Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

January 27, 2018

A Revisit with Michelle Alexander on Schools: We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Schools and the New Jim Crow: An Interview With Michelle Alexander

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Interview published in Rethinking Schools

We asked Alexander to share her thoughts about the implications of her work when applied to education and the lives of children and youth.

RS: What is the impact of mass incarceration on African American children and youth?

MA: There is an extraordinary impact. For African American children, in particular, the odds are extremely high that they will have a parent or loved one, a relative, who has either spent time behind bars or who has acquired a criminal record and thus is part of the under-caste—the group of people who can be legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives. For many African American children, their fathers, and increasingly their mothers, are behind bars. It is very difficult for them to visit. Many people are held hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home. There is a tremendous amount of shame with having a parent or other family member incarcerated. There can be fear of having it revealed to others at school.

But also, for these children, their life chances are greatly diminished. They are more likely to be raised in severe poverty; their parents are unlikely to be able to find work or housing and are often ineligible even for food stamps.

For children, the era of mass incarceration has meant a tremendous amount of family separation, broken homes, poverty, and a far, far greater level of hopelessness as they see so many of their loved ones cycling in and out of prison. Children who have incarcerated parents are far more likely themselves to be incarcerated.

When young black men reach a certain age—whether or not there is incarceration in their families—they themselves are the target of police stops, interrogations, frisks, often for no reason other than their race. And, of course, this level of harassment sends a message to them, often at an early age: No matter who you are or what you do, you’re going to find yourself behind bars one way or the other. This reinforces the sense that prison is part of their destiny, rather than a choice one makes.

A Birdcage as a Metaphor

RS: At one point in The New Jim Crow, you refer to the metaphor of a birdcage as a way to describe structural racism and apply that to mass incarceration. How does what is happening to African American youth in our schools fit into that picture?

MA: The idea of the metaphor is there can be many bars, wires that keep a person trapped. All of them don’t have to have been created for the purpose of harming or caging the bird, but they still serve that function. Certainly youth of color, particularly those in ghetto communities, find themselves born into the cage. They are born into a community in which the rules, laws, policies, structures of their lives virtually guarantee that they will remain trapped for life. It begins at a very early age when their parents themselves are either behind bars or locked in a permanent second-class status and cannot afford them the opportunities they otherwise could. For example, those with felony convictions are denied access to public housing, hundreds of professions that require certification, financial support for education, and often the right to vote. Thousands of people are unable even to get food stamps because they were once caught with drugs.

The cage itself is manifested by the ghetto, which is racially segregated, isolated, cut off from social and economic opportunities. The cage is the unequal educational opportunities these children are provided at a very early age coupled with the constant police surveillance they’re likely to encounter, making it very likely that they’re going to serve time and be caught for committing the various types of minor crimes—particularly drug crimes—that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white communities but go largely ignored.

So, for many, whether they go to prison or not is far less about the choices they make and far more about what kind of cage they’re born into. Middle-class white children, children of privilege, are afforded the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes and still go on to college, still dream big dreams. But for kids who are born in the ghetto in the era of mass incarceration, the system is designed in such a way that it traps them, often for life.

RS: How do you define and analyze the school-to-prison pipeline?

MA: It’s really part of the large cage or caste that I was describing earlier. The school-to-prison pipeline is another metaphor—a good one for explaining how children are funneled directly from schools into prison. Instead of schools being a pipeline to opportunity, schools are feeding our prisons.

It’s important for us to understand how school discipline policies have been influenced by the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement. Many people imagine that zero tolerance rhetoric emerged within the school environment, but it’s not true. In fact, the Advancement Project published a report showing that one of the earliest examples of zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual. The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom, began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive. We began viewing the youth in schools as potential violators rather than as children needing our guidance.

The Mythology of Colorblindness

RS: In your book, you explain that the policies of mass incarceration are technically “colorblind” but lead to starkly racialized results. How do you see this specifically affecting children and young people of color?

MA: The mythology around colorblindness leads people to imagine that if poor kids of color are failing or getting locked up in large numbers, it must be something wrong with them. It leads young kids of color to look around and say: “There must be something wrong with me, there must be something wrong with us. Is there something inherent, something different about me, about us as a people, that leads us to fail so often, that leads us to live in these miserable conditions, that leads us to go in and out of prison?”

The mythology of colorblindness takes the race question off the table. It makes it difficult for people to even formulate the question: Could this be about something more than individual choices? Maybe there is something going on that’s linked to the history of race in our country and the way race is reproducing itself in modern times.

