Inequality in Education: A study of the school-to-prison pipelineBY Avery McNeil
As a Black student recently entering post-secondary education, I feel compelled to diagnose the ways in which the education system discriminates against Black bodies. More than this, I consider myself to be among the few lucky African American males who have the opportunity not only to consider but participate in post-secondary education. As such, I feel that it is my duty to speak for those who have been systematically silenced and excluded from the higher educational system. I have experienced many of the micro-aggressions described throughout this essay. While white society often defines my experiences, as well as those experiences of those who look like me, as unimportant or fake, it is my hope that the sharing of authentic Black male experiences can be acknowledged and used to implement change.
In the current climate of the United States, the vast majority of incarcerated people are Black males. Of these males, a high percentage of them are young men from ages 18 to 24, which make up 20% of total arrests in 2019. This disproportionate tendency for Black minors and young men to end up incarcerated is called the school-to-prison pipeline. The United States education system perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline by forcing Black lives to believe they do not matter through subtle coercion via ideology and further conditioning them to accept this through violence.
Throughout this paper, some critical terms are relevant in understanding the argumentation of this text, like Cultural Reproduction Theory, and Social Reproduction Theory, and Critical Race Theory. Cultural Reproduction Theory in education refers to the reproduction of “social inequalities through the promotion of certain forms of class-specific cultural knowledge” (Jenning and Lynn). Social Reproduction Theory similarly develops the idea that schools “maintain the status quo by ensuring that existing social and economic relations remain constant” (Jenning and Lynn). By reproducing only certain forms of cultural knowledge and penalizing others, schools maintain class-specific status quo. Cultural and Social Reproduction, although different, work in tandem, making up most education structures. Critical Race Theory, or CRT, refers to a much broader concept. CRT recognizes systematic racism, and that racism expands past individual bias and prejudice. It accounts for societal issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans, such as exposure to police violence, denial of affordable housing, higher mortality rates, gerrymandering, and the racial divide evident in American Ghettos. According to CRT, the aforementioned societal issues that disproportionately affect African Americans are interrelated and caused by either institutionalized racism or the result of pre-established systematic racism.
United States education subtly coerces Black students to believe that their lives do not matter. The school curriculum in the US is largely developed from a white perspective, teaching students of color that their experiences are of unequal value compared to their white counterparts. In the article “School Norms and Reforms, Critical Race Theory, and the Fairytale of Equitable Education,” Amy Rector-Aranda unpacks how inequality can occur due to the development of the education system from an exclusively white perspective. Since the founding of the United States, white males have held political power, giving them the power to create and maintain curriculum patterns in schools. Due to this, schools have been white culture-centric and used to glorify European culture, dismiss Black culture, and focus on racial injustices that occur outside of the US while lionizing the states as the “land of the free.”
The glorification of white culture can be seen throughout the education system because the school system only teaches the good things that our white leaders accomplished and hides the bad. The current American curriculum “[does] not admit to students that many of our most revered leaders were racial extremists [that] we would essentially deem terrorists by today’s standards” (Rector-Armanda). Even worse, schools fail to teach about injustices committed in America, instead focusing on portraying the United States as the perfect fair country. For example, many students will rarely hear about the hundreds of African American families slaughtered in the Tulsa Riots. Few students will learn about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment or the violent genocide of Native Americans in the west. The school system’s failure to teach these internal affairs teaches Black students that their problems do not matter and that everything is okay the way it is. Beyond that, what schools do teach is disingenuous to reality and paints white leaders as great figures to be looked up to, causing students to view whiteness in high regard. Educators in American schools should focus more on the internal tragedies of our history, which, if forgotten, could result in outcry and disdain.
