What Happens When We Ask Black Teachers To Discipline Black Students?
by Anthony Conwright, TeachThought
“Anthony, we don’t do anything.”
I was the dean of students; I was in charge of safety and discipline at a progressive charter school in San Diego. A female student of color, Janet, is in my office to explain to me why she ditched her advisory. The purpose of the advisory program is for students to have a connection with an adult and establish relationships with students from different grade-levels. “All the students sit in different groups, do their own thing, and I’m left out,” Janet said. Her advisor is a white male, and the students in her advisory are primarily white.
When I walk into her advisory, I saw what she described: students separated into groups, not making connections, or doing much at all. I talked to the advisor in private and let him know how Janet was feeling. He said he would make changes. I spoke to Janet and let her know it’s not okay to skip class and talking about her concerns with adults is always the best course of action. Janet and the teacher spoke, but nothing changed.
Janet continued to feel excluded and eventually asked me if she could join my advisory. When I spoke to her advisor, he told me he did not want her to switch. Her advisor wanted me to send a clear message to her that she had to be in his advisory and that if she did not stay, there would be harsh consequences. Despite my attempts to explain why a student of color would avoid a space in which they feel excluded, especially if that space felt white, he did not budge.
I was an African-American male in a position of power, but it was at a school where there was a discrepancy in the demographics of the student body and the majority-white staff. As an administrator and the only black male in the school, I was continually enforcing the behavioral expectations of white teachers who showed disregard to how students of color feel about inequitable systems and expectations in the school. I often felt suffocated, alienated, and unsuccessful because it was impossible to please my white colleagues if I did not discipline them the way they saw fit.
Black Muscle, White Skin: When African-Americans As Disciplinarians
Like so many students of color, I stopped wanting to be present and eventually left the school: it was clear to me that my presence was to be white muscle disguised in black skin.
It is nearly impossible to separate the current practices of the American education system from the nation’s habit of preserving white supremacy through oppressive practices. In matters of school discipline, the American education system has maintained a relationship with black educators and students that has continued one of the country’s social dynamics from slavery: Make people of color discipline other people of color.
Set in the antebellum South, Nate Parker’s, Birth of a Nation depicts the story of Nat Turner, a literate slave, and preacher whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer from a religious cleric, reverend Walthall, to use Nat’s preaching to keep slaves inured to their bondage.
The scene in which Turner accepts the proposal of Rev. Walthall parallels the way school leaders maneuver black educators into disciplinarian roles:
REV. WALTHALL (CONT’D)
I gotta say, Sam, your slaves sure do know how to behave. More impressed by ‘em ever’ time I make it ‘round. (beat) Old Ben would be proud.
They God fearing. Simple as that. Gotta colored preacher that keeps ‘em reminded.
A colored preacher? That the remedy?
Despite its cinematic depiction, the “remedy” of empowered whites using the social clout of African Americans to convince blacks to acquiesce to discipline follows an enduring legacy of education’s marriage to racist practices.
In an 1892 Atlantic Monthly essay titled “The Education of the Negro,” William T. Harris, commissioner of education from 1889-1906, wrote, “The chief problem of negroes of the south was retaining the Anglo-Saxon consciousness and cultural prosperity obtained by domestic slavery.”
Harris was examining how to get black students to assimilate to European culture, and he was keen on using education to do it.
Philip A. Bruce, the editor of the Atlantic, wrote a footnote to Harris to suggest that it was vital to improve the character of “negro preachers” because black preachers had social clout in black communities. Bruce knew assimilating black educators would be a challenge because white pedagogical leaders could not select black preachers the same way they could select black teachers:
“The improvement of the character of the negro preachers is even more important than the improvement of the character of the negro teachers; but it is an end more difficult to reach, because the preachers cannot be selected, like the teachers. The most feasible plan for promoting this improvement of character seems to be the establishment of a large number of seminaries, to be controlled absolutely by the white religious denominations.”
The idea was to use black leaders to help white educators superimpose white ideals of a well-behaved African-American onto the black community. The strategy follows a method used by former Senator, slave owner, and teacher, James Henry Hammond, who wrote a manual on how to use slave drivers to manage slaves on a plantation:
“The head driver is the most important negro on the plantation and is not required to work as the other hands. He is to be treated with more respect than any other negro by both master & overseer. He is required to maintain proper discipline at all times. To see that no negro idles or does bad work in the field, & to punish it with discretion on the spot. ”
The duty of black slave drivers who had an ordinance to maintain “proper” discipline for slaves at all times is analogous to black educators tasked with the responsibility of using their influence as a way to keep the behavior of black students in check.
