Jon Hale, University of South Carolina,
Candace Livingston, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Educators in South Carolina have been called to task once again. Recent calls to abolish the police, indict and convict police officers including Derek Chauvin, and to hold Whites like Amy Cooper accountable for falsifying police reports bring back the collective trauma of the Emanuel Nine massacre. The protests have also amplified demands for institutional education reform from antiracist curriculum to professional development.
As we demand systemic reform within a framework of racial equity and justice – something that many teachers in a majority White teaching force will refuse with the same words of Amy Cooper, “I’m not racist” – we must illuminate the complicity of teachers and administrators. By the very nature of teaching in public schools in the United States, educators are either maintaining or dismantling a racist state through our schools. But no one is neutral.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire states, “No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.” Many White educators fail to understand or accept the idea that their actions, whether large or small, consistently contribute to the oppression of Black and Brown students. In contemporary settings, White teachers have become over-reliant on law enforcement such as “School Resource Officers” to settle minor disputes or disciplinary infractions. It is rooted in anti-Black fear, the criminalization of Black and Brown youth, and the idea that they must protect themselves by any means necessary.
This is directly connected to the actions of White women like Amy Cooper. The encounter Amy Cooper had with Christian Cooper could have easily been prevented if she simply listened or embraced antiracism, but in her world, there was no space to listen to the voice of a Black man without feeling threatened. White women have been socialized to fear Black men through stereotypical books and film, widely publicized court cases, and White supremacist propaganda. In the world of many white teachers, there is no space created in their classrooms to listen to the voices of Black and Brown students, unless those voices are rattling off the answer to a math equation they were asked to solve. When Black and Brown students make the radical decision to speak out or show their frustration with a teacher through their actions, they must pay.
Historically, all educators are complicit by occupying the same space as law enforcement, which began as desegregation shaped education policy after the Second World War.
In 1948, in the wake of a desegregation mandate, law enforcement in coordination with school district created the Los Angeles School Police Department to oversee the schools as they began to desegregate. Across the North in Chicago, New York, and Boston, school districts increasingly relied upon armed guards to police schools during the unrest prompted by desegregation. In 1979, during the mandatory desegregation of South Boston High School, White students rioted and fought with Black students. Many students asserted that instead of putting an end to the violence, police added to the tension. In the former Confederacy, White parents demanded law and order and invited police to “protect” their sons and daughters as Black students enrolled in public schools for the first time in history.
A history of police in United States schools creates an atmosphere in which relying on law enforcement to address routine disturbances is normalized. Not only were police given the authority to identify Black youth as “potential troublemakers”, but teachers and administrators were given authority in the late 1960s through federally funded crime prevention programs to identify students as “pre-delinquent.”
This ultimately subjected students as young as nine years old to police contact, interrogation, and surveillance. From schoolyard fights to refusing to put down cell phones, armed guards have been increasingly called upon since the desegregation of public schools. The racist history is manifest in policies like the “disturbing schools law” in South Carolina. It is also evident in the size of the police force that surveils students. Today, the Los Angeles School Police Department has over 400 sworn officers and New York has over 200 committed explicitly to police schools. The policies that result in the disproportionate suspension or expulsion of students of color have prompted a constitutional crisis.
A curriculum replete with racism reinforces and complements an active police force governing our schools. The very classes where students should learn about the history of race and racism, primarily in the social studies, are replete with racism. Our textbooks impart an inaccurate history that fails to teach that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. It fails to teach the aspects of “hard history.” Not surprisingly, much of the nation has an insufficient understanding of the “Civil Rights Movement.” Teachers reinforce a bad curriculum with racist assignments, from assigning students to identify the price of slaves, to write humorous captions for enslaved workers, and reenacting the sale of enslaved persons with Black students – among others.
Our system has failed and is still failing. The education of White students in the United States permits racist actions where Whites can call the police with impunity, even with malicious intentions such as Amy Cooper. It allows a majority of White students to go through a system for twelve years without critically questioning the presence of police. This has inculcated a lesson for millions of White students that calling the police is a reasonable and effective outcome.
As protests grip the nation while we head to honor the lives lost in Charleston at the Emanuel AME church, it is time to teach new lessons and to hold our teachers responsible.