Probing how schools become hostile territory for Black boys
"That one has a jail-cell with his name on it." Ann Arnett Ferguson tells us in Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity that this is how 10-year old African American boys are routinely referred to at the Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley, California, where she did the research for this important book.
By the end of her first year at the school, Ferguson has come to the sad realization that it is very likely that the young boy does indeed have a spot reserved for him in the prison system.
Ferguson devotes her book to examining just how urban public schools "track" African American boys for a life behind bars. It is a complicated story, but Ferguson does an admirable job of bringing to the surface a process that is often hidden from view.
Hers is a two-pronged analysis. She looks at the way institutional practices, which are couched in universal language, are used to maintain a racial order. She also looks at how cultural images and racial myths frame the way we see ourselves and others in a racial hierarchy.
A result is the Punishing Room at Rosa Parks in which African American boys make up almost half the referrals even though they comprise only a quarter of the student body. Moreover, they are 90 percent of the students diagnosed as "at risk" of failing at the school.
By focusing on individual choice and personal responsibility, Ferguson shows that the dominant language or discourse of the school does not allow teachers to notice "officially" that African American boys are being singled out for punishment, leaving no room for conversations about racial disparities. But, unofficially, several of the African American teachers at the school confided in her that these boys were picked on because of their race, and that white teachers felt intimidated by Black boys.
Through an incisive analysis, Ferguson argues that Black boys are "picked on" in school because the larger American society does not accord them the same childlike naivete that is conferred on other children.
When white boys act out, they are seen as "naughty." When Black boys act out, their behavior is "adultified" and is regarded as evidence of the boys as criminals in the making.
It is in this way that schools become increasingly hostile environments for Black boys as they move on to higher grades. It is also the reason so many of them drop out of school and, tragically, get involved in behavior that lands them in the prison system.
Ferguson is clear to say that this is not the experience of all African American boys in public schools. There are some, whom she calls "schoolboys," who succeed in school.
However, their success usually comes at a price. Ferguson argues that these boys often feel they must "de-race" themselves, or separate themselves from common notions of Blackness (poor, lawless, and dangerous), by use of a variety of symbolic gestures.
Schoolboys are often treading a fine line that separates them from the "troublemakers," but Ferguson does not show us what this looks like in school. Unlike her depiction of the troublemakers, whom we see in school through Ferguson’s wonderful use of field notes and vignettes, we do not get the same sense of the schoolboys. Instead, Ferguson relies on interviews with a couple of schoolboys and their parents outside the school setting.
I would have also liked to see more attention paid to some concrete recommendations that school districts could adapt to make schools a more hospitable environment for Black boys. Ferguson says at the end of the book that she is reluctant to give recommendations that are short of full-scale revolution.
But, that strikes me as the easy way out. There is a burgeoning literature dealing with how to teach Black boys that she could have referred to.
A fine introduction to the field is Temple University professor James Earl Davis’s co-edited volume entitled African American Males in School and Society: Practices and Policies for Effective Education. In addition to articles that offer intervention strategies for teachers and administrators who work with African American males, the book has a comprehensive bibliography for those who would like to read further in this area.
Nevertheless, Ferguson’s book is a must-read for anybody who is the parent of or who works with African American boys, or for anyone who is concerned about the zero tolerance discipline policies in many public schools today.
Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity by Ann Arnett Ferguson. University of Michigan Press, 2001. 256 pages.