d find in a tube of paint, or on a piece of paper – why am I labeled white?

 

The answer isn’t scientific, cultural or economic.

 

It’s legal.

 

Yes, here in America we have a legal definition of whiteness.

 

It developed over time, but the earliest mention in our laws comes from the Naturalization Act of 1790.

 

Only 14 years after our Declaration of Independence proclaimed all people were created equal, we passed this law to define who exactly has the right to call him-or-herself an American citizen. It restricted citizenship to persons who resided in the United States for two years, who could establish their good character in court, and who were white – whatever that meant.

 

In 1896 this idea gained even more strength in the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson. The case is known for setting the legal precedent justifying segregation as “separate but equal.” However, the particulars of the case revolve around the definition of whiteness.

 

Homer Plessy was kicked off the white section of a train car, and he sued – not because he thought there was anything wrong with segregation, but because he claimed he was actually white. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to define what that means.

 

Notably the court took this charge very seriously, admitting how important it is to be able to distinguish between white and non-white. Justices claimed whiteness as a kind of property – very valuable property – the denial of which could incur legal sanction.

 

In it’s decision, the court said, “if he be a white man, and be assigned to the color coach, he may have his action for damages from the company, for being deprived of his so-called property. If he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”

 

Plessy wasn’t the only one to seek legal action over this. Native Americans were going to court claiming that they, too, were white and should be treated as such. Much has been written about the struggle of various ethnic groups – Irish, Slovak, Polish, etc. – to be accepted under this term. No matter how you define it, most groups wanted it to include them and theirs.

 

However, it wasn’t until 1921 when a strong definition of white was written in the “Emergency Quota and Immigration Acts.” It states:

 

“A White person has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.”

 

So there you have it – whiteness – legally defined and enforceable as a property value.

 

It’s not a character trait. It’s certainly not a product of the color wheel. It’s a legal definition, something we made up. THIS is the norm. THAT is not.

 

 

Admitting that leads to the temptation to disregard whiteness, to deny its hold on society. But doing so would be to ignore an important facet of the social order. As Brian Jones writes, the artificiality of whiteness doesn’t make it any less real:

 

“It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.”

 

You couldn’t go around saying, “I don’t believe in Wednesdays.” You wouldn’t be able to function in society. You could try to change the name, you could try to change the way we conceptualize the week, but you couldn’t ignore the way it is now.

 

 

And whiteness is still a prominent feature of America’s social structure.

 

 

Think about it. A range of skin colors have become the dominant identifier here in America. We don’t like to talk about it, but the shade of your epidermis still means an awful lot.

 

 

It often determines the ease with which you can get a good job, a bank loan or buy a house in a prosperous neighborhood. It determines the ease with which you can go to a well-resourced school, a district democratically controlled by the community and your access to advanced placement classes. And it determines the degree of safety you have when being confronted by the police.

 

 

But to have whiteness as a signifier of the good, the privileged, we must imply an opposite. It’s not a term disassociated from others. Whiteness implies blackness.

 

 

It’s no accident. Just as the concept of whiteness was invented to give certain people an advantage, the concept of blackness was invented to subjugate others. However, this idea goes back a bit further. We had a delineated idea of blackness long before we legalized its opposite.

 

 

The concept of blackness began in the Virginia colonies in the 1600s. European settlers were looking to get rich quick through growing tobacco. But that’s a labor-intensive process and before mechanization it frankly cost too much in salaries for landowners to make enough of a profit to ensure great wealth. Moreover, settlers weren’t looking to grow a modest amount of tobacco for use only in the colonies. They wanted to produce enough to supply the global market. That required mass production and a disregard for humanity.

 

So tobacco planters decided to reduce labor costs through slavery. They tried enslaving the indigenous population, but Native Americans knew the land too well and would escape quicker than they could be replaced.

 

Planters also tried using indentured servants – people who defaulted on their debts and had to sell themselves into slavery for a limited time. However, this caused a lot of bad feeling in communities. When husbands, sons and relations were forced into servitude while their friends and neighbors remained free, bosses faced social and economic recriminations from the general population. Moreover, when an indentured servant’s time was up, if he could raise the capital, he now had all the knowledge and experience to start his own tobacco plantation and compete with his former boss.

 

No. planters needed a more permanent solution. That’s where the idea came from to kidnap Africans and bring them to Virginia as slaves. This was generational servitude, no time limits, no competition, low cost.

 

It’s important to note that it took time for this kind of slavery to take root in the colonies. Part of this is due to various ideas about the nature of Africans. People at the time didn’t all have our modern prejudices. Also it took time for the price of importing human beings from another continent to became less than that of buying indentured servants.

