At the Educational Justice Symposium on March 31st, 2014, Michelle Fine reminded us that people and their actions aren’t necessarily so different; however, society’s reactions vary quite a bit. Although research certainly supports this point, it seems to get lost in all the deficit-based discussions about what’s wrong with kids, families, and communities that lead to some kids winding up being court-involved. A better question might be, what’s wrong with our systems of education, law, social work, etc., that lead to Black kids getting much harsher consequences, including incarceration, than White kids for the exact same behaviors (see, e.g., Michael Rocque & Raymond Paternoster’s 2011 article in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminolology: “Understanding the Antecedents of the ‘School-to-Jail’ Link: The Relationship Between Race and School Discipline”).
The questions we ask matter because different questions lead to different answers. If we ask, what’s wrong with these kids that cause them to wind up court-involved? then we are likely to find something “wrong” with the kids (hey, nobody’s perfect) that we might easily assume leads to court-involvement. We then try to “fix” the kids in order to reduce their court-involvement. However, the problem remains that, when kids perform the same actions, they receive pretty different reactions from society.
If, on the other hand, we ask, what’s wrong with these systems that cause them to punish Black kids so much more harshly for the same actions as White kids? then we will get pretty different answers. So far, it seems like there are problems all down the line, starting from individual teachers making decisions in their classrooms, to school-level responses, to arrest and sentencing rates. And remember, these reactions vary for the same kid actions. If, for example, a White kid and a Black kid are both found in the gym when they are supposed to be in math class, the White kid is much more likely to receive a milder punishment, such as a phone call home. The Black kid is much more likely to receive a harsher punishment, such as suspension; in fact, there have been cases of kids in this situation getting arrested for “trespassing.” Two kids, equal actions, hugely unequal reactions.