Lawmakers and educational leaders often condemn this form of honesty as racist propaganda and cover them with excuses of color blindness, oneness, and patriotism. Ironically, these terms are “all defined according to dominant white standards and as ways of protecting white values, they effectively put ‘the interests, fears, and feelings of white people at the centre of policy’” (Rector-Armanda). Schools’ refusal to teach events outside of the white perspective makes it clear how students of color have unequal opportunities in a curriculum developed within a foreign culture. More importantly, white students, who are familiar with the culture that is continuously favored and reproduced, will have a different starting point than their minority counterparts. All of this leads to Black students receiving a worse experience than their white counterparts, making them more likely to dread or abstain from school altogether. By positioning Black students in the middle of an environment that prioritizes white bodies, US education marginalizes the suffering of Black students and forces them to wonder “what matters?” By erasing the tragedies of the past, the majority of US curricula make it clear to Black students that their suffering holds little to no value, in turn, conditioning them in turn to believe that “this is just the way it is” and that “everything is okay.”
As a result of white culture controlling education, schools reproduce coded language in American vernacular that further discriminates against African American students and ostracizes whites from Black problems. In “White Fragility,” Robin Diangelo coins the term white fragility and deconstructs systematic racism in the United States. When discussing how education approaches teaching racism to white people, she describes how it is “the norm for these courses and programs to use racially coded language such as ‘urban,’ ‘inner city,’ and ‘disadvantaged’ but to rarely use ‘white’ or ‘over-advantaged’ or ‘privileged’” (Diangelo 55). She argues that the purpose of this coded language is to maintain white comfortability and divert responsibility for racism from themselves. Because of this, educators use less harsh terms which are less accurate but more conducive towards white expectations. Although these terms often serve to protect white people, other terms engage in discrimination toward African Americans by coding Black as bad or masking the reality of Black disenfranchisement. For example, when examining what determines “schools and neighborhoods as ‘good;’ whites come to understand that a ‘good school’ or ‘good neighborhood’ is coded language for ‘white’” (Diangelo 58). Such coded language perpetuated in education promotes the idea that white is the equivalent of good or correct and Black is bad. It is then that students subconsciously come to understand that the absence of Black bodies and diversity is not only okay but is a good thing. As for Black students, they are taught their lives matter less than their white counterparts and that they are intrinsically bad.
Black students learn that their lives do not matter through language used in classrooms. As Diangelo argues, society implements coded language to ostracize whites’ responsibility from Black struggles. By avoiding terms directed towards white people, they are able to make racism a “[problem] [that] ‘they’ have, not us” (Diangelo 55); this separates the white man from the problems that people of color face, thus never resolving the issues at hand and showing Black children that their problems do not take precedent. In turn, naturalized coded language results in the reproduction of subconscious views that equivalate African Americans as less than their white counterparts and that Black means bad. In society, this can significantly affect the way police, credit officers, and teachers view African Americans. In short, if the US society does not consider Black students equal, they will not receive an equal education, will be more prone to incarceration, and are less likely to enter postsecondary education upon exiting high school. The coded language reproduced in our schools aids in this discriminatory thought process and implants subconscious and implicit bias in its students. US education currently teaches Black students that they do not matter, while showing white students that they are greater than their counterparts and vice versa. Such conditioning through coercion via ideology shows American schools’ large effect on perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline.
United States education conditions Black students to accept their role in society through the use of violence. American schools act as a catalyst to reproduce the criminalization of Black expressions including through the use of dress code violations for things such as hairstyles, perpetuating stereotypes about Black Americans. In the article, Penalizing Black Hair in the Name of Academic Success Is Undeniably Racist, Unfounded, and against the Law, Jennifer Wyatt Bourgeois and Howard Henderson describe specific unfair and prejudicial rules against Black students as well as how they reproduce social dilemmas. Biased regulation of hair centered on common Black styles simply is biopolitical control that primes subjects for the kind of discipline employed in the prison system. The only acceptable hairstyle for many Black boys is to cut their hair off, which parallels that of the prison system. Furthermore, the prejudicial control of hair toward Black bodies shows Black students that they are supposed to be controlled by a white system and taught that their natural cultural expressions are wrong and bad. Schools today continuously criminalize Black culture through the banning of durags, hoodies, and hairstyles under the auspices of “preparing children for the real world.” Such rules perpetuate the notion that only criminals and violent individuals wear such garments, consequently making Black culture synonymous with criminal. These rules teach Black students that they are bad or unimportant in the societal hierarchy and that they are criminals in nature.
Statistically, “Black students are disciplined at a rate four times higher than any other racial or ethnic group. Further, our research has found that 70 percent of all suspension disciplines are discretionary” (Bourgeois and Henderson). Schools suspend Black students at an unequal rate due to their cultural expressions, such as their hair. Despite the empirical evidence, “education leadership would prefer to justify their actions with a belief in unsubstantiated ideas based on social norms” (Bourgeois and Henderson) which provides a glimpse of the continued racialization of school discipline. Beyond the mere fact that Black children are disproportionately disciplined, these jurisdictions create stigmas against Black expressions and lead to the criminalization of Black culture. Racial stigmas against Black bodies further affect the level of punishment Black students receive in school, as evidenced by the fact that 70% of these suspensions are discretionary. It is then clear to see how the cycle of racial stigmatization builds upon itself and will only worsen over time. Such rules in the school disciplinary system that disproportionately target Black children further conditions Black students to accept ideals that they are worthless, that their lives hold no value, or that they are inherently criminalistic.
In the article Racial Profiling Targets Innocent Children, Courtney Bowie provides a direct example of Black discrimination in schools. Located in Utah, West High School invited metro gang task force members to sweep their school in order to identify potential gang members. On the whole, the teenagers who were suspected to be gang members were Black. In the case of Kaleb Winston, the metro gang task force accused him of being a gang tagger, someone who paints graffiti and gang signs, due to the fact that he was an artist with a sketchbook of drawings and a backpack with graffiti-like designs on it. The officers then forced Kaleb to hold up a sign that said his name along with “I am a gang tagger.” Kaleb had committed no crimes and was identified solely due to racial profiling. Afterward, the authorities let him know that this picture and information would be kept in a database and not erased unless he had perfect behavior for the remainder of his academic career. Cases such as Kaleb Winston’s show the violence that causes Black students to try to keep low, not speak in school, and understand that their lives are worth less than their counterparts. More importantly, violent incidents such as Kaleb’s condition Black students to believe that this is how society functions and to accepts things the way they are.
Whether due to heavy accusations or bias in instructors, the US education system oftentimes brands Black students as deviants, resulting in academic discouragement. In the tragic memoir Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, Ward describes her personal experiences with discrimination and the deaths of five Black men over only four years. When describing one of these five men’s experiences in school, Ward states, “Rog dropped out of school in the tenth grade; it’s not uncommon for Black men to drop out here. Sometimes they are passively forced out by school authorities, branded as misfits or accused of serious offenses like selling drugs or harassing other students: sometimes they are pushed to the back of classrooms and ignored” (Ward p.26). Ward effectively describes the dilemmas many Black students must face in the US schooling system. Black students are seen as inherently dumb and troubled, creating bias in their teachers the moment they enter the room. Black children then choose to keep their hands down in class as they fear suffering a potential accusation of misbehavior or aiding in the idea that Black children are inherently dumb. Many Black students decide that the best course of action is to then drop out of school since they are not supposed to succeed in this environment and to escape a place where they do not belong in the first place. This unsettling description becomes even colder and more heartbreaking under a lens that can relate to these experiences. This lens is one the majority of Black students see throughout their lives.
