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.
When I was in junior high school, New York City public transit fares switched from tokens to MetroCards. The Metropolitan Transit Authority rolled out ads on subways and buses describing how to swipe these strange new plastic rectangles, and our homeroom teachers explained the change from the old paper student bus and/or subway passes to the new student MetroCards that would work on either form of transportation. On the plus side, we would now be able to swipe ourselves through the turnstiles instead of trying to catch the attention of a distracted (or absent) token booth attendant in order to flash our paper passes and get buzzed in while our train rolled on without us. In addition, the plastic MetroCard survived an occasional trip through the washing machine much better than the old paper pass, which I would regularly have to present in a soggy mess to the school office in the hopes that they would have an extra one to last me through the month. On the minus side, the new MetroCards were limited to three swipes per school day, which meant we had to go beg at the school office to cover weekend extracurriculars or other trips.
Recently, while attending a meeting, I was reminded of this experience from nearly two decades ago, particularly that vivid feeling of dismay as I pulled my jeans from the dryer and felt that familiar lump in the back pocket. While discussing transition services, a woman who had previously been incarcerated mentioned that many people she knew had gone into prison while the city used tokens, and come out to MetroCards, which they had to newly learn how to use. Although that shift may seem small in the grand scheme of things, it struck me as an example of how completely time in jail or prison disrupts every single aspect of a person’s life. For a New Yorker, reminiscing about the old days of tokens and paper student transit passes is the same sort of nostalgia-inducing experience as reminiscing about when we had to go to the library to get books for school projects before the internet, plan get-togethers at least a day in advance before cell-phones, and, of course, walk twenty miles through the snow, uphill both ways, to even get to the local subway stop to take us to school. How strange it must be to go away from one world, only to reappear years later into an entirely different one without any sort of warning.
Back when I was a teacher, many of my students got arrested. One bright, kind, funny boy disappeared one winter, and arrived back in class months later, near the end of the year, just days before the science fair which I was organizing. Of course, he had no project; his partner had simply done it without him. I wondered how this child had benefited from missing an entire semester of school, from simply appearing at the end with an incomplete posterboard.
The term “reentry” implies that a person can somehow enter the same metaphorical room again, and go back to where they were before getting arrested. But the reality is that a person who has been incarcerated is newly entering a world that has moved on without him or her. That person is traveling into the future, to where the subway no longer takes tokens and the science fair is already happening.
If you are located in the NYC metro area, come check out this awesome event on Thursday!
Join the NYC Student Collective to End Mass Incarceration for a conversation about the United States prison system. Our discussion will be structured around a mapping exercise used in the conflict resolution field. We will share knowledge about what factors perpetuate or interrupt mass incarceration, in order to try and strategize how the collective can can best engage in anti-prison work.
For several years, I worked in New York City’s District 75 (special education district), first as a paraprofessional and then as a teacher. When I told people where I worked, they would often pause, look at me with a mixture of awe and pity and say something like, “That must be hard.” Now, I will be the first to agree that teaching is a really, really tough job, but that’s not really what folks meant. They meant that it must be hard working with those kids.
Now don’t get me wrong, there were days when the little boogers drove me up the wall, when I drove them up the wall, when some of us showed up to school sick, or exhausted, or just plain distracted and things very quickly started to resemble a sequel to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Because that’s what seems to happen when humans spend a lot of time with each other, day in and day out, for years on end. We all have our bad days, and sometimes we take them out on the ones we love.
But most days, I came into school and got to spend time with a group of incredibly loving, funny, curious, interesting group of people who showered me with pictures, cards, thank-you letters, sorry-I-stole-your-iPod letters, candy, and hugs that I continue to treasure. Most days, I went home after work and just laughed for minutes on end, remembering something someone had said or done. Most days, I got to spend hours reading and talking about some really great books with an intelligent and appreciative group. And that’s why I kept coming back for as long as I did.
