Schools Must Teach That Black Lives Matter

There is nothing wrong with black folk that ending racism can’t solve

Khalilah Harris, Deputy Director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans (right) with Anita Sewell, 19, creator of the Souls of Black Girls.

Khalilah Harris, Deputy Director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans (right) with Anita Sewell, 19, creator of the Souls of Black Girls.

NEW ORLEANS — Let’s get something straight; in a city where drinking and debauchery is as much a rite of passage as debutante balls, the sum of young people arrested shouldn’t be almost exclusively black.

But ninety-nine percent of all juveniles arrested in New Orleans are African-American. Blacks represent approximately 60 percent of all residents and about 77 percent of the children from age 10 to 19, according to Louisiana state estimates. Based on this data, I guess there is no white juvenile crime in New Orleans. Am I supposed to assume the juvenile crime problem in the city is on the shoulders of black boys and girls?

No, there is nothing wrong with black folk that ending racism can’t solve. Add “learning while black” to the list of regularly used phrases we must eliminate from the police harassment lexicon: “stop-n-frisk, shop-n-frisk, driving while black” and “three-strikes.” No-tolerance practices are as ubiquitous in schools as it is in policing. Schools route children to the criminal justice system. This is why the U.S. Department of Education is Rethinking Discipline.

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Ending racism in schools is not simply about limiting suspensions and expulsions. Schools are either teaching beliefs that black students deserve the punishments they receive or they’re not instilling the kind of values that would have us eschew criminal-like punishments.

Destroying the school to prison pipeline will come from arresting all biased systems that entrap black girls and boys – curricula included.

Federal officials and juvenile justice advocates discussed the school to prison pipeline at the 45th Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference in a session titled “Reversing the School to Prison Pipeline for African Americans and Minorities.” U.S. Department of Education staffers highlighted recently released maps showing exactly where students are most likely to be suspended.

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According to the USDOE, “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students.” However, the department’s interactive maps show dramatic disparities between ethnic groups in specific locales. The panelists explained how no-tolerance practices that result in out-of-schools suspensions among black youth correlate with incarceration rates in cities like New Orleans.

No-tolerance polices are the practice of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of extenuating circumstances or logic. The criminal justice system started implementing no-tolerance in earnest during the war on drugs, but since the overall decline of crime starting in the 1990s, no-tolerance policing hasn’t reduced violence in cities any faster than practices in other cities that do not institute such policies.

Crime data didn’t stop schools from punishing black students as if they were criminals. So we should assume our institutions are teaching beliefs that blacks deserve the punishments we receive.

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Negative reactions to the black lives matter movement reveal these beliefs. Football star, Richard Sherman, defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks is the latest to impress that blacks need to fix themselves before anything else. “I think as long as we have black-on-black crime and, you know, one black man killing another … if black lives matter, then it should matter all the time,” Sherman said during his weekly media briefing.

Rigidly blaming black folk for crime essentially recuses institutions and policies from wrongdoing. Blaming black people in spite of evidence that show we’re severely over represented in arrests and suspensions reveals a more insidious cause for the school-to-prison pipeline. Bias is being taught (and confirmed) in school. Or, something isn’t being taught that would counter these negatives views of black folk.

In response to a question from an audience member, panelist Khalilah Harris, deputy director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans, said, “It’s critical we teach our young people their history did not begin at slavery. They do come from greatness having ancestors who survived the Trans Atlantic slave trade. However, both here in the Americas and before we got here, our people have been innovators and creators. If our children are clear about where they came from, they’ll have hope about where they can go.”

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Certainly, Harris believes that schools aren’t engendering the knowledge of self that contributes to academic and social success.

However, if curricula don’t develop a positive self-image for blacks then comments like Sherman’s are to be expected, as are no-tolerance policies.

“We don’t have a curriculum that is culturally relevant,” said panelist Anita Sewell, 19, creator of the Souls of Black Girls. “We have to reach out to many girls who don’t have a voice and who believe black isn’t beautiful.”

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The mission of Souls of Black Girls is to “create spaces where black girls learn to value themselves and their sisters (peers) and to continue to promote positive images, build resiliency and create our own standards of what it means to be a black girl in society.”

When I read The Souls of Black Girls’ mission statement, I asked myself, “Shouldn’t schools do that?”

We know that suspensions and expulsions hurt black students. What is not as apparent is the instillation of beliefs that blacks are the writers of their own plight. If schools can’t deliberately teach all students that black lives matter, then black students will be treated as if they don’t.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).