How did we get here?

In January of 2021, I published an article with two of my colleagues in the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) practitioners’ journal, The Communique. The article challenged school psychologists to investigate and acknowledge how Anti-Black racism impacts the school discipline crisis. 

Our article was a critique of NASP’s 2020 Framework for Effective Discipline and pointed out the framework’s failure to acknowledge the biggest social problem in school discipline, racism. We illustrated the harm schools place on Black children and how the implication follows them throughout their life. My co-authors and I felt the NASP turned a blind eye to Anti-Black racism in schools, particularly in school discipline. 

A week after the article was published, I received two emails from a practicing school psychologist from a southern US State. The subject of his email indicated this email was a “critique” of our critique. His email was lengthy, with references and statistics that he believed warranted the negative experiences Black children have in schools. In summary, he argued Black people are not considering personal responsibility when discussing racial disparities which exist in the US. In his email, he asked, “Is racism 100% the reason for inequity for people of color in the United States?” In my email response I replied that “for Black people, racism is 100% the reason for inequities”. Let’s just say the emailer did not agree with that response.

After several emails back and forth with my colleague, I decided to write this blog post and share with our community why I believe racism is 100% tied to school discipline disparities. This is due to the racist systems that have been created and have led to the current problems we face.  

Let me begin by stating that I find it difficult to discuss a topic as complex as racism in the United States without both parties having a similar foundation. This can turn what could be an informative discussion into an argument that does not achieve anything worthwhile for either party. In the case of this emailer, his definition of racism was reduced to prejudice and discrimination of a person based on color. Let’s just say I don’t agree with his definition, I’ll walk you through my next response.

Do We Define Racism And Understand It In The Same Manner?

In my view, the obvious starting point would be to define racism. This would determine the context of an understanding of each party and in turn, would then define how the discussion moves forward.

Racism is more complex than just individual discrimination based on race. I define racism as a system, which is designed to ensure a particular group of people prospers based on race. Dr. Kendi provides a nice definition stating, “racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produce and normalize racial inequities.”

While looking at racism from a systems level, we are not looking at the choices people make but the choices they have available. The available choices are different based on race in the United States.  Yes, folks have a responsibility for their own actions, but I want to discuss how racism changes the way folks make those personal decisions.

Many Americans are aware of the several centuries of harmful, racist practices, policies, and laws used against Black people in the US. It is, therefore, critical to connect the policy and practice to its outcome. For example, I’m sure Americans are aware of the impact of poverty on developing children. We have a nation that has enforced policies in law that have made attaining wealth impossible for Black people due to centuries of forced unpaid labor, unfair wages (Sharecroppers), destroying of Black businesses and communities (Tulsa OK), and decades of housing practices which made owning a home much more difficult for Black people (Redlining and mortgage loan discrimination).

Another critical example is the power of education for social mobility. In the US, for centuries, it was illegal for Black people to attend school and to read. Many higher education institutions would not admit Black people. Currently, we have policies that make schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods less resourced. 

Now, some might say, well, Black people shouldn’t live in those areas. If we take the inability to obtain generational wealth or practices which made living in the suburbs unavailable for Black people (redlining), can we not see why Black folks would be in prominently urban under-resourced areas?

The Trauma Racism Causes  

I want to add another layer to the complexity of the problem of racism. As a school psychologist, l have personally witnessed and seen through numerous studies the impact of trauma on children into adulthood. 

We have to consider intergenerational trauma for folks that are the descendants of enslaved people and those who survived genocide. The science shows the impact of trauma on epigenetics. We must consider the biological impact of historical racial trauma on Black and Indigenous folks. Also, consider the harm to Black family structures caused by practices during slavery, the violence during reconstruction, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, and the war on terror. These events resulted in the disproportionate incarceration and death of Black people, resulting in children losing parents. 

When I mention incarceration, I have to highlight the disproportionality of incarceration because this is the underlying issue. Yes, folks make an individual decision to commit a crime, but let’s include the history of trauma, the impact of poverty/not having access to your needs, and a failing educational system. 

If you’ve seen “13th” (the documentary available on Netflix) then you know about the harsh sentencing, racial profiling, and even the many Black folks who are wrongfully found guilty. I am not saying every Black person in prison is there due to racism. I am saying that the disproportionate incarceration of Black people is 100% due to the centuries of racial oppression in the United States. 

In the article that my colleagues and I wrote, we are calling out the disproportionate discipline of Black children. Data shows that children across races generally misbehave at similar rates, just as there is data that Americans engage in illegal substances at a similar rate. Our article brings attention to the differential and disproportionate use of harsh discipline. We also point out that the use of “punishment” is ineffective in changing behavior and often developmentally inappropriate for children. 

I can not speak for all Black people, and I don’t want my words to be considered an entire race’s thoughts. I am not asking for pity, and I am not excusing maladaptive behavior. I am asking for a system that makes life much more difficult for me because I am Black to be disrupted. 

I am asking for Black children to be treated with dignity and care as we treat all other children. A critique of that request feels like we now have to prove our collective humanity. I imagine it is not people’s intent, but it is how it feels to know that after all that the United States has done to Black people, to then have other Americans tell us we aren’t trying is a bit disingenuous, to say the least. We are trying to survive in a nation that has been murdering our bodies and spirits since the moment we arrived on the shores of Virginia in bondage. 

While I may not have included many other factors and events in my comments, plugging in the many systems helps me illustrate my point. Suppose we examine the racial disparities present in the medical field, higher education, workforce, and so forth? These disparities highlight disproportionate trends; how can we remove centuries of racial abuse to determine what is racism and what is not. I have included a video that might capture my point a little better. 

For those interested in further reading on this topic I think Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi may be a good starting point. Enjoy the reading and please comment in the comments section below.

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