Thursday, August 21, 2008

Racist spankings?

Over 20 states allow corporal punishment in schools. I didn't know that. Frankly, I was shocked to learn that it's allowed anywhere, let alone in 40% of our states. It shouldn't surprise people that I think it's a bad thing to allow school teachers and principals to engage in corporal punishment, but that's not really what most caught my attention in the articles I read on this subject yesterday.

What caught my attention was this: Race plays a big factor in who receives corporal punishment. Black students are disproportionately subjected to paddling. Black girls are twice as likely to be paddled as white girls in 13 of the states in the south. Reading this raised so many questions in my mind about how race still subconsciously affects us all in so many small ways that we don't really realize. We really have to stop pretending that we're all cured from our racist past and start dealing with the serious, deep-seated race issues that pervade perhaps every aspect of our lives.

My first question is about the race of the teachers. Is there a correlation between the race of the teacher and the race of the paddled student? Are white teachers more likely to paddle black students? Are black teachers more likely to paddle black students? The articles I read don't touch on this aspect of the issue at all.

My next thought was: is this like the crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine thing? Are black students really behaving worse? Or are teachers just perceiving it that way? In federal drug sentencing laws, the punishments for possession and sale of crack cocaine were significantly harsher than those for powder cocaine. The disproportionate sentences had a racial impact because, speaking really generally here, crack is more of a black drug and powder cocaine is more of a white drug. Crack probably really isn't any more dangerous of a drug than powder cocaine, but it was perceived as being worse because it was generally associated with guns, inner cities, and lower class criminals (blacks).

So I wonder if that is playing itself out also in school rooms across the South. (I'm not picking on the south, that's where corporal punishment is occurring.) The black girls who are getting paddled: are they really being more disrespectful to teachers, talking back more, etc? Or does it just seem worse? Subconsciously, do teachers feel more disrespected when black girls act up? I think it would be far too simplistic, and dangerous, to brush this off by saying, "It just so happens that more black kids than white kids are paddled." Or perhaps the black kids really are just disproportionately troublesome in school. Shouldn't we deal with why that might be? Maybe the black students expect to get into trouble and so play to type. Either way, our racial history just HAS to have something to do with this disparity.

When I was at that conference in July, we heard from a psychology professor at Stanford. She has done a lot of research on our subconscious attitudes about race. I can't do justice to her entire presentation here, but I will relate this one little bit. She did a study where she had subjects in front of a computer monitor. They were split into thirds: one third was primed with a picture of a black man, one third was primed with a picture of a white man, and the final third was primed with nothing. Priming means that the picture flashed on the screen too fast for their eyes to register. Then the subjects were shown a granulated image that would gradually clear over 40 frames. The images were an ape and a gun. Those who were black-primed identified the ape and the gun several frames faster than those who were not primed. Those who were white-primed were the slowest of all to identify the ape and the gun. That was just one study to show our subconscious race biases. When we think black, we subconsciously think "ape" and "gun." (The race of the subject didn't alter the outcomes, as I recall.)

I can't help but link these studies together: we as a nation still have unaddressed, subconsciously-held attitudes about race that are apparently continuing on in the way we treat the next generation. I don't know how to address this problem. But I know we can't just keep pretending it doesn't exist. We need to be able to have real, honest conversations about race rather than just shut down because no one wants to think they're racist. But it would seem that not wanting to think we're racist doesn't mean we aren't subconsciously perpetuating racist stereotypes. So we should own up to it or we'll never get free from our country's past.

And while we're at it, let's stop paddling our kids in school.


Language Lover said...

The state of race relations today is that people will go to great lengths to claim that they are not racist and avoid discussing race altogether, which makes it impossible to address these hidden biases that we all still have. Proclaiming something so does not make it so. Claiming, "I don't see color" is a lie; everyone sees color. It's what you do about it that is important.

