School = Jail: Sending the Wrong Message to Black Students

Whatever the teachers’ intentions, their visual message had to be disturbing to many of their Black and Hispanic students. Is this school or jail?

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

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