“Disciplinary Problems.”

Something I’ve become aware of in my journey to understanding my own white privilege, is how many ways we talk about race without actually mentioning race so that we all feel righteous in our stance as: NOT A RACIST. When, the truth is, we are talking about race without even realizing it on a conscious level. Lately I hear racism hidden in discussions of “disciplinary problems” in our school system. And I say this as a upper middle white woman with a white child who has been called a “discipline problem” in the past. AND YET – I still know that “discipline problems” is a phrasing we use in “polite company” so we can really talk about all of the black and brown kids we now have in our school.

The fact that people are complaining about them because of their behavior and not their skin color gives them absolution.

I went to a meeting earlier this week put on by our Desegregation Action Committee. Our school system is trying to get out from under a desegregation order from the 60s and while we’ve made big progress the last three years, we’re still not quite there. We’ve balance our equity in facilities and most programs but we have not found the balance in disciplinary issues which are complex and much harder to address than old buildings. We are still seeing disciplinary reports that indicate a huge disparity in the way we treat our white students and our students of color. Two of the women on the committee responded to comments about discipline and behavior with discussions about a lack of coping skills in a lot of the students, and a lack of empathy in everyone else. And it all really hit home for me.

There are students who have suddenly been either A) pulled into new districts with new boundary lines to try to balance out the self-segregation that had only gotten worse in the city or B) bussed into new schools in the Majority to Minority transfer program. Now those kids are in school surrounded by privileged white kids whose parents can be heard either A) complaining about the change or B) complaining how people left the schools because of the change.

Many of these kids come from homes where their parents are absent or working 3 jobs to pay the bills. Then we dump them into our neighborhood school that has a range from people like us (solidly upper middle class) to people like politicians and large business owners that make us look almost poor by comparison.

(SIDENOTE: We moved into an older neighborhood with no HOA so rich people buy small homes like mine and tear them down and use the ENTIRE LOT to build huge homes and it makes my neighborhood look SO WEIRD. It’s fascinating.)

This neighborhood immediately surrounds Wes’s school and it is filled with SO MUCH visual wealth. But this district also includes the housing projects 3 miles away. Imagine living in some sort of government housing project, or even just in a complex adjacent to one where you might actually be able to use a Section 8 Voucher, (here’s a good article about the limitations of the Section 8 system) but spending 8 hours a day surrounded by kids talking about trips to Disney, carrying iPhones, and wearing the coolest and newest shoes. (Wes talks about shoes a lot. Shoes are evidently a big deal.)

That’s where one of the committee members talked about how discomfort is a source of behavior issues. IN CHILDREN AND ADULTS. If we are put in uncomfortable situations, our hormones are raging in a type of fight-or-flight response because the discomfort causes us such anxiety. So kids are either trying to protect ourselves by hiding (staying in their peer groups from the neighborhood) or by fighting (being disciplinary problems) and because they are CHILDREN, they don’t necessarily have the right coping skills needed.

Which is why our funding now needs to shift to staffing instead of buildings.

But the point is, what parents in these schools (I know this because we moved into a district that saw a LOT of flight when they changed the lines a few years ago) refer to as “disciplinary problems” are really children tossed in a scary situation without proper coping skills. And THE VAST MAJORITY of them are black and brown children. And while we think we clear ourselves from racism by discussing them based on where they live and their poverty level and their disciplinary challenges – we are actually supporting the racist systems that were built to put all of those without white skin in those situations. By not discussing race when we discuss poverty or crime/discipline we allow these systems to continue being innocuous and therefore we can discuss them without actually saying: THE BROWN KIDS IN THE SCHOOL ARE CAUSING A PROBLEM.

But the truth is: If you watch the bus bring the kids over from the housing projects and the neighborhoods around them: They are all black and brown children. So to pretend like we are just discussing the “poor kids” and not acknowledging how race places into their situations, then we will never get to the root of the problem solving. If someone says, “It’s not because they are BLACK, it’s because they are POOR,” then the implication is that the two are not related.

Why, then, are there a higher poverty rates among people of color?

And while poverty rates have improved across the board over time, we are still looking at disparities between white poverty and black/brown poverty of a consistent difference over the last 20 years. We are not bringing the rates close together. And if you can’t explain that with racial injustice and systemic racism, how do you explain it?

If we don’t acknowledge there are racist systems at play here, we will never be forced to look at a criminal justice system that punishes black men more severely than white men of the same crime and background, creating a positive feedback loop that takes black men out of homes at a higher rate than white men, and taking fathers out of homes leaves overworked moms and/or grandparents which then begets children without dependable adults at home which creates children with discipline problems which means children get suspended and are left to figure out how to survive without school and therefore turn to crime which means they are now imprisoned adults leaving behind children in a home without dependable adult presence.

If we don’t discuss race in the midst of the discussions of these “discipline problems” then we are not actually going to get to the root of the problem which are the racist constructs meant to oppress people of color and allow white people to excel with less effort.