I think this mythology—that of course we’re all beyond race, of course our police officers aren’t racist, of course our politicians don’t mean any harm to people of color—this idea that we’re beyond all that (so it must be something else) makes it difficult for young people as well as the grown-ups to be able to see clearly and honestly the truth of what’s going on. It makes it difficult to see that the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement manifested itself in the form of mass incarceration, in the form of defunding and devaluing schools serving kids of color and all the rest. We have avoided in recent years talking openly and honestly about race out of fear that it will alienate and polarize. In my own view, it’s our refusal to deal openly and honestly with race that leads us to keep repeating these cycles of exclusion and division, and rebirthing a caste-like system that we claim we’ve left behind.

RS: We are in the midst of a huge attack on public education—privatization through charters and vouchers; increased standardization, regimentation, and testing; and the destruction of teachers’ unions. Much of it is justified by what appears to be anti-racist rhetoric: Schools aren’t meeting the needs of inner-city children, so their parents need choices. How do you see this?

MA: People who focus solely on what do we do given the current context are avoiding the big why. Why is it that these schools aren’t meeting these kids’ needs? Why is it that such a large percentage of the African American population today is trapped in these ghettos? What is the bigger picture?

The bigger picture is that over the last 30 years, we have spent $1 trillion waging a drug war that has failed in any meaningful way to reduce drug addiction or abuse, and yet has siphoned an enormous amount of resources away from other public services, especially education. We are in a social and political context in which the norm is to punish poor folks of color rather than to educate and empower them with economic opportunity. It is that political context that leads some people to ask: Don’t children need to be able to escape poorly performing schools? Of course, no one should be trapped in bad schools or bad neighborhoods. No one. But I think we need to be asking a larger question: How do we change the norm, the larger context that people seem to accept as a given? Are we so thoroughly resigned to what “is” that we cannot even begin a serious conversation about how to create what ought to be?

The education justice movement and the prison justice movement have been operating separately in many places as though they’re in silos. But the reality is we’re not going to provide meaningful education opportunities to poor kids, kids of color, until and unless we recognize that we’re wasting trillions of dollars on a failed criminal justice system. Kids are growing up in communities in which they see their loved ones cycling in and out of prison and in which they are sent the message in countless ways that they, too, are going to prison one way or another. We cannot build healthy, functioning schools within a context where there is no funding available because it’s going to building prisons and police forces.

RS: And fighting wars?

MA: Yes, and fighting wars. And where there is so much hopelessness because of the prevalence of mass incarceration.

At the same time, we’re foolish if we think we’re going to end mass incarceration unless we are willing to deal with the reality that huge percentages of poor people are going to remain jobless, locked out of the mainstream economy, unless and until they have a quality education that prepares them well for the new economy. There has got to be much more collaboration between the two movements and a greater appreciation for the work of the advocates in each community. It’s got to be a movement that’s about education, not incarceration—about jobs, not jails. A movement that integrates the work in these various camps from, in my view, a human rights perspective.

Fighting Back

RS: What is the role of teachers in responding to this crisis? What should we be doing in our classrooms? What should we be doing as education activists?

MA: That is a wonderful question and one I’m wrestling with myself now. I am in the process of working with others trying to develop curriculum and materials that will make it easier to talk to young people about these issues in ways that won’t lead to paralysis, fear, or resignation, but instead will enlighten and inspire action and critical thinking in the future. It’s very difficult but it must be done.

We have to be willing to take some risks. In my experience, there is a lot of hesitancy to approach these issues in the classroom out of fear that students will become emotional or angry, or that the information will reinforce their sense of futility about their own lives and experience. It’s important to teach them about the reality of the system, that it is in fact the case that they are being targeted unfairly, that the rules have been set up in a way that authorize unfair treatment of them, and how difficult it is to challenge these laws in the courts. We need to teach them how our politics have changed in recent years, how there has been, in fact, a backlash. But we need to couple that information with stories of how people in the past have challenged these kinds of injustices, and the role that youth have played historically in those struggles.

I think it’s important to encourage young people to tell their own stories and to speak openly about their own experiences with the criminal justice system and the experiences of their family. We need to ensure that the classroom environment is a supportive one so that the shame and stigma can be dispelled. Then teachers can use those stories of what students have witnessed and experienced as the opportunity to begin asking questions: How did we get here? Why is this happening? How are things different in other communities? How is this linked to what has gone on in prior periods of our nation’s history? And what, then, can we do about it?