The entrenched discrimination baked into United States education not only disadvantages Black students academically but also affects students’ confidence, willingness to participate, and views on themselves and future opportunities. In the article, “Tryin’ to Survive”: Black Male Students’ Understandings of the Role of Race and Racism in the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Jennifer Grace and Steven Nelson dissect interviews with Black students in an attempt to get a sense of perspective as well as see the effects inequality in school has on Black students. When interviewed, many students expressed feeling targeted and under constant attack, which translated to a need for self-preservation. One student stated “that a common social challenge for Black men is, ‘Trying to survive…always thinking somebody gonna do you something”’ (Grace and Nelson). Another student had a similar response saying, “I know I’m a target by the police. It’s like I feel like I have to go out of my way to appear nice to police and stuff so they don’t harass me” (Grace and Nelson). As seen in the interviews, Black students feel a sense of constant self-preservation and potential harm, which is understandable given their likely circumstances. Students feel like they are constantly being preyed on and attacked, which results in many children being afraid to express themselves or participate fully or feeling that they have to act a certain way to try and avoid being harassed. Black students will keep this sentiment even when they exit the educational stream, as they will transition to feeling that they need to keep their heads down in order to not be preyed on by American police officers. In turn, schools effectively condition students to accept this feeling of being preyed upon and work around it their entire lives.
To limit Black participation in school even more, students reported feeling as though their teachers saw Black males as lacking a future. One student went so far as to say that they were “looked at differently by [their] White or Caucasian teachers …They stereotype us a lil too much but that’s something that’s never going to change, sad to say” (Grace and Nelson). Immediately, students who share this sentiment are going to distance themselves from their teachers. Students who feel disrespected and looked down upon by their teachers are less likely to enjoy their academic careers, feel motivated, or reciprocate respect towards their instructors. Worst of all, many students believe that there is nothing they can do about this discrimination towards them and that it will simply always be this way. Black students learn to accept that they will always matter less than others and understand that their lives do not hold equivalent value due to micro-violences in their everyday academic careers.
Many students felt that being Black also limited or tainted their professional opportunities. Many students said that they felt very discouraged when applying for jobs since they thought that many employers “have a mindset about us like Black people are this and Black people are that…like they lazy or they wild” (Grace and Nelson). Another student added that “Applying for jobs is very discouraging. Like Black men who been to jail can’t get jobs. That’s very discouraging to people so they go back to the streets. It’s hard for Black men to go to college because they can’t pay for it” (Grace and Nelson). These students have learned that being a Black male negatively impacts the potential options they have outside of school since society views them as lazy and ignorant. Further, students accused or convicted of crimes, which are much more likely to be Black, have a substantially lower chance of receiving a favorable position. Black students are aware of this as seen in their answers, which only lowers their confidence in applying for jobs even more.
When looking at Black students’ interviews, it is clear that Black students receive a different schooling experience than their white counterparts. Many students described the need to be cautionary as they feel society already portrays them as ignorant, so if they keep quiet, they might get by. Students feeling a need to stay quiet and hidden alone has apparent implications for Black students’ participation rate and overall learning experience. Most of all, the student interviews showed how students perceive the way society views them and their acceptance of that as just the way it is after years of disciplinary violence.
Through subtle coercions such as coded language and dismissing Black culture while glorifying whiteness, the United States education system teaches Black students that their lives do not matter and that their problems are not real. United States education then conditions Black male students into accepting this sentiment through violence, which encourages them to not pursue higher education and even occasionally pursue crime, which is further paired with police institutionalized violence throughout a Black body’s life to accomplish a similar result long-term. In this way, American education further sustains the school-to-prison pipeline by showing Black students that their lives do not matter and then conditioning them to accept that through repeated violence. Racial stigmatization in education serves as a catalyst for this violence and only builds upon itself, perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. It is imperative to eliminate such bias in teachers and school jurisdictions, whether by diversifying the teacher workforce or re-evaluating school disciplinary systems altogether, to foster a better education for Black students.
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About the Author
Avery McNeil is a sophomore in the Gabelli School of Business tentatively majoring in Finance. Originally from Texas, he is a basketball player and has interests in sports and anime. He strives to live close to his values, which are supporting and fighting for all and protecting and caring for his family.