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.