The Modern Day Slavery of Black Boys & Men

{Originally published on elephant journal here}

Black men bear the brunt of racism in America today, as they have since the era of African American slavery.

Despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans are still discriminated against today, both in school and in the so-called justice system.

Statistics from a 2015 report show that among black young men, one in nine were in prison, compared with less than two percent of white young men. Black male students are the group most likely to be labeled as intellectually, emotionally, or behaviorally disabled, and least likely to be nominated for talented and gifted programs. They are, by far, the most likely to be in disciplinary trouble in the majority of schools in America.

Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity by Ann Arnett Ferguson explains how the stereotype of the African-American “bad boy” came to be. The author analyzes the disciplinary system of punishment at Rosa Parks School, an intermediate school (grades four to six) in Arcadia, California.

Ferguson believes that troublemaking is reclaimed on the part of the students to “recoup a sense of self as competent and admirable in an institutional setting where they have been categorized as problems or failures.” Ferguson points out that “for one boy [the white one], ‘fooling around’ behavior provides the balance between being a ‘real’ boy and a ‘goody-goody’. While for the other [who is black and at-risk], the same type of conduct is seen through a different lens as ‘inappropriate, loud, disruptive.’”

Ferguson also explains that when white boys break the rules, school officials attribute “innocence to their wrongdoing,” and claim that “they must be socialized to fully understand the meaning of their acts.” In contrast, when black boys perform their masculinity, their acts are adultified, their transgressions bestowed with a “sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naïveté.”

Black English is not recognized by Rosa Parks School as an acceptable medium of communication and is typically described by teachers as “bad English” or “ghetto talk.” Received Standard English is expected to be used in school settings, and African-American children and teens are frequently punished for using African American Vernacular English (also known as Ebonics) in the classroom.

Ferguson argues, “Many black children are forced to choose between identification with school or with family and social group…a decision must be made to adhere to one source of knowledge and become alienated from the alternative. Most children become bidialectical or bilingual, switching between the two.”

When Alice Goffman was given an ethnography assignment as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, she dove in head first.

Her 2015 book, On the Run: fugitive life in an American city, was the result: an account focusing on the impact of probation and parole practices on one community, where living under fear of capture and confinement shapes community members’ lives. The book hones in on the existence of the men who go in and out of prison, detailing their incessant maneuvers to evade being recaptured, and investigating how their fugitive behavior affects their lives, families, partners, and communities.

Goffman moved into an apartment in a mostly-black, low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia and became a part of the community. She witnessed 24 police raids, including one in which the author herself was handcuffed.

The principal figures are Mike and Chuck, two 20-something black men with whom the author became close friends and roommates at times. Chuck and his two younger brothers were familiar with the local jails and juvenile detention centers due to their mother’s problems with crack addiction. Although Mike’s family upbringing was more stable, he, too, resorted to selling crack after losing a warehouse job. During the one and a half years he was not behind bars over a five-year period, Mike was required to appear in court 51 times, living under the constant shadow of warrants for his arrest.

Goffman discovered patterns amid the chaos and recognizes that the young men in this community feel hunted and spend most of their energy attempting to avoid the police.

Chuck advises his 12-year-old brother: “You hear them coming, that’s it, you gone. Period. ’Cause whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of 10 they’ll probably book you.” She describes how the boys and young men chase each other through the neighborhood in order to practice escaping from the police.

Goffman acknowledges that her title phrase, “on the run,” describes only half of the story and explains how the phrase is used interchangeably with the term “caught up.”

Once a person is booked in the correctional system, it is nearly impossible to escape being on the run from, or caught up and compromised legally. She depicts the police threatening and using violent force or destroying the property of family members who refuse to reveal incriminating information about their loved ones. Police interrogation tactics often involve “threats of arrest, eviction, and loss of child custody.”

Due to the disturbingly misguided “war on drugs” policies that have dominated society for over 20 years, the criminal justice system has invaded the lives of young black men, among others. States are empowered to be punitive and give unfairly different sentences to those caught with powdered cocaine versus crack cocaine. The war on drugs seems to have resulted only in astounding numbers of men in prison. There is no end in sight for poverty or the drug trade.

After six years of up-close observation, Alice Goffman concludes that “a climate of fear and suspicion pervades everyday life,” with the result that “a new social fabric is emerging under the threat of confinement: one woven in suspicion, distrust and the paranoiac practices of secrecy, evasion and unpredictability.”

A major restructuring of the systems of education and penalization in the United States is urgently needed in order to produce thoughtful, actively questioning citizens and a fair and just society.

