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School = Jail: Sending the Wrong Message to Black Students

Last week, I did a long-ago planned BAMRadio interview with the prolific Larry Ferlazzo discussing—of all things—teacher attire. Given the timing of the interview, of course Larry, asked Roxanne Elder and me our views on the recent teacher attire incident at a Staten Island school. According to reports, a number of the white teachers came to school one day during the first week of school wearing NYPD t-shirts in what was portrayed in media as either a show of support for the police department or a show of anger against their local union—depending on the news source.

My spoken response on the BAM show went something like this: The first week of school, before they had gotten to know their students or given students an opportunity to know them, these teachers chose to present an en masse image of themselves in NYPD shirts?  Whatever the teachers’ intentions, their visual message had to be disturbing to many of their Black and Hispanic students. Is this school or jail?

My unspoken response was a bit more complex because I think of the t-shirt incident not as an anomaly, but as part of a larger historical context of messages we send in this country to and about the education of Black youth.

I thought about my fiercely patriotic father, a Korean war veteran and a police officer for 40 years. He took the oath to serve and protect as his life’s passion, yet he was crystal clear about the continuing impact of racism throughout the U.S. justice system. It was he who had “the talk” with my brothers, and later with my own son, about how to conduct themselves in any interaction with a police officer, especially a white one. A lesson every black male child in America must learn.

I thought about the infamous comment attributed to former Mississippi governor, James K. Vardaman (which one of my students cited just this week) that a strong prison system was necessary to “educate [emphasis mine] young blacks of their place within society” (David Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery).I thought about the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and how some states spend two or three times as much per prisoner as they do per student.

I thought about the article by Kylene Beers, former president of National Council of Teachers of English, in which she visits a large, inner-city high school where the teachers justify using low level teaching materials and spending most of the school day trying to create passive, submissive order followers. As one teacher told her, “Some kids can handle the higher-level thinking discussions you might see in other schools, but not the kids here.The kids here haven't had anyone show them how to act, so we do.” Beers calls this "intellectual segregation."

I thought about the thousands of African American and Hispanic youths who have been the victims of violence at the hands of their peers. Peers, who are themselves acting out what they’ve been shown and told all their lives—that they are criminals or will be; that they are worth-less compared to other people’s children.

Connecting these dots led me to think about the role of responsible adults across this nation—parents, educators, concerned citizens, and especially people of faith. Here's a message for us:

It is our responsibility to support and affirm the young people around us.

It is our responsibility to work for liberty and justice for all.

It is our responsibility to demand that all our children have in their own neighborhoods access to quality, public education that respects their humanity, challenges their intellect, and develops their character.

Can't fit that on a t-shirt.

© 2014 Gerard Flynn, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio


Anne Jolly commented on September 15, 2014 at 2:09pm:

Teacher attire matters

Good grief.  Teachers in police T-shirts?  From my standpoint that just plain sends a wrong message to ANY students, period. I understand that it would send an even more negative message to Blacks and Hispanics, but  teachers sporting police t-shirts would send a wrong message in Suburbia. They are not the police - they are teachers.  Big difference.  Why would they do that? 

I like your delineation of our responsibilities - social justice seems to be slipping off a lot of radars. 

Susan Graham commented on September 15, 2014 at 4:55pm:

The New Welcome Mat that Leads to a Rabbit Hole

You know, I'm going to be naive and do my Good Intentions thing here and say that the teacher thought she was making the point that teachers and police work together to make kids safe at school. Yeah, I know.... but.... maybe it's part of our current cultural slip of fear and distrust. And we want some sort of visual reassurance that we are safe. (I'm sure that my fellow air travelers feel safer watching me get a full body pat down to prove that I really do have artificial rather than explosive knees). We want a metal detector and an officer with a weapon as we enter the courthouse. It seems that "high alert" mentality has is a cultural slip that has oozed into our schools. We seem to live in a world that assumes distrust and I wonder to what extent we get what we expect because we expect it.

