Nastiness, Failed Logic of Racism Denial

While we can never make statistically valid claims about who and what is posted in online comments, I believe those comments represent common beliefs more than we’d like to admit.

Possibly the nastiest and most troubling comments occur when I publish something about race and racism, as in this piece in The State (Columbia, SC) about racial inequity in school discipline and mass incarceration.

Let’s consider some of the failed logic:

  • “I don’t believe your statistics and here are some statistics that prove my point”—this comment reveals the power of seeking support for a belief someone will never release. What is also interesting is that this approach almost always shifts entirely the discussion, not actually refuting the original statistical evidence: to reject racism in mass incarceration, for example, single-mother birth rates are cited.
  • Racism denial almost always plays the poverty card, but in the racial inequity of mass incarceration, that point falls flat. Impoverished white males outnumber black males 2 to 1; thus, incarceration is not more significantly a function of poverty than race, since black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prison.
  • Racism denial also has a favorite statistic: black on black crime rates. However, white on white crime rates are about the same as black on black crime rates, both over 80%. In fact, crime in the U.S. is typically within race and by someone the victim knows (often family). If within-race crime rates explained mass incarceration, then blacks and whites would be about equally represented in prisons.
  • And finally, I have been told by email that I don’t know anything about being a police officer since I have never been a police officer—these denials are by white former officers who, of course, know nothing about being black (using their logic). Much of what I offer about the racism of school discipline and the judicial system is based on the research and lived experienced of blacks, to me a much more credible source of understanding the inequity.

The raw data on school discipline and mass incarceration are undeniable in terms of racial inequity. As I noted, that requires a careful and nuanced consideration of the many reasons that inequity exists. In the case of mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander has offered a detailed examination that uncovers significant racism in who is arrested, how (and if) people are charged, and what sentences are handed down.

Decades of research also shows racial inequity in school discipline and then high and disturbing correlations between school discipline and incarceration rates.

Denial of racism in school discipline and incarceration, from the nasty to the illogical, is embracing school and judicial realities that mis-serve black children and black young adults—and then mis-serves us all.

Asking why these inequities exist so that they can be eradicated is a call for justice, not a plea for anarchy.

Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State

Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State

An old joke tells of a police officer confronting a man crawling on his hands and knees beneath a streetlight one night. The man explains he is looking for his lost keys. When the officer asks if the man is sure he dropped the keys where he is crawling, the man replies, “No, but the light is better here.”

This joke offers something that is deadly serious about both school discipline and the U.S. judicial and incarceration systems: Males, specifically black males, suffer the brunt of punishment in schools and life because they are disproportionately targeted.

Richland 2’s task force examining inequity of discipline and expulsion for black males reflects a pattern that exists nation-wide. In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing data about racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”

Expulsion and suspension begin as early as pre-kindergarten, also disproportionately affecting males and black students. Along with grade retention, discipline policies strongly predict drop-out rates as well as incarceration in adulthood.

Often called the school-to-prison pipeline, the relationship between school discipline and the judicial system demands attention, such as the task force by Richland 2.

But the public response to this data often includes two misleading claims. First, many directly embrace suspension and expulsion as part of a larger faith in a “do the crime and do the time” mentality. Second, some immediately assume raising concerns about race-based discipline inequity is a call to let students do whatever they want in school.

In order to understand the race problem in school discipline and then how to address those inequities in ways that benefit everyone, let’s consider the current mass incarceration situation in the U.S.

White males outnumber black males 6 to 1 in the U.S., but black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in our prisons.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has labeled this the New Jim Crow. In her examination of the rise of mass incarceration begun during the Reagan administration, Alexander admits that she began her project rejecting the claim that the judicial system is racially biased against blacks.

However, she discovered ample evidence for race playing a key role in who is arrested and imprisoned as well as what punishments people receive. Two examples are worth highlighting.

First, The Fair Sentencing Act is the result of recognizing that penalties for powder cocaine and crack cocaine created significant disparities in arrests and sentencing along racial lines. And while whites and blacks use marijuana at equal rates, blacks suffer higher rates of arrest and sentencing as well as harsher penalties.

Alexander, in fact, details that whites and blacks experience much different routes in the judicial system after being arrested for similar crimes, experiences represented by the drug war noted above.

Next, I want to return to the opening joke because Alexander also shows that police tend to target blacks more often than whites for arrests.

Her most powerful example is that while the police commonly sweep minority and high-poverty neighborhoods for illegal recreational drugs, the police almost never conduct similar sweeps through college campus dorms—where recreational drug use is also likely.

The light, then, being shined results in arrests, but if that light were aimed somewhere else, who is arrested would also change.

The conditions of mass incarceration confronted by Alexander are now being recognized in the disciplinary policies, such as zero tolerance, and outcomes in public schools, where black males are disproportionately suffer the negative consequences that last into adulthood, even though we have no evidence blacks exhibit worse behavior.