“The question we now need to ask is clear: How do we emerge from the wreckage left by a public policy that posited young black men as the enemy?” ~ Malcolm Gladwell

24 Inspiring Quotes on Learning to Change Your Mindset

  1. “The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.” ~John Taylor Gatto, A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling
  2. “Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer; into a selflessness which links us with all humanity.” ~ Nancy Astor
  3. The home-schooling movement has quietly grown to a size where one and half million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents; last month the education press reported the amazing news that, in their ability to think, children schooled at home seem to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers.” ~ John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
  4. “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. ” ~Kofi Annan
  5. “As society rapidly changes, individuals will have to be able to function comfortably in a world that is always in flux. Knowledge will continue to increase at a dizzying rate. This means that a content-based curriculum, with a set body of information to be imparted to students, is entirely inappropriate as a means of preparing children for their adult roles.” ~ John Taylor Gatto
  6. “I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
  7. “School is about learning to wait your turn, however long it takes to come, if ever. And how to submit with a show of enthusiasm to the judgment of strangers, even if they are wrong, even if your enthusiasm is phony.” ~ John Taylor Gatto
  8. “Great education means self-education, but as some point it must also mean having a great mentor. In the history of the world, the combination of classics and mentors has been the method of obtaining all of the necessary knowledge, traits and skills.” ~Oliver Demille
  9. “A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.” ~ Lao-Tzu
  10. “All problems in life-whether they are international life, in the collective life of a nation, or in the life of an individual-are the problems of education. And the problems of education are the problems of knowledge.” ~ Maharishi
  11. “Food is a perfect microcosm of learning. Anyone who does not eat well has failed in his or her own ability to systematically learn. Learning is impossible without being fed. The act of growing according to one’s genetic blueprint supersedes the act of learning. Students who are adding inches to their height are biologically different from people who are not, and the same eating schedule will not accommodate other. Every stated goal of an educational institution (or real goal of a parent) is predicated on a student’s lifelong health, which requires good food as a foundation.” ~ Clark Aldrich

These final 13 quotes come from J. Krishnamurti’s brilliant essay, Education and the Significance of Life:

  1. Conventional education makes independent thinking extremely difficult.
  2. Reaction only breeds opposition, and reform needs further reform.
  3. It is only when we face experience as it comes and do not avoid disturbance that we keep intelligence highly awakened; and intelligence highly awakened is intuition, which is the only true guide in life.
  4. As long as education does not cultivate an integrated outlook on life, it has very little significance.
  5. All of us have been trained by education and environment to seek personal gain and security, and to fight for ourselves. Though we cover it over with pleasant phrases, we have been educated for various professions within a system based on exploitation and acquisitive fear.
  6. Education is not merely a matter of training the mind.
  7. If education leads to war, if it teaches us to destroy or be destroyed, has it not utterly failed?
  8. To bring about right education, we must obviously understand the meaning of life as a whole, and for that we have to be able to think, not consistently but directly and truly.
  9. To understand life is to understand ourselves, and that is both the beginning and the end of education.
  10. The function of education is to create human beings who are integrated and, therefore, intelligent.
  11. Intelligence is the capacity to perceive the essential, the what is; and to awaken this capacity in oneself and in others, is education.
  12. What is the good of learning if in the process we are destroying ourselves?
  13. The individual is of first importance, not the system.

Why We Don’t Believe in School Anymore

Although we are grateful for our educations and experiences as students and teachers in traditional schools, here’s why we don’t want to work within schools anymore, ever again, nor want our children or grandchildren to be subjected to the tyranny of the classroom.

Michelle’s Story

School worked for me. I was always on the honor roll, a teacher’s pet, a nerd, an academic achiever, a lover of reading, writing and math (until trigonometry). I liked school and made many wonderful friends there. I graduated near the top of my gigantic class in 1998 in a suburb of Austin and immediately matriculated at the University of Texas, all of 20 miles from my childhood doorstep.

Going back into the classroom in 2004 as a substitute teacher and then in 2006 as a certified, full-time, bilingual elementary school teacher for me, at first, was like a sweet homecoming, bringing back cheerful memories of my early school days. So why wouldn’t I want that same experience for my daughter?

Well, even though the 1980s weren’t that long ago, our world has changed drastically. The internet mushroomed. The planet is facing dire environmental crises and by that I mean the System and the ecosystem are on the verge of destruction. We cannot, should not and will not stand back and watch helplessly.

But what can we do? We can and we must… connect with our local communities and increase the sustainability of our lifestyles through becoming way more mindful about the foods we are eating, the liquids we are drinking, the clothes we are wearing, the products we are purchasing, the mode of transportation we are using… and the education (formal and informal) that we are giving our children.

As a teacher, I gradually became more disillusioned each year of my career. After just three years in a low-income, public elementary school in south Austin, I fled the district, state and even country. Working at an elite, private K-12 school in Guatemala City for the next three years, I had access to incredible resources and made some amazing friends, yet I felt more and more clear on the fact that the traditional, “American-school” style of classroom education was not for me. My last stop on the education career merry-go-round was at a small, private school in rural Guatemala, near the shores of gorgeous Lake Atitlan. My first two years there, in retrospect, felt like utopia to me, thanks to small class sizes and a caring, close-knit community of fabulous folks. In contrast, my third year was a nightmare. Leadership and almost the entire staff changed, as did much of the student body, and we were left without the core of compassionate community that had sustained us.