Yesterday I found out that my former school system, which is in an affluent, suburban DC county, has invested sparse educational dollars to making schools safe. In order to "make schools more secure" all doors remain locked during school hours. A sign (in English) indicates that you are to press a buzzer to gain entrance. After someone in the office responds to a buzzer, you are asked, by intercom, to identify yourself and the purpose for your visit to the school. You are then required to stand on the NEW WELCOME MAT--footprints painted on the sidewalk that puts you in the site range of a video intercom system's camera. You are to hold a photo ID held in front of you or beside your face. If the person on the front desk believes you are legitmate, then she/he gives you clearance clearance to the first door that opens only into the office. Once inside, you surrender your ID and which is scanned and printed onto a sticky back nametag. This will be exchanged for your ID before leaving. (The scanned information is not deleted, it stays in the system.) You then sign in indicating who you are going to see or where you are going in the building. You are then allowed to enter the hallway.

I, a short fat prissy little old white lady who, during my 23 years in the building, taught the children of all of the front office staff that response to the buzzer am required to do this.I've never experienced a run in with law enforcement beyond a traffic ticket, but I watch Law and Order and it seems sort of like what they do when they processed suspects in down at the police station.

Here's what really concerns me. No one ever had to have "the talk" with my husband or my son. They are white mails and wear ties. No one has ever questioned whether I was a good mother based on what I wore or whether I spoke with an accent. I have nice clothes and speak grammatically correct English. I don't have to trf to figure out how to do this from a wheelchair or with a hearing impairment or while hanging onto a couple of toddlers. I spent 23 years working here, and it doesn't feel warm and fuzzy to me!

So, I'm wondering, what message does this send to parents and students? While somebody at Central Office might call it due dilegence and reasonable precaution to keep schools safe, I'm pretty sure that the average citizen will view this as "You are not welcome." The average parent will intepret this as "You are not our partner." The average student will understand that school is a place to "Be afraid, be very very afraid."

Oh, and it it were not so sad, this would be funny:

  • The camera is stationary--it views only the face and the ID held beside it.
  • Once I've signed in, I have no escort, no one is informed I'm there to see them, and no one really knows were I actually go or who I let in by another door which, of course, cannot be locked from the inside.
  • At no point does anyone check my handbag or person for a controlled substance or concealed weapon

BUT follow me deeper down the rabbit hole because I could not make this up)...!!!!!


  • "During "rush hours" in the morning and afternoon, the doors are unlocked to accomodate the traffic of students arriving and leaving school."

Oh wait, maybe the message this sends to our students who are paying attention is, "DUHHH!!"

AND THE SADDEST THING OF ALL: Whoever came up with this really did probably have good intentions and, instead, they have done harm because they lacked the higher level thinking and problem solving skills that consider the potential outcomes of when theoritical ideas are put into real applications. And without the use of a looking glass to reflect on what we're doing, that's why we fall down rabbit holes.



Deidra Gammill commented on September 16, 2014 at 7:32am:

I'll try to keep this short,

I'll try to keep this short, since there's so much potential for misunderstanding in it. But Renee, as a fellow Mississippian, born, bred & educated here, I have to wonder what your thoughts might be on reverse discrimination and a sense of entitlement- in our state especially.

My experience as a white girl attending a predominately black public elementary school was one filled with fear, physical violence, and hatred - at the hands of the group of black girls who chased me home and terrorized me on almost a daily basis. I still carry the physical scars of some of those attacks. The public library was several blocks from my school, and I learned that if I could run fast enough, I'd find sanctuary behind its massive wooden doors. If I was lucky, the girls would get bored and leave, and I'd be able to walk the next 14 blocks without being molested. When teachers failed to help me (they wouldn't intervene since it was off school property) and speaking with the parents of some of these girls changed nothing (my mother quickly realized where these girls learned their behavior), my parents withdrew me and put in me in an all white private school to complete elementary school.

Those experiences have changed as I've become an adult, but I still face everse discrimination and disdain more often than not. It comes from parents who see me as part of the "establishement' meant to keep their children down more from the children themselves (personal relationships seem to disarm fear of discrimination; all my students know I love them and would move heaven & earth to help them succeed). I was raised to believe that bad behavior, rudeness and discrimination were human problems, not color problems. All people deserve respect simply because they're made in the image of God, regardless of their race, gender, or beliefs. But it bothers me that so much attention is focused on white people doing black people wrong, when it actually works both ways. I've had black clerks at a counter wait on every black person in a store and ignore me. I've had more students than I can count (before relationships have developed) accuse me of racism and prejudice simply because I expect them to follow school rules or turn in work - the first line of defense is to point the finger at the white lady rather than take responsibility for behavior. Have students dealt with racist teachers? Probably. Have these same students and their parents been just as guilty of racism? I'd say probably again.