The Teaching Tolerance website has an application that allows everyone to test for his/her own biases in a manner similar to the study you describe:

Acknowledging where we are is the first step in moving forward.

Stacy said...

I'd be careful with this study ... you need to consider the overall demographic of the area too.

If there are more black students than white students in the class room, that would account (to a certain extent) for why they are more likely to have corporal punishment.

I'm not shocked this still happens. It shouldn't. When my husband was in school he had to bring a form home for his parents to sign asking if they were allowed to beat him at the school, or if they would have to call his parents for them to come take care of it. Wierd.

He never got in trouble so it was never an issue. And I do remember from grade school one little girl getting hit with a ruler. She was white. But that's beside the point ...

S said...

Stacy, the study accounted for the demographics in reaching its conclusions. The article makes it clear that black students are being punished at higher rates than are white students. It is not just that there are more black kids than white kids, so more black kids are paddled. A greater percentage of black kids are paddled.

LL, thanks for the website link.

Stacy said...

Yeah but the study doesn't say that they are being punished needlessly. It does not say these kids aren't engaging in bad behavior. So the real question in my mind, is why are so many of this demographic acting out?

I'm not for this kind of punishment in schools mind you ... I just find it odd that Mississippi and Texas were focused on so heavily, and that no mention of the level of punishment for each offense (in some cases, no hitting was involved, it was just an overheated exchange that caused embarrassment).

I also want to know who paid for the study. I generally distrust studies. They always seem to be cherry picked to serve a certain purpose.

S said...

The article says that the data came from the US Department of Education. The report around the data was written by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.

I get that it's a lot easier just to discount the study in its entirety than to try to wrestle with the serious issues revealed by the study, but for the sake of the boys and girls in the next generation, we need to face this stuff head on.

As I wrote in my original post, this seems to reveal that one of two things are happening: 1) Either we expect to see worse behavior in black kids and so we do see it and punish disporportionately, or 2) Black kids do act up in disporportionate numbers. Either answer reveals serious race issues that we should not ignore.

In law school, I had a friend who thought of law school as a really competitive place where people would do all kinds of things to get ahead and stay there. She thought people were obsessed with outscoring and outranking others. So she saw petty, competitive behavior. I thought we were a generally nice, cooperative, collegial group of people who were all working toward the same thing, so I didn't see the things she swore were going on. We see what we expect to see.

So if we expect the black kids to act worse, that's what we'll see. If that is contributing to the disproportionate punishments in school, that is outrageous and we need to address it now before it goes on any longer.

On the other hand, if we can honestly and objectively say the black kids just really are acting out in disporportionate number, well I think that's a big, bad problem that we need to address, too. As Jaime Escalante said in "Stand and Deliver": "Kids rise to the level of expectation set for them." Are the black kids who act out just responding, then, to the level of expectation our society has set for them? They subconsciously have learned that black kids cause more trouble than white kids so they fulfill that expectation.

Either way, we won't make any real progress in our society until we stop burying our heads in the sand and admit we have real race issues operating under our "can't we all just get along" surface.

Language Lover said...

I'm reading a book by Frank Wu called "Yellow: Race in America Beyond
Black and White" and yesterday I came across this excellent passage which seems particularly relevant:
"Many white Americans seem to dodge evidence of racial discrimination:
changing the subject to racial progress, arguing that statistics can be
manipulated and are not as persuasive as individual cases, but then
arguing that anecdotes are subjective and are not as reliable as hard
numbers, and, finally, setting aside the irrefutable examples as

If you don't believe that studies are valid because the researchers usually have some agenda, and if you submit that anecdotes are not evidence, I'd have to ask: What would make you believe that blacks are disproportionately punished (both in severity and frequency) in this country? If the answer is "nothing", then we're talking about blind faith. And that's always a dangerous thing, particularly in issues of justice.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Any time I hear that a student has been handcuffed, tasered or arrested I rarely have to guess at the color they will be.

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