I realized that even a very small, progressive school that teaches “global citizenship” and promotes peacemaking (in theory, at least), is still a school, and still just simply does not work for the vast majority of learners.

I am still a teacher and a mentor. I am also a mother, which clearly did help shift my perspective on education as I contemplated what I want for my girl. I am excited to never again have to coerce kids to sit still, nor make them line up like little soldiers, nor force them ask my permission to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. I am blessed to have this opportunity, yet I have also made it happen through my choices which have led me to drop out of the system and to try and encourage others to unite in a new learning experiment here in our neighborhood. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Kat’s Story 

School also worked for me. Because I was a hard worker. Apparently, I was even well-rounded. I was the top academic athlete in my school year after year. I even got a full ride scholarship to play soccer in the U.S. After the degree came the career, the house, the car, the husband… then the depression, illness, divorce and desperation to figure out who the hell I really was and what this “real” world was really about.

My teachers and coaches were right. Hard work did bring me success, but I wasn’t satisfied with society’s superficial version of happiness. By this point, I had read, travelled and seen too much injustice and exploitation to accept the textbooks’ versions of truth. Everything I had ever learned and worked for was a lie, an illusion, complete bullshit. I was angry, fragmented, full of contradictions. That didn’t feel like me either, so through trial and error (and reading, writing, hiking, relaxing and meditating – and yes, counselling), I learned to love.

Once upon a time, school worked for me, so much so, that I had decided to work for it. Initially, I wanted to help students gain opportunities to further their education, like I had. It was my way of giving back. But at the end of the day, between mandatory tests, curriculum, and policies and procedures, I felt I had little left to give, regardless of how creatively I approached the content. Some teachers do somehow manage to create more than consumers from within the educational system. Maybe, for some time, I was even one of them.

But when it came time to relocating, again, and submitting my collection of certificates (this time to teach in B.C., Canada, not the U.S. or Guatemala or Costa Rica), I noticed that my heart wasn’t in it (maybe it never had been and I had previously let my mind boss me around). When my teaching certificate became due for some upgrades, I got trained in NLP instead; courses in unlearning seemed more intriguing than learning about lesson plans and assessments. There weren’t even teaching job openings here anyway, so this time, everything – but school – worked out.

I fell in love – not only with myself or with life this time. I started writing more. I moved, again, this time to a small town in the mountains. I spent more time at home, learning how to garden and preserve food. I began to dream of having a child, an integrated child who will be free to become who he or she is. I’m not claiming a happy-ever-after, but this could be the beginning of a new way…

Where did you go to school? What are your feelings on your school experiences? What would your ideal learning environment look like?

Centering, Circles and Spirals

When we can connect with our inner selves and quiet our minds, this enables us to connect with the loved ones and community members around us. Peace (and conflict) begin internally. Peace is a practice that requires patience, slowing down, deep listening and compassion. When we feel peaceful, happy and content, we are the richest people in the world.

I feel blessed to have encountered the formal practices of hatha yoga, meditation and mindfulness relatively early in life and to have had the time, energy and motivation to implement them into my daily life, as both formal and informal practices. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that yoga, meditation and mindfulness have literally saved my life by enabling me to connect with my inner silence, my voice, my breath and body and my Spirit-ed soul.

Last summer, I read Self Design: Unfolding Our Infinite Wisdom Within by Brett Cameron. Major paradigm shift. It is the story of a new way of learning, one prompted by the learner. It has much to do with mandalas and spirals of development. Its core message is common sense yet revolutionary.

This summer, I am rereading it and thinking practically about how I’m going to implement many Self-Design inspired ideas and concepts in my non-classroom in our new non-school starting in less than two weeks. I like to think of it as a learning experiment. As we embark on this new adventure, I hold space for wonder, openness and curiosity and continually ask the question, what is an enlightening education?

I wonder what is going to happen this year? I wonder what we are going to learn? Of course, there is nothing that we ‘have to’ learn, nothing we ‘have to’ do. I wonder what we are going to create this year on our journey of lifelong discovery. ~Brett Cameron

Currently, I am also reading another amazing book called Sacred Ego: Making Peace with Ourselves and Our World which quite magically and perfectly landed in my lap recently, thank to the author reaching out and offering me a free copy! Her name is Jalaja Bonheim and I have a feeling we are destined to meet someday. I’m feeling the subtle process of another significant paradigm shift even as I read. Stay tuned for a complete review of her wonderful book in the next month or two.

Who is in your inner circle? How do you get centered and connect to a sense of inner peace and silence within? What do you wonder about? What are you passionate about? What would you like to be learning?