Schools are one of the most historied and intractable locations of racialization in the United States. From the Bureau of Indian Education’s mission to ‘kill the Indian in him to save the man,’ to the ways that zero tolerance policies contribute to disproportionate expulsion of students of color, schools are raced and they racialize. They are also gendered, classed, sexed, and abled. In other words, schools are societal spaces, bringing to bear all of the sociopolitical economic history and contemporary architecture of this stratified society. Scholars of race and education have long documented the racialized practices and policies that manifest in schooling, calling for racism-explicit frames of analysis. And yet, it seems that there is freshly renewed surprise when a racially charged incident, particularly a violent one, happens on a school campus. We lurch from school-based incident of oppression to another, wondering how this or that incident could have occurred.
Much of this lurch resides in the rather static story that is told about education and opportunity. Like much of American society, schooling operates in the interstices between rhetoric and practice, between narrative and societal structure. In the public imaginary, schools are national places of opportunity. When Lyndon B. Johnson signed into effect the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, the precursor to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, he said, “I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.” Not much has changed in this narrative. Even amidst corporate dismantling of unions and public schools, it is rare for any sitting politician to speak about policy without addressing the need to invest in education as a site of opportunity and national progress. In fact, this imaginary space of education may have been part of what has made it such a lucrative endeavor for privatization – schools and the desire for schools to be better is ubiquitous.
To critique education as an institution is, then, to critique the nation itself. To reckon with the longstanding race, class and gender stratification that is, in part, delivered by schools is to acknowledge that schools are deeply connected to the bidding of a larger national structure, put in place hundreds of years ago and reshaped into subvariants throughout history.
When we lurch from instance to instance with outrage and pain, perhaps we also activate a place of that imaginary that sees schools as more benign than problematic. Anger and outrage are appropriate to these instances of state violence, but where does surprise come from? Perhaps we are surprised because schools, teachers, and education at large are generally assumed to be well-intentioned. This assumption blurs our ability to apprehend the material consequences and opportunities that manifest through the racialized space of schooling.
It is time for us to assume good intentions, if we must, and then immediately disregard them so that we connect the dots of racialized spaces in society that are policed and surveilled. We must ask, in a time of militarization of urban law enforcement, not just how schools feed into a prison pipeline but how policies of zero tolerance and practices of seizure and racialized expulsion are constituted by that pipeline and maintain its existence.
While the media coverage this week focuses on the assault of a young Black girl by a School Resource Officer, a sworn law enforcement officer, we must prioritize material analyses that connect this racialized, gendered assault to the many that have preceded it and the doubtless violence that is occurring as I write this and you read it. What are the policies and practices that create and connect these distinct intersectional structural locations of assumed criminality that amount to schools not just as pipelines to prison but as spaces of racialized policing. Such a focus will lurch less from instance to instance, decreasing the volume of spectacle in favor of consistent analysis. We must move from questions of surprise and individual guilt to questions that locate systemic assumptions of criminality and refresh state absolution.
When a 14-year-old was suspected of bringing a bomb to school and arrested, but the school itself didn’t undergo commensurate bomb threat procedures, we should ask what are the material expectations and swift consequences for young Black males who are assumed to be dangerous. When a young girl in South Carolina was flipped over on her back and literally tossed across a classroom floor, we need to question much. We must question and refuse the almost immediate inquiry into the preceding actions that voices an assumption of legitimacy for these actions. These practices reflect and perpetuate the assumed criminality of Black youth. We must dare to speak, in both instances and many others, a structure of whiteness that assumes that schools are unlikely places for racially violent practices, even though they have always been such. We must confront the truth that without overt social transformation and origins in radically different epistemic traditions, schools will tend toward their origins, which are to host racial aggression. They will do so in different ways, with different texture as they also enact gender norms. We must develop the analytic sophistication to locate disenfranchisement and criminalization across differential structural locations that in the aggregate contribute in the larger project of whiteness as property.
I have deliberately chosen not to repeat the names of these young people here, in part, because I wish for their futures to be imagined outside of these interactions with the state, wherein the state acted on them, with them always already being assumed as criminal. But perhaps the pathway to these wishes is to see schools as always already situated in their history.