More recently, I have had the pleasure of helping with a writing workshop at an Alternative to Detention Program for kids ages 12-16 who have been arrested. When I tell folks where I’m going, I sometimes see that familiar look. And I feel almost guilty that people seem to think I must be some sort of saint when I think about how much fun I’ve been having, laughing as we try to build Rube Goldberg machines or discuss how to handle Incredible Hulk super powers (hint: elastic waistbands and the ability to pull off your shirt quickly).
Don’t get me wrong, there are special heartaches associated with working with kids who are court-involved. When my babies got arrested, or ran away rather than take a chance on a new foster home, well, that really sucked. But if all anyone ever hears about any job or activity is the worst parts of it, then it starts to seem like the sort of job that only someone who is much more qualified and virtuous could possibly do. Court-involved youth and youth with disabilities (and there is a lot of overlap between those two groups) start to seem too different to go to school and generally hang out with everyone else. And while the consequences of that separation, distance and suspicion are more obvious and dire for the kids who get isolated into special schools or prisons, I really believe that we all lose out.
Recently, the New Yorker published an article describing the experiences of a woman named Niveen, whose little boy was placed in foster care and ultimately given to another family despite Niveen’s efforts to get him back. Based on a single story from a single article, I certainly don’t want to pass judgment on whether anyone made the “right” decision or even whether a “right” decision existed to be made. But I was struck by the demands that were placed on Niveen. She was required to take a parenting class and then demonstrate parenting styles that the professionals involved in her case approved of. Niveen, an immigrant, described having to learn to “parent American style,” which the handbook described as being a democratic style that balanced the child’s freedom and responsibilities (p. 54).
My own immigrant mother is highly skeptical of raising children democratically. When I became a teacher, she advised me that I should only give children choices when I actually wanted to give them a choice–if I wanted to know what color marker, or which flavor ice cream, for example. If they needed to sit down, take out their book and start working on something, then I should tell them clearly to please do that.
When I was younger, I got into trouble at school when teachers told me I had a “choice” between, for example, being quiet and not getting a sticker, and then I would get angry that my teachers pretended that I had options when it seemed like I really didn’t. But my parents and more directive teachers eventually made clear what was expected of me and how I was really supposed to interpret “Would you like to sit down now?” As I got older, I became comfortable responding to both teaching styles. When I became a teacher myself, I was able to help my students understand and interpret different teaching styles as well.
I offer this story not to say that my mom’s parenting style is “better” or “worse,” but simply to say that it is a particular style with particular results. Sometimes my parents’ style conflicted with the teaching style of my school, but I think that conflict was ultimately a good thing for me. Well-meaning professionals who want to help parents do a better job need to be aware that there are a lot of ways to be a good parent, and that our assumptions about what being a good parent means are grounded in our own cultural backgrounds. It would be a shame to separate children from loving families simply because those families aren’t doing things the way we would.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story (video below). It seems to me that the biggest danger of a single story is that the story isn’t factually incorrect; in fact, there is probably evidence to support it rather than evidence against it. And that’s the danger. You have one small piece of the truth, so small as to be, potentially, completely misleading. You may be in possession of a single outlier, of the exception that proves the rule. It’s true. And yet. It’s also not.
So when I saw this video on the making of the Three Strikes laws in California and various other states, it seemed like an excellent example of the Single Story Fallacy. Any particular crime could not have happened if the individual who committed it had been already locked up (or incapacitated due to disease, accident, freak attack by a rabid raccoon). That’s a single truth, about a single story, about a single crime. So a logical response to that single story might be to incarcerate or otherwise incapacitate anyone who may ever potentially commit a crime.
But the problem is that the single story exists among many, many other stories. Infinitely many stories, perhaps. And one story out of infinitely many is, mathematically, insignificantly small. There are the sad stories about lives that are disrupted, even destroyed when a person is cut off from family, community. And there are the happy stories about people who broke the law but then went on to lead happy, ethical lives for all sorts of reasons. Why not pursue those stories?
- The Making of the ‘Three Strikes’ Laws (NYTimes)
- The Danger of a Single Story