I don't think my experiences are unique, and I would really like to know your perspective on what I've shared. Ultimately, how we treat people, regardless of their color or ours, is a reflection of what's inside. My goal, with all people who cross my path, is to build relationships - it's hard to hate someone you know. And I recognize that in the South old hatreds and mistrust run deep. But the responsibility for healing old wounds and changing our culture rests on all our shoulders, not just the white ones.


Renee Moore Renee Moore commented on September 16, 2014 at 1:00pm:

We Are All Shaped by the Messages We Receive


One of the things I love about the South is that we actually have these discussions, while others tiptoe around them.

Our personal stories are amazingly parallel. I also lived 14 blocks from elementary school and was chased and beaten by a gang of girls (this was black-on-black) on a regular basis. Like you I carry those scars. Yes, I do know that there are white people who have suffered from inhumane, racist acts, at the hands of blacks and other whites--after all, we just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the deaths of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.

On the broader level, you are correct, and that is my point and the point of every other person who has truly fought against racism. It does not cut in just one direction, and it spawns many, many, many harmful side effects in our society across relationships and systems, Racism has been around for as long as humanity and is not restricted to any one group. However, it takes on particular and insidious characteristics in this country because of our unique history with it, and our too-long tolerance of it. It pervades our systems--education, medicine, law enforcement--and has to be consciously and vigorously exposed and rejected. We tend to rationalize when one person has been traumatized by some event in his/her life that this may lead to unhealthy or even dangerous behaviors later. Wouldn't that same rationale apply to an entire group of people who have been collectively traumatized over generations?  Not every person has the strength of character or spirit to move beyond hate and retaliation. Not everyone will question what they learned at Mama's knee or had passed down from the grandparents. That goes for racists and victims of racism.

People like Mississippi's own Fannie Lou Hamer understood this dynamic. If we condone or remain silent about acts or policies of hatred towards any persons, we are truly digging a pit for ourselves and our own children. I'm so glad you spoke up and out about this, and wish more would be as brave and honest.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." -- Martin L. King, Jr.

Deidra Gammill commented on September 16, 2014 at 6:40pm:

New perspective

Renee, I'm so grateful for your response. I actually fretted a great deal after posting, knowing there was so much room for misunderstanding. "The pen is mighter than the sword" carries a double meaning - sometimes you can do significant damage with that pen! I'm glad you could hear my heart as I wrote.

I found this statement particularily striking:

We tend to rationalize when one person has been traumatized by some event in his/her life that this may lead to unhealthy or even dangerous behaviors later. Wouldn't that same rationale apply to an entire group of people who have been collectively traumatized over generations? 

I've never really thought about it in those terms, that generational trauma would lead to a collective response, even from those who didn't live through the worst of it. I appreciate having a new perspective.

One of the aspects I loved about teaching units on the Holocaust was the discussions that evolved naturally about stereotyping and prejudice. Ironically, most of us are quick to condem the Germans but hard-pressed to recognize it in ourselves. The conversations morphed into discussions about race, gender, sexuality, and religious beliefs, and nothing made my heart beat fa little faster than when students had those moments of self-realization that they had been just as guilty of prejudice, just in different ways. My prayer is that no matter what else life might hold for them, my students of color will know that not all white people are prejudiced, my Muslim students will know that not all Christians hate them or think they're terrorists, and that my gay students will know that not all conservative straight people think they're going to hell. Hopefully one day enough people, even here in Mississippi, will have gained that mindset and things will be better.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bill Ivey commented on September 16, 2014 at 9:55pm:

Where I need lots of work...

... is in continuing to learn how to see past my own good intentions to the possible unintended effects of my words and actions, and what to do when I realize I've made a misstep. Connected to that is learning when and how to speak up if I see or hear something that could be unintentionally racist going on, especially if it's one of my students.

Your three responsibilities are absolutely core values of mine too. Luckily, I notice "perfection in word and deed" is not one of those responsibilities. And, vaguely connected to those two thoughts... "Love" and "Respect" fit on a t-shirt. #justsayin'

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