The population: people in prison. Remember them?
The biblical maxim: Matthew 25:36. I’ll circle back to that.
The speaker was Michelle Jones and her story couldn’t be more vexing or incredible.
Jones was convicted of murdering her 4-year-old son and given a 50 year sentence (later reduced to 20 years due to her committed effort to become a better human). In prison, Jones educated herself. Today she is a candidate for a doctorate degree at NYU.
She pays taxes. She is educated and she is giving back by educating others.
All of that tells me regardless of your crimes, you are never over. God makes no disposable people. Even if you are one of those seemingly unworthy souls whose sins are so bad that the best society can do is build cages to confine you, redemption is still possible.
But our dominant view of prisons and the people they hold is somewhat unforgiving. This might be changing, but slowly if so.
For decades we’ve supported a system that euthanizes the potential of the incarcerated, breaks their spirits, and, perhaps, returns them to society a lesser threat than they were before being sentenced.
That’s our retributive society in all it’s glory. Mean. Merciless. Expedient.
Each time I revisit Matthew 25:36 I’m struck not only by its elegant mandate for us to care for each other, especially the downtrodden, but also by one of its points we fail to observe.
Jesus says “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.“
Providing the basics (food, drink, shelter, clothing, etc.) but that command to not forget about the people who are made forgettable by their prison sentences?
Those of us who see faith as our salvation and education as an equalizer can’t ignore stories like Jones’, stories that beg for our love of justice and our creativity for policy solutions. What is the future of education reform if it doesn’t continue to solve systemic problems where government has failed?
If we truly intend to address the “school-to-prison-pipeline” we will focus on more than the discipline policies that separate a statistically small population of students from formal schooling (and thus expediting their route to imprisonment). We will also focus on ending knowledge poverty – the want of fundamental decoding skills – wherever it exists.
Research tells us students who fail to read in the early grades are more likely to drop out of high school. Further, the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated balloons if they do not earn a high school diploma.
An astounding 41% of prison immates have less than a high school education, 85% of juveniles involved with the criminal justice system are functionally illiterate, and 60% of the nation’s inmates overall are illiterate.
Let’s call the reading crisis what it is, a school-to-prison express. The high-stakes of being knowledge poor is the difference between life or death, freedom or captivity, mainstreaming or marginalization.
If our most prized reforms fail to catch students before they’re lost to the prison system, then our reforms should catch up to them once they are there. We should support education for the incarcerated and innovate it to help far more people leave prison ready to succeed.
To that end, I’ll let another formerly incarcerated person drive the point home better than I can. Meet Aisha Elliot, a mother who was incarcerated at age 19.
Once in prison—New York State’s only maximum-security prison for women—I immediately thought about getting out. I knew from the beginning that I really wanted to go to school. After all, I finally had the time (running the streets doesn’t leave much time for education or parenting). I earned my GED in 1993, my Associate’s in 1999 and my Bachelor’s in Sociology in 2000. Alongside these academic courses…
All of this education was truly a game-changer for me. It not only gave me knowledge and skills, but also confidence in my own ability and potential. As a black woman from a poor, urban neighborhood, the value of hope and ambition cannot be underestimated. For the first time ever, I saw myself with promise and with a future. How ironic that had to happen from behind 30 foot walls and barbed wire fences.
- “The higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate,” The Prison Studies Project
- “Momentum grows in Congress to expand high quality post-secondary education in prison,” Witness LA
- “Report shows the benefit of prison education,” Inside Higher Education
***There is dispute about the meaning of Matthew 25:36, and scholars believe the common interpretation of it differs greatly from the theological interpretation. Did Jesus mean to generalize about the poor and disadvantaged when he talked about the “least of these,” or was he speaking more specifically about his disciples and followers.
Teachers see black children as angry when they aren’t
From right to left, the story for why black children aren’t reaching their potential lives within the child. Or, their family. Their culutre. Their community.
If only they had two parents, better jobs, more time to read at home. It wouldn’t hurt if they had middle-class social benefits. Put those things together and there wouldn’t be a racialized gap in student achievement.