Just providing information about how bad things are, or the statistics and data on incarceration by themselves, does lead to more depression and resignation and is not empowering. The information has to be presented in a way that’s linked to the piece about encouraging students to think critically and creatively about how they might respond to injustice, and how young people have responded to injustice in the past.

RS: What specifically?

MA: There’s a range of possibilities. I was inspired by what students have done in some schools organizing walkouts protesting the lack of funding and that sort of thing. There are opportunities for students to engage in those types of protests—taking to the streets—but there is also writing poetry, writing music, beginning to express themselves, holding forums, educating each other, the whole range. For example, for a period of time the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., was focused on youth engagement and advocacy to challenge mass incarceration. They launched a number of youth campaigns to close youth incarceration facilities in northern California. They demonstrated that it is really possible to blend hip-hop culture with very creative and specific advocacy and to develop young leaders. Young people today are very creative in using social media and there is a wide range of ways that they can get involved.

The most important thing at this stage is inspiring an awakening. There is a tremendous amount of confusion and denial that exists about mass incarceration today, and that is the biggest barrier to movement building. As long as we remain in denial about this system, movement building will be impossible. Exposing youth in classrooms to the truth about this system and developing their critical capacities will, I believe, open the door to meaningful engagement and collective, inspired action.


Why teach about structural oppression and other systems of control?

Young people are not likely to get this information from any other source. If we are ever going to overcome this, we first have to be able to talk about it, describe it, to know what it is. Unlike the old Jim Crow, there are no signs alerting you today to the existence of racial bias. The “whites only” signs are gone, and it’s easy today to be lulled into this belief that people are at the bottom because they simply don’t work hard or are lazy or prone to violence. If we don’t pull back the curtain for young people and help them to see how unconscious bias operates, how systems of discrimination operate, then they will continue to operate on a false belief that race discrimination is a part of our past and not our present. They will find themselves being part of the problem rather than part of the solution.


What would you want students to understand from reading and studying your book? 

They have the power to change the system. It’s easy to imagine that a system like mass incarceration can’t be dismantled. The same was said about slavery, the same was said about Jim Crow. And yet a powerful movement, led in large part by courageous, young people who were unwilling to accept the status quo, who were bold and brave and who were truth-tellers, helped to bring that Jim Crow system to its knees. I think it’s important that even as we learn about great injustice that we not become paralyzed by it but recognize that we are the change we’ve been waiting for and that young people—perhaps more than any other segment in our society—are the hope upon which future generations can rely.

Interview by Jody Sokolower, Rethinking Schools, published 2013

Who is shackling our children and who is supporting their liberation?



October 28, 2015

See Video of Student Brutally Attacked in South Carolina School. Also Read Report on School Cop Use of Force.

Filed under: Racial Justice,School to Prison Pipeline — millerlf @ 8:05 am

View South Carolina student brutally attacked by school-assigned police officer called “Slam”  at:

Following is an article from July of this year that addresses violence against students that has taken place within schools:
Chokeholds, Brain Injuries, Beatings: When School Cops Go Bad

At least 28 students have been seriously injured—and one killed—in the past 5 years.
By Jaeah Lee Tue Jul. 14, 2015 Mother Jones

A Louisville police officer is facing assault and misconduct charges after his alleged use of force at a middle school. Screenshot from school surveillance footage

Over the past year, video footage from around the country of law enforcement officers killing citizens, many of them black, has brought scrutiny on policing in the streets. Yet, another disturbing police problem has drawn far less attention: Use of force by cops in schools. According to news reports and data collected by advocacy groups, over the past five years at least 28 students have been seriously injured, and in one case shot to death, by so-called school resource officers—sworn, uniformed police assigned to provide security on K-12 campuses.

As with the officer-involved killings that have been thrust into the national spotlight, government data on police conduct in schools is lacking. And while serious use of force by officers against school kids appears to be rare, experts also point to a troubling lack of training and oversight, and a disproportionate impact on minority and disabled students.

Here are some of the recent cases, which Mother Jones has looked into further:

• Chokehold and a brain injury: In March, Louisville Metro Police officer Jonathan Hardin was fired after his alleged use of force in two incidents at Olmsted Academy North middle school: He was accused of punching a 13-year-old student in the face for cutting the cafeteria line, and a week later of putting another 13-year-old student in a chokehold, allegedly knocking the student unconscious and causing a brain injury. In April, a grand jury indicted Hardin on assault and misconduct charges for the chokehold incident, and his trial is pending. The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office is also considering charges against Hardin over the punching incident, a spokesperson for the attorney’s office told Mother Jones. Hardin’s attorney declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal litigation.

