July 13, 2020

Stop the pathologization of black students


The dominant school reform discourse believes black students are broken. It is the one point of agreement between liberals and conservatives as they debate questions of how to address the “problem.”

My question: are poor children of color broken beings that need fixing, or are they precious souls trapped in a white hegemonic system of education that efficiently trains them for self-destruction?

How you answer will surely color how you consume the “school reform” conversation.

For me it’s simple. I am not confused. I believe our children are capable, brilliant, intelligent beings who are captives in a system that was not designed for them or with them in mind. Their potential far exceeds their conditions. The unsurpassable worth ascribed to them by God is cruelly diminished – daily, systemically, and possibly on purpose.

But when you eavesdrop on education commentators you come to a different conclusion. Black underperformance in public schools isn’t a problem with the “system” at all.

The system is great. We have some of the best schools in the world when you cut the data the right way. Schools do not fail, ever. The only failure is that of society to ensure all children have two college educated white parents that provide enrichment opportunities at home sufficient to deliver Stepford children to the doors of schools.

When there is failure the problem is the kids themselves.

Listen to a thousand hours of American education debate and the sum total of all descriptions of children of color create an archetypal child in poverty with a single mother who works two jobs (even in a job market that barely produces one job for a fraction of the black population). This kid is so traumatized by shattered families and Sarejevo-like neighborhood conditions that the brain has ceased functioning properly and the child is void of personal assets to build upon.

Consider this…

In 2009 Christopher Jackson, a teacher in the south, wrote a caustic piece in American Renaissance called “a white teacher speaks out.” It was a racist exposé meant to reveal what it is really like to teach black students. His crude and hostile portrayal of the attributes and personal deficiencies of black students which no teacher or school can address comes from a place of candor we rarely see.

The nicest thing he says is this…

For decades, the country has been lamenting the poor academic performance of blacks and there is much to lament. There is no question, however, that many blacks come to school with a serious handicap that is not their fault. At home they have learned a dialect that is almost a different language.

It’s all down hill after that. David Duke would be proud of the rest.

More recently Salon published a piece by John Savage, a teacher who illustrates a similar narrative drawn from his time teaching at J.E. Pierce Middle School. It’s similar, but couched in white liberal vocabulary and the insinuation of compassion. Racism does that some time.

Speaking about the State of Texas’ condemnation of his school as the state’s worst even after 7 years of a turnaround attempt he says “I would rather not recall the aspects of my stint at Pearce that seem to affirm this assessment: the death threats, the police roaming the hallways, the schoolyard beatings.

That said, he goes on to illustrate a typical encounter:

Suddenly Mr. Dean, a security monitor, sprinted through the parking lot and positioned himself between the boys. I recognized Darius, one of the boys from the basketball club. “The cops are coming,” I shouted at him. “Leave. Now!” Darius and his friends fled, but behind me, Mr. Dean was trying to wrestle the Latino boy to the ground. An assistant principal, Mr. Colegio, arrived on the scene, and the three of us together pinned the boy down. I held his legs. The boy cursed at us, thrashing. A well-meaning female teacher thought it wise to brush a wad of dirt and grass out of the boy’s face. “Don’t touch me, bitch!” Mr. Colegio radioed for help. “I’m going to bring my gun and kill all you niggas!” the boy yelled.

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Savage are two white teachers speaking from different political poles, coming to a common point of deficit thinking.  They share a common world view about the irreparability and deficiency of children. They both discount the national focus on “reforming” systems of education, methods of instruction, and the design of schools as missing the point. To them, melanin and low income have so ravaged the innards of “our” children as to rendered them unteachable without fixing the kids first.

This message in one form or another pervades the white educational hegemony as a vindication of the systems they have created to educate their own without educating the “other.”

Hopefully people of color, as few as we are, who enter the education debate will vigorously de-pathologize our child so that policy discussions start with the novel reality that they are human.

A good start my be listening to Eric Mahmoud’s Ted Talk about the “belief” gap.

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