Ok. I won’t argue there. But lets set aside the condition of the child for a moment and consider this new study that finds teachers are less likely to accurately read the facial expression of black students. This only adds to the research I won’t stop talking about that shows black children are seen as less innocent, less capable, and older than they actually are.
When we talk about inequities in education, why don’t we talk about these things?
Eventually, we have to ask the question: “regardless of the condition of the child, aren’t their too many problems in the system that need fixing before blaming children for their own maltreatment?”
Read this from the study:
Prospective teachers are more likely to perceive Black than White elementary and middle-school students as angry, even when they’re not, according to new research published in Emotion. The findings suggest that Black children face a racialized anger bias in school.
“We know a lot about emotion and emotion expression, and we wanted to use our skills toward a question that really mattered and specifically, mattered for social justice,” said study author Shevaun D. Neupert, a professor at North Carolina State University and director of The Daily Well Being in Adulthood Lab.
For the study, 178 prospective teachers from three training programs in the Southeast were shown 72 short video clips of child actors’ facial expressions, and were asked to identify the emotion being displayed. The video clips included both Black and White students and male and female students.
“We hired child actors to display six different emotions and we had professionals who could make all six facial expressions on demand to work with the children until they were able to do so,” Neupert explained. “Then we took short video clips and we made sure that each expression was showing the desired emotion and only that emotion.”
Those emotions included happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise or disgust.
Overall, the researchers found that teachers were more accurate at identifying the facial expressions of girls than boys. The teachers’ emotional evaluations also tended to be more accurate for White girls than Black girls, while being more accurate for Black boys than for White boys.
We’re in trouble when a $4 sandwich matters more than a Black life
We know something has gone terribly wrong in our world when a $4 sandwich is worth more than a black life.
On April 23, 2009 scientists observed a gamma ray burst for 10 seconds which is “the most distant object of any kind and also the oldest known object in the universe.”
But let’s get to the important stuff. On that same day there was a near riot at Minnesota’s one Popeye’s Chicken franchise. The company had advertised an 8-piece meal for $4.99, but the local store was not honoring the deal. Cars backed up in the drive-thru, customers became angry inside the restaurant, and the police were called to stop a melee.
The great chicken riot of Minneapolis made the news.
A local reporter talking about the hubbub said “I haven’t seen people this passionate about something in a very long time.”
I made fun of this incident for years. Mostly because it conflicted with a truism I hear in community meetings all the time about how we aren’t showing up for school meetings or city planning meetings or policy debates because we’re busy working two jobs.
Marketing folks seem to generate a ton of passion in our communities when a dollar is involved. In this case chicken skirmishes have become such a mainstay that it’s created a genre of YouTube videos.
Enough to have videos titled “The Best of Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich Fights.”
The “best of,” really?
Lowbrow, but funny. I grew up on Popeye’s chicken. Loved it as a fat kid in New Orleans does. It took a long time (and some health concerns) to figure out it ain’t food as much as suicide.
Today, what was funny has turned serious. It popped up in my feed that a 28-year-old (the same age as my oldest son) was stabbed to death over a damn Popeye’s chicken sandwich.
Stabbed. To. Death.
Stories like this always make me think about how a person gets to the point in their life where they explode with anger over something trivial and then commit an act that irreversibly ruins their life and the lives of others.
What happened when that person was a teenager, a middle-schooler, or a baby?
There must be a story there. A traumatic one.
I can only imagine.
My guess is that when a child receives endless messages telling him he has little value, he comes to believe it. When he is told that his mind is immaterial, he either responds with anger because he knows it isn’t true (and that it is massive injustice to say it is), or he absorbs the critique and lives it out.
When he’s told he can’t read, he doesn’t. When he’s told he isn’t beautiful, he hates beauty. When he’s told injustice is equity and crooked is straight, as our society so often does to the people it wants to gaslight into a life of subservience, he becomes a violent truth that pays us back for our mannered delusions.
Our children know when the world has pushed them into an unjust corner. They are smart even when the tests they take in school doubt it.