• Beating with a baton: In May 2014, Cesar Suquet, then a 16-year-old high school student in Houston, was being escorted by an officer out of the principal’s office after a discussion about Suquet’s confiscated cell phone. Following a verbal exchange, police officer Michael Y’Barbo struck Suquet at least 18 times with a police baton, injuring him on his head, neck and elsewhere, according to the lawsuit Suquet’s family filed against the Pasadena Independent School District. In its response to the incident (which was captured on video according to court documents), the school district admitted that Y’Barbo struck Suquet but denied allegations of wrongdoing. Y’Barbo, in his response, denied striking Suquet on the head, stating that he acted “within his discretionary duties” and that his use of force was “reasonable and necessary.” A spokesperson for the school district told Mother Jones that Y’Barbo remains on regular assignment including patrol.

• Taser-induced brain injury: In November 2013, student Noe Nino de Rivera was trying to break up a fight at Cedar Creek High School in Bastrop County, Texas, when two officers arrived and told Nino de Rivera to step back. Within moments, one of the officers, Randy McMillan, tased the 17-year-old, who fell to the ground and hit his head. Nino de Rivera was taken to a hospital, where he “underwent surgery to repair a severe brain hemorrhage and was placed in a medically induced coma,” according to the family’s lawsuit against McMillan, Bastrop County, and the school district. The teen remained in a coma for 52 days, a family attorney told CNN. Attorneys representing the county said that Nino de Rivera had failed to comply with orders and that McMillan “used the reasonable amount of necessary force to maintain and control discipline at the school.” In May 2014, a grand jury declined to indict McMillan, and that month he received a promotion. Three months later, the county agreed to pay Nino de Rivera’s family $775,000 to settle the lawsuit.

• Shot to death: On November 12, 2010, 14-year-old Derek Lopez stepped off a school bus outside of Northside Alternative High School, near San Antonio, and punched another student, knocking him to the ground. Officer Daniel Alvarado witnessed the altercation and ordered Lopez to freeze, and then chased a fleeing Lopez to a shed behind a house, where he fatally shot him. Alvarado later testified that Lopez had “bull-rushed” him as he opened the shed door. Lopez, who was unarmed, died soon afterward. In August 2012, a grand jury declined to indict Alvarado. The Northside Independent School District school board later agreed to pay a $925,000 settlement to Lopez’s family. Alvarado has since been terminated from Northside for unrelated reasons, an attorney for the school district told Mother Jones.

The US and state governments do not specifically collect data on police conduct in K-12 schools. But some data has been gathered at the county and state level by the ACLU and other advocacy groups, including in Texas and North Carolina. Using news reports, the Huffington Post identified at least 25 students in 13 states recently who sought medical attention after getting tased, peppersprayed, or shot with a stun gun by school resource officers. (For more on these harsh tactics and a lawsuit they led to, read this Mother Jones story.)

The US Justice Department spent $876 million to fund nearly 7,000 school resource officers nationwide after Columbine, and another $67 million following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.

From the war on drugs to “zero tolerance policies,” cops have been utilized in K-12 schools for decades. But the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 caused their ranks to swell, with the number of police officers patrolling K-12 campuses approximately doubling to 20,000 by 2006, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. The US Department of Justice spent an estimated $876 million after Columbine to fund nearly 7,000 school resource officers across the country. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, the DOJ has spent another $67 million to fund an additional 540 cops in schools. Many school districts and local police departments have funded their own sworn law enforcement personnel for the job.

But much about this field remains unclear: According to a recent report from Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green University criminologist, “The existing research offers few answers to such basic questions as to how SROs are selected, the nature and extent of SRO training, and the strategic uses of SROs.”

Michael Dorn, a former school district police chief in Georgia, says that misconduct cases by school cops are rare and that overall their presence has helped improve campus safety. But the programs need to be better evaluated based on data, he adds. Studies in some school districts have shown that school cops helped reduce crime, truancy, and bullying. But others have found that the presence of cops in schools leads to increased ticketing and arrests for minor infractions. Jason Langberg, an attorney in Virginia who has represented victims of alleged abuse, explains that many officers end up stepping into matters of routine student discipline. They deal with “minor scuffles, a bag of marijuana, or even just talking back,” he says. “The vast majority of incidents don’t involve guns in schools.”