And the discussion from the committee is that we try to use empathy when discussing some of the challenges with our kids and our friends. They also asked that we look at the greater positive effects on the COMMUNITY which is what I’ve been proud of, even though we still have quite a far way to go. So if our kids come home and talk about how “those kids from those neighborhoods are always in trouble” we take a moment to ask our child to put themselves in the shoes of that kids. Which is what we do in our home. Do you know anything about him/her? If they’re in that neighborhood they’re probably poor which means they have to go to school with you and your iphone and be sad they don’t have one too. Or they have to hear your friend talk about his THIRD TRIP TO DISNEY THIS YEAR. Or they have to see that other kid’s new fancy shoes. And imagine how hard that would be and how left out you would feel. And maybe it’s worse. Maybe this kids has parental problems like one with drug or alcohol problems or maybe they’re home alone a lot because their Mom works three jobs.

And if we use empathy and acknowledge race, we can see our own privilege and be drawn to being part of the solution instead of just talking from the outside magnifying the discomfort these kids are facing every day.

6 Comments

  • Kathryn Butler

    Zoot, you absolutely don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but what are your kids taught in school about slavery or Native Americans? I am Canadian, and while slavery was never the institution here that it was in the United States, we did have similar historical treatment of First Nations people – namely, we both used residential schools to isolate the children and ‘assimilate’ them. I know here in Canada we had a commission that heard from survivors of residential schools, and now children are taught about them in elementary school and read books about personal stories. I’m hoping this is teaching our children that maybe there are historical factors that influence people’s behaviour. I also think it gives First Nations children a chance to see their history at the centre, which is important for all children.

    So, back to my original question, which is what I am really curious about – what do children in Alabama learn about slavery in school?

    Thank you if you decide to indulge my curiosity 🙂

  • Elaine C. B.

    This is another great post. I’m just curious, how long did it take you to write it? I am just so impressed. Either that you just wrote it off the top of your head after reflecting on what you know and believe and think and hear and participate in, or that you did a lot of research ahead of time. Both are great! I’m just impressed, imagining you getting up at the crack of dawn and putting down such powerful words while the rest of us are still blearily stumbling around for coffee.

  • Lindsey

    Thanks for the link on Section 8 Kim. I’m on the planning commission for our city and we’re considering ways to boost our affordable housing, and Section 8 is one possibility. Glad to have the perspective on it.

  • Beth E

    In the case of Majority to minority transfers the parents or guardians have requested that change for a “better” school.I followed what was going on. when the zoning changes were made a couple of years ago. I think that the interim superintendent nailed part of the problem. He said that the children from the projects did not benefit from the privileges that the children already at that school had. That they were behind in educational levels and that any kid would rather be thought of as mean rather than dumb (My paraphrase). The kids were having to get up earlier to get to school and had been separated from their school friends from years before. Teachers, parents, and students had not found out about t he changes until almost the start of school, so there was no prep for anyone and the school handbook of discipline was for all grades K-12. That doesn’t work, and has been changed. Whereas I might think that any senior might cuss and the best way to handle that would be ignore, a 1st grader shouting expletives should not be. His Mother doesn’t want it to be either. Having lived in North Huntsville for 20 years and having a daughter go to JO Johnson , I can tell there are some differences in how African American children will act that aren’t necessarily discipline problems. As a general rule they talk more , they are chatty and learn from each other that way, they travel in large groups, they have been taught to stand up for themselves, and they don’t want Mom to know what they have been up to! Recently there was a false threat at Grissom. One of my friends has children there and asked what was the current status, what ensued was several of her friends having the kind of conversation you describe. Very loosely veiled comments about the school not having problems before “they” were coming there. This was one hot headed kid shooting off his mouth. It was handled and the kid expelled. A teacher at the school affirmed that there was never an threat to kids at the school and there was no lock down. Earlier in the year when their were some fights among the African American students and the same people were making comments about their kids no longer being safe, I wanted to scream. Your kid is safe. Kids with brown skin are fighting a specific person for a particular reason- like you called my sister a (insert bad name) or treated her with disrespect. Your kid is not that person and they are safe. All kids should be taught to walk away from the area There is a lot a veiled racism. We need to teach our children to respect everyone and to make friends across racial lines. Stop blaming “those people” for all the issues and be sure that your kid is doing what they should. Is it possible the scores for your school will go down when there is a greater socio- economic mix. Yes there is. Again- Your child will continue to thrive and be a more well rounded student. Well enough of this ramble- ramble #2 coming up.

  • Beth E

    I have a friend that teaches in a neighboring system, middle school math in a school that is predominately African American and Hispanic students. They have implemented a revised discipline policy this year. They do not want teachers sending every kid that breaks a rule to the office. The teacher is to handle the issue themselves. There is a three layer protocol. 1- Handle the issue themselves.( All sending every kid to the office does is say to the student that I can’t handle you and undermines the authority of the teacher) 2, Take the student into the hallway and call the parent. 3- Send the student to the office. He has found that only once did he get past step 2. When the students know there parents will be called they straighten right up and several times the “tough guy or girl” has started crying. They do not want Mom or Dad called. The new policy is working nicely.

  • Julie

    I just got around to reading this and I too am SO impressed. You hit the nail right on the head. Thank you for writing it.
    Julie