(This is the next in a series about a two-day conference I attended on racial disparities in education and criminal justice. I was the first speaker. After that, I attended, listened, and learned. This picks up on day two, after a night spent in a dorm room.) After a buffet breakfast, the morning speaker is a Black educational researcher who does qualitative research on children’s and families’ perceptions of schools, stressing the importance of talking to the people being “served” by institutions. One project involved asking children what their sources of support were and then asking teachers what the children’s supports were; in general the teachers did not know. Children often viewed their families as supportive while the teachers saw the same families as unsupportive or problematic. Children also cite other children as important sources of support. He says research shows that successful classrooms are more likely to foster solidarity among the children. Many black boys have internalized negative norms about black men and create solidarity among themselves on this basis; intervention programs have taught boys to use solidarity to build positive relations among each other and watch for signs of trouble.* The speaker stresses the need to provide supported opportunities to develop the behaviors and dispositions necessary for success. He gives an example of a mother who talked to her child about her mistake, an act of dishonesty she had committed that cost her a job, and about how she owned up to her mistake and did her best to atone and move own. He talks about this as a wonderful role model, someone willing to model right behavior and integrity through talking about her own errors.
He then tells us an extended story from his interviewing and observing different people with a focus on a 6 year old boy. The school personnel see him as threatening, angry, scary, hurtful, as a problem. By contrast, the family see him as depressed, lonely, and sad due to his father having recently gone to prison and as considerate and helpful of others.** The school defines the family simply as dysfunctional and disorganized, father in prison. But there is a network of people in the home and nearby connected in various ways who see themselves as part of the child’s support network who are actively trying to support him in his grief about his father’s absence, and who overtly encourage him with his school work. Another older child in the network who is doing well in school gets expelled over a zero tolerance policy and a major share of the family network moves to another city to be sure the older child can graduate high school and have a chance to succeed, thus depriving the younger child of half the people who were actively involved in supporting him. The overall message is the need to treat poor families with respect, as people with resources and strengths, not just as deficits. The speaker says that when he told a school official about the problem with the older child, the official said, “I wish I’d known. I could have fixed that problem with one phone call.”
Audience discussion is lively. Many are upset about the “phone call” comment. They and the speaker call this an indictment of the school, that they did not know and did not care enough to find out and just let a system roll that could easily ruin one child’s life and deprived another of needed social support. They also complain that anyone with that much power is that ignorant. Then people talk about “racist assumptions that take away the self esteem and strengths of our children.” The discussion then bridges into the need for structural changes, living wages etc. and the larger problems that impact families and make it difficult for them.
*An ASA paper I heard stressed similar issues: Victor Rios talked about how Black and Latino boys are treated as criminals not only by schools, police, and commercial establishments, but often by their families. He quotes boys saying: “If you are going to treat me like a criminal, I might as well act like one.” I was sensitized to this paper by all the conversations the previous week at the Farmtown conference, and I felt overwhelmed thinking about the psychological burden on all these young people. I’ve been at other meetings where social workers and advocates stressed many young people are acting out because they are depressed, and youths are sent to anger management classes when what they need is help with their depression and their life problems.
** This reminded me of my own son, who is white, who by the end of first grade was in trouble constantly for fighting and acting up, and was viewed by his teacher as hostile and disruptive. But at the first parent-teacher conference in the fall, the teacher’s report was that he was fine and behaving in class, although my son’s report was that he was depressed and unhappy and the other children were teasing him. The teachers’ response at that school to complaints about teasing was, “Just ignore it.” My son got a second chance from another school and learned how to control his behavior at school, although it was several more years before he could govern his temper at home. He’s now a polite, affectionate, and high-achieving young man. I’ve heard many tales of black first grade boys (first grade!) being told by teachers, “You are going to end up in prison.” And in his presentation, Victor Rios told of some children being told that by their families: “You’ll end up in prison, just like your father.” I cannot help but think about how racism and disadvantage send children on different paths from the same beginnings.
My heart aches.
Still to come in the Farmtown series: Community panel, a rousing sermon, more discussions. As I said at the beginning, this is a swirl of experiences, impressions and thoughts, not a coherent essay. The main point is that “public sociology” isn’t just talking at people, it is learning from them.