Just as research on grade retention and corporal punishment suggest more effective alternatives to both—alternative that do not simply allow failure or harmful behavior—Walter S. Gilliam, psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine, suggests schools treat extreme behavior instead of using punishment, address teacher stress and time spent with children exhibiting extreme behavior, lower student-teacher ratios, maintain better records of disciplinary actions toward children, and implement wrap-around services that address childhood behavior in the home as well as school.

Gender and race inequity exists in school discipline policies; that fact is not an avenue to ignoring bad behavior, but the first step toward seeking ways in which all students succeed in school and then in life.

Arkansas Newswire: U of A Scholar Examines Hunger Games Trilogy as Literature

Arkansas Newswire: U of A Scholar Examines Hunger Games Trilogy as Literature

Please see all the volumes in this series HERE.

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

The puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.

Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)

The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.

While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.

About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:

[T]hese standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.

But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….

There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.

The pieces to the puzzle: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.

And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:

In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.

Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.

Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.

Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.

The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.

Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.


Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.

Obama’s Failed Education Policy: Symbolism Not Enough In Real World

Superhero comic book universes (popularly associated with DC and Marvel) have two key advantages over reality: reboots (returning to a hero’s origin and starting again—such as Frank Miller’s reboot of Batman in the mid-1980s and the film rebootings of Spider-Man and X-Men over the past 15 years or so) and alternate universes/realities.

The re-imagining of Spider-Man as bi-racial and Captain America as black are powerful contributions to the superhero genre of comic books—in part for the messages about race and in part because superhero comics have had lingering flaws in terms of race and gender since their beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of these examples is that they represent the power of symbolism in the context of the imaginary commenting on reality.

In reality, however, we are trapped in a mostly linear existence, one that we attempt to qualify with “history repeats itself” or “those who ignore history are doomed to repeating the failures.”

Human advancements are incremental and rarely universal; some women in some places, for example, have achieved some level of equality with men, while many women remain prisoners of horrific misogyny and gruesome social oppression and abuse.

One lesson of the real world, then, may be that we must not allow the pursuit of perfect to keep us from clinging to something, something better, something creeping toward the ideal.

In a country that remains scarred by the inequity of racism, those people in the U.S. who advocate that the election of Barack Obama as the first bi-racial and self-identifying black man is an important symbolic moment in the nation are, I think, entirely justified—notably if we disassociate Obama’s status as president from his policies.

I struggle, however, with that disassociation—notably in terms of military actions/policy and education policy.

Obama’s education policy has continued a failed agenda begun under George W. Bush (an idealized bi-partisan agenda buoyed by the “bi-partisan” instead of credible educational research or authority), and then increased the very worst aspects of that legacy. Obama has now promised that those failures will last past his tenure:

The Obama administration is inviting states to apply to renew their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. And according to guidance issued Thursday, these renewed waivers could last all the way through the 2018-2019 school year — locking down some of President Barack Obama’s education policy changes well into the next presidency.

Obama the symbol is undeniably important; Obama as an administration and set of educational policies is a baffling disaster for public education, the teaching profession, and (worst of all) students, specifically impoverished children and children of color.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embodies the failed discourse and punitive policies that are indistinguishable from W. Bush’s administration except under Obama, everything that is wrong with the policy has been increased: a greater commitment to standards, more testing, expanded blame placed on teachers, expanded shifting of public to private interests and mechanisms.

Under Obama, the U.S. has continued a scorched-earth policy in warmongering (smart bombs, drones) and in public education policy (school closings, teacher firings).

There is no symbolism there we can recover—only a harsh reality of failure and a legacy we can do without.

See Also

Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures, P. L. Thomas

The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism? (IAP, 2011) — soon to be reissued and revised.

SC Parents Warned: “no state provision…to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing”

South Carolina is a hard-core right-wing state, often leaning Libertarian and almost always contradictory.

SC politicians push school choice while running against a woman’s right to choose. Now we learn that school choice advocacy in SC does not include parents’ right to choose whether or not their children participate in relentless testing.

According to a memo from the SC Department of Education and to district superintendents:

It has come to the attention of the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) that opt-out request forms are circulating around the state giving some parents the belief that they can opt their children out of state and federal testing requirements, among other things. With regard to testing, federal and state laws require that all students be included in South Carolina’s state assessment system.

There is no state provision for parents or eligible students (who are age eighteen or older) to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing….

With regard to any requests from parents for a school district to omit their children’s data from any district submission to the SCDE, neither federal nor state law allows a parent to opt-out of federal or state-required data collection processes, which is safeguarded by the SCDE.

While I have written often about the dangers of idealizing parental choice, it is certainly interesting to recognize the contradictory messages right-wing political leadership in SC sends about their own occasional support of choice (which reveals itself to be no real support of choice at all—only when it serves the interests of those leaders).

Parents, be warned.