 

The turning point was Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Hundreds of slaves and indentured servants came together and deposed the governor of Virginia, burned down plantations and defended themselves against planter militias for months afterwards. The significance of this event was not lost on the landowners of the time. What we now call “white” people and “black” people had banded together against the landowners. If things like this were to become more frequent, the tobacco industry would be ruined, or at very least much less profitable for the planters.

 

After the rebellion was put down, the landed gentry had to find a way to stop such large groups of people from ever joining in common cause again. The answer was the racial caste system we experience today.

 

The exact meaning of “white” and “black” (or “colored”) was mostly implied, but each group’s social mobility was rigidly defined for the first time. Laws were put in place to categorize people and provide benefits for some and deprivations for others. So white people were then allowed to own property, own guns, participate in juries, serve on militias, and do all kinds of things that were to be forever off-limits to black people. It’s important to understand that black people were not systematically barred from these things before.

 

Just imagine how effective this arrangement was. It gave white people a permanent, unearned social position above black people. No matter how hard things could get for impoverished whites, they could never sink below this level. They would always enjoy these privileges and by extension enjoy the deprivation of blacks as proof of their own white superiority. Not only did it stop whites from joining together with blacks in common cause, it gave whites a reason to support the status quo. Sound familiar? It should.

 

However, for black people the arrangement was devastating.

 

As Brian Jones puts it:

 

“For the first time in human history, the color of one’s skin had a political significance. It never had a political significance before. Now there was a reason to assign a political significance to dark skin — it’s an ingenious way to brand someone as a slave. It’s a brand that they can never wash off, that they can never erase, that they can never run away from. There’s no way out. That’s the ingeniousness of using skin color as a mark of degradation, as a mark of slavery.”

 

All that based on pigmentation.

 

Our political and social institutions have made this difference in appearance paramount in the social structure, but what causes it? What is the essential difference between white people and black people and can it in any way justify these social distinctions, privileges and deprivations?

 

Science tells us why human skin comes in different shades. It’s based on the amount of melanin we possess, a pigment that not only gives color but blocks the body from absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Everyone has some melanin. Fair skinned people can even temporarily increase the amount they have by additional solar exposure – tanning.

 

If the body absorbs too many UV rays, it can cause cancers or produce birth defects in the next generation. That’s why groups of people who historically lived closer to the equator possess more melanin than those further from it. This provided an evolutionary advantage.

 

However, the human body needs vitamin D, which often comes from sunlight. Having a greater degree of melanin can stop the body from absorbing the necessary Vitamin D and – if another source isn’t found -health problems like Sickle-cell anemia can occur.

 

That’s why people living further from the equator developed lighter skin over time. Humanity originated in Africa, but as peoples migrated north they didn’t need the extra melanin since they received less direct sunlight. Likewise, they benefited from less melanin and therefore easier absorption of Vitamin D from the sunlight they did receive.

 

Map_of_Indigenous_Skin_Colors

 

That’s the major difference between people of different colors.

 

Contrary to the persistent beliefs of many Americans, skin color doesn’t determine work ethic, intelligence, honesty, strength, or any other character trait.

In the 19th through the 20th Centuries, we created a whole field of science called eugenics to prove otherwise. We tried to show that each race had dominant traits and some races were better than others.

 

However, modern science has disproven every scrap of it. Eugenics is now considered a pseudoscience. Everywhere in public we loudly proclaim that judgments like these based on race are unacceptable. Yet the pattern of positive consequences for light skinned people and negative consequences for dark skinned people persists. And few of us want to identify, discuss or – God forbid – confront it.

 

And that’s where we are today.

 

We in America live in a society that still subscribes to the essentially nonsensical definitions of the past. Both white and black people have been kept in their place because of them.

 

In each socio-economic bracket people have common cause that goes beyond skin color. But the ruling class has used a racial caste system to stop us from joining together against them.

 

This is obvious to most black people because they deal with the negative consequences of it every day. White people, however, are constantly bombarded by tiny benefits without noticing they’re present at all. White people take it as their due – this is what all people deserve. And, yes, it IS what all people deserve, but it is not what all people are receiving!

 

We are faced with a difficult task. We must somehow both understand that our ideas about race are man-made while taking arms against them. We must accept that whiteness and blackness are bogus terms and yet they dramatically affect our lives. We must preserve all that makes us who we are while fighting for the common humanity of all.

 

And we can’t do that by simply ignoring skin color. That kind of colorblindness only helps perpetuate the status quo. Instead, we must pay attention to inequalities based on the racial divide and actively work to counteract them.

 

In short, there are no white people and black people. There are only racists and anti-racists.

 

Which will you be?