Even as those of us in education activism harp on the idea that our kids aren’t learning, the truth is they are learning every day, but they are learning from our absenteeism and negligence and dedication to mass-consumerism rather than our values and love.
It doesn’t let us of the hook. Chicken fights, social absurdities, and moral laxity are explainable by our history and social conditions, and by our lack of access to the precursors to healthy development (such as home resources, healthcare, and education), but we are not the revolutionaries we think we are if we aren’t calling out and defeating the self-destructive behaviors endemic to our communities.
Every child is born with unsurpassable worth afforded to them by a mighty God. We fall short of our faith if we allow friends, families, or the broader society to rob our kids of that worth.
If they’re ever in a Popeye’s Chicken injuring others over a heart-attack, hypertension, and diabetes inducing sandwich, the trail of their tears leads back to us.
How are the children?
ACT NOW: What does this blog post mean? I could just be me making sense of the needless suffering in our world. It may not be profound. Yet, if forced to think of an action to take that would make this post more than a meaningless buffet of words, I’d ask you to…
…commit to a course of action today that changes our culture of neglect of children. Affirm every child you come into contact with by telling them “you are so amazing, I know you are going to do great things in life” – or something like that.
Or, as always, pray (here).
A short note about Kamala Harris’s integration opportunism
No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.
Earlier this summer Kamala Harris and Joe Biden had a terse exchange about integration and public school busing.
An article in The Atlantic described it this way:
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris told the former vice president, her voice quaking. “That little girl was me.” It was the defining line of the debate, inspiring the creation of a T-shirt Harris’s campaign is now selling for $29.99. The point Harris was highlighting was clear: When busing would have mattered most as a method of desegregating schools, in the 1970s, Biden didn’t enthusiastically support it.”
We love a good come-up story, especially when it invokes the morally superior virtues that define a beloved community.
I can almost feel the warmth of Harris’ torch for the power of white acceptance, and the disdain for Biden’s blue dog resistance.
And, I could tell you a very different story (that won’t sell T-shirts) about a little black boy who was once bussed three hours a day, away from neighborhood friends and familiar surroundings, to a white school in the hills where moneyed white students and their teachers dislike school busses and students invading “their” school.
That little boy was me.
I turned out ok. Even grew up to have children, who are multiracial like Harris, proving I ardently support integration.
But, I am here to constantly challenge the incessant and dangerous romantization of simple integration stories. While most people called the Harris/Biden tussle in favor of Harris, I still call her rehearsed passion play phony baloney.
Which is why I appreciate this Washington Post article that goes a long way to add context to the oversimplified “I was bussed therefore I am” claptrap that intoxicates the best of audiences.
Especially this part…
Kamala Harris wanted to go to a black school. That’s what black folks called Howard University in the early 1980s when Harris was a teenager considering her future.
Harris, she would say later, was seeking an experience wholly different from what she had long known. She’d attended majority-white schools her entire life — from elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., to high school in Montreal. Her parents’ professional lives and their personal story were bound up in majority-white institutions. Her father, an economist from Jamaica, was teaching at Stanford University. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, had done her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where the couple had met and fallen in love. And Harris’s younger sister would eventually enroll at Stanford.
Harris wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions at the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities.
In this we see something curious, but not uncommon, which is how sending children of color off to majority white schools can cause dissonance in the face of microagressions and culture stripping.
Maybe Harris wouldn’t admit that, but she wouldn’t be the first to see an HBCU as cultural finishing school for proper black people.
Indeed, the stories of black integrationists who are celebrated by white media are often punctuated by the fact that they only discovered their blackness in college and now they overemphasize it as the false currency they use in minstrel fashion to Afrocentricize white progressive ideals.
I name no names. I just admit what I’ve seen.
No one should discount the possibility that a little black girl or boy might succeed in life without bathing in whiteness.
Maybe a bus saved Harris, the daughter of privileged middle-class professionals.
Or, maybe, it’s just a good story to gather votes from an electorate that loves simplicity.
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