Dewey Cornell, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who studies school safety, suggests that the rise of school cops has been based on misguided fear. After Sandy Hook, the NRA proposed putting them in every single school in America. But relative to overall gun violence, “schools are one of the least likely places for a shooting to occur, and pulling officers off the street and putting them on guard in a school lobby is short-sighted and dangerous,” Cornell says. “The fear of school shootings has been greatly overestimated because of the attention to a handful of tragic cases.”

Black students are arrested by school cops at a disproportionate rate, according to recent data from the US Department of Education.

Last March, the US Department of Education reported that 92,000 students were subject to school-related arrests in the 2011-2012 academic year, the first time the agency collected and published such data. Black students comprised 16 percent of the total students enrolled but accounted for 31 percent of arrests. And a quarter of the total arrested were students with disabilities, despite that they comprised only 12 percent of the student population. In recommendations to the White House published in May, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing advised that law enforcement agencies analyze data on all stops, frisks, searches, summons, and arrests—and seperate out the data for school detentions. “Noncriminal offenses can escalate to criminal charges when officers are not trained in child and adolescent development,” the report noted.

Often young police officers are on the job, according to the advocacy group Strategies for Youth, which works with police departments and school districts on training. Yet, a national survey conducted in 2013 by the group found that police academies in only one state, Tennessee, offered training specifically for officers deployed to schools. The majority of academies, the survey noted, “do not teach recruits how to recognize and respond to youth with mental health, trauma-related and special education-related disorders.”

In February, Michael Reynolds, a black high school student in Detroit, testified to the task force about an interaction with a cop at his school. “Before I could explain why I did not have my [student] badge I was escorted to the office and suspended for an entire week,” he said. “Many young people today have fear of the police in their communities and schools.”

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January 12, 2013

Racism in America Today

Filed under: Racism,School to Prison Pipeline — millerlf @ 5:00 pm

I recently read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It takes head-on the “elephant in the room” concerning race in America. I feel it is a must read for anyone interested in equality and social justice.

According to Alexander, more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system in the US than there were enslaved in 1850…and more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. She constructs a formidable argument that the “war on drugs,” declared in 1982, had every intention of creating a new form of discrimination largely against black men.

Alexander’s book establishes that the war on drugs is truly meant to reinstate legalized discrimination that marked this country’s history during slavery and Jim Crow. The outcome and intention of the war on drugs has been and continues to be the increased policing of black communities which leads to significantly more arrests of  African Americans than any other group in society. And if an African American is branded a felon, their rights return to the Jim Crow South.

Do more African-Americans go to jail more often because they commit more crimes? People of all races, use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. Yet the arrest and conviction of African-Americans is far greater than that of whites. An example of discriminatory policy can be seen with  the conviction rate and sentence length that is far greater for crack (a form of cocaine), used largely in black communities, than for pure cocaine, that is used largely in white communities.

Do we not believe in a second chance for someone who has been imprisoned? Are we forcing ex-offenders to return to crime or to live their life as a second-class citizen? Is the goal not for someone to become a productive citizen? Alexander establishes that ex-felons, who have done time and are off parole, are discriminated against in employment, housing, voting and other areas for life.

The war on drugs was declared in 1982 at a time when drug use in America was declining. The crack epidemic did not start until later in the 1980s. The war on drugs was not a response to the crack epidemic. Alexander proves that the war on drugs was part of a historic reoccurring pattern. The growth of black political power from the 1960s and 70s was pushed back with the policies of the war on drugs. Laws were changed to perpetuate white power in a new environment.

Slavery becomes reconstruction becomes Jim Crow becomes the civil rights movement becomes the era of mass incarceration – masked in the age of colorblindness.

When we see equal rates of drug use and distribution in black and white areas, while black communities are policed at higher rates than white communities, resulting in higher rates of arrests and incarceration for African Americans men it becomes  racialized social control which maintains the historic status quo.

The outcome, as expressed by the essayist and novelist Toure, is that African Americans remain America’s stigmatized class, which is used to separate African-Americans from poor and working-class whites, who will never see their interests as aligned and thus merge as a potentially unstoppable united force for demanding reform in economics in the legal system and the distribution of power and wealth. Instead, we have two America’s, separate and unequal.

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