See also No Student Is Unreachable
It isn’t surprising today’s well-meaning white and black pedagogical leaders embrace the narrative of empowering black educators by enforcing “black-on-black” discipline, especially considering it has been an ethos in black-white relationships in America. On the surface, the calculation makes sense. Research shows that black children are three times more likely to be placed in gifted-education programs if they have a black teacher, and studies show students prefer teachers of color, so why not leverage the connection African-American adults make with African-American students to enforce discipline?
On the contrary, the way pedagogical leaders put the research into practice is flawed.
It has been well-documented that despite the rising population of black students, black educators have left the profession due to the expectation that they use their blackness as a way to enforce discipline on students of color.
Former U.S. education secretary, John King, calls the problem “The Invisible Tax.” King’s article, “The invisible Tax on Teachers of Color,” describes the way in which black educators are posited to play the role of disciplinarian for white educators:
“According to some African American male teachers, the ‘invisible tax’ is imposed on them when they are the only or one of only a few nonwhite male educators in the building. It is paid, for example, when these teachers, who make up only 2 percent of the teaching force nationally, are expected to serve as school disciplinarians based on the assumption that they will be better able to communicate with African American boys with behavior issues.”
The premise of the invisible tax relies on black men to be exemplars of success; but, in this context, black educators are confining students to punitive punishments and not using their influence to liberate black students from ‘tough’ love narratives.
Using African-American educators as a force for punishment is a tactic that belies research that shows Black administrators can be role models for minority students because Black educators can empathize with the experiences of students of color in a way that positively influences students of color academic expectations and aspirations.
It is because of this familiarity black educators should be used to empower students of color and not reinforce zero-tolerance policies.
Typically issues of school discipline focus on the role of black males, however, black women are not immune from being used as authoritarians in today’s educational context. I spoke with an African-American female educator, on the condition of anonymity, who was a dean of students at one of New York City’s well-known charter schools. Speaking about the school, which has a predominantly Black and Latino student body, the teachers said, “In general, across the school, your principal was white, the special education director was white, the teachers were white, and the dean team was black,” she said. “We were the muscle.”
Initially, her role as a dean was to coach teachers on matters of discipline, but during a meeting the organization had with the deans, something changed. “We had a meeting, and we were told the deans would no longer be responsible for teacher development. We were just going to manage kids and behavior.“ The educator who would later leave her role as dean said, “I was livid. It didn’t seem equitable in terms of what people of color are valued for.”
When I asked her why she stopped working as a dean, she said “I got tired of being the muscle. I have a brain.”
Christopher Johnson, the black founding principal of Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia said his philosophy as a principal is colored more by his upbringing than it is his race but also admits that his experience as a black male student in Philadelphia’s public schools has influenced his leadership style.
Johnson, who was a student in the same community as Beeber, was suspended 25 times in the fifth and sixth-grade despite having zero physical altercations.
In a profession that is dominated by racial hegemony, Johnson, who has been named one of Philadelphia’s best principals, is an example of how empowered black educators can make decisions to disrupt oppressive practices used to control African-American behavior. Johnson’s does not criminalize, students at Beeber—the majority of whom are black—for non-criminal behavior. “I’m not going to suspend a kid for wearing a hat. I’m not going to suspend a kid because they have on inappropriate clothing.”
For black educators to empower, they must go beyond the role of enforcer; instead, they need to be in a leadership position to make decisions about the implementation of discipline. Black educators need discretion not solely orders.
But according to a report by the AFL-CIO, in 2015 only 13.4 percent of education administrators were black or African American.
Adults are the ones who, after all, make decisions that impact a child’s future and hold the keys to choices that can empower students and educators of color, but history has demonstrated that if non-compliant students of color step out of line, the system will chew you up and spit you out. And as for teachers of color, if they don’t like the zero-tolerance method of managing black students in education, then, they can leave too.
If the American education system is truly interested in 21st Century skills, it may be prudent to annex the historical contexts and experiences of the 18th century; but, progress in terms of removing narratives of oppression has yet to be seen.
When We Ask African American Teachers To Discipline African American Students Students Because They’re African American; featured image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations