Racism & Education: 50 Years After Little Rock

Most of the major news outlets today are running stories about the fiftieth anniversary of the date when Minnijean Brown Trickey and eight other black teenagers, escorted by 1,200 soldiers through spitting and jeering white crowds, desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The integration of Central High School stands in stark contrast to the recent events at the high school in Jena, and to the racial pattern of school discipline throughout the nation. Howard Witt writing in an article in the Chicago Tribune (and republished at Common Dreams), notes that nationwide:

“African-American students are almost 60 times as likely as white students to be expelled for serious disciplinary infractions. “

Yet, it’s not that black students are no more likely to misbehave than other students. The social science data suggest that’s not what is happening. Quoting Russell Skiba, a professor of educational psychology at Indiana University whose research focuses on race and discipline issues in public schools, Witt’s article continues:

“There simply isn’t any support for the notion that, given the same set of circumstances, African-American kids act out to a greater degree than other kids. In fact, the data indicate that African-American students are punished more severely for the same offense, so clearly something else is going on. We can call it structural inequity or we can call it institutional racism.”

Of course, it’s not just about sitting in detention either. As Witt notes, tudies show that a history of school suspensions or expulsions is a strong predictor of future trouble with the law-and the first step on what civil rights leaders have described as a “school-to-prison pipeline” for black youths, who represent 16 percent of U.S. adolescents but 38 percent of those incarcerated in youth prisons.

White Racism and the Jena 6

*The following pamphlet was written by Thomas Volscho and handed out at the Jena 6 protest held at the University of Connecticut. The rally in support of the Jena 6 was organized by the Graduate Students of Color Association at the university and held on Thursday September 20th, 2007 following a teach-in held the previous day.

Unable to attend the rally, I drafted this short essay putting the event into a sociological context with my training in racism studies. I sent it to fellow UConn Sociology graduate student Ayanna Bledsoe and she circulated it at the event.

White Supremacy, White Terrorism, and White Racism: The Case of the Jena 6
The case of the Jena 6 in Louisiana can be understood by using the sociological concept of Racist Rituals outlined in the book White Racism: The Basics (Feagin, Vera, and Batur 2001). This model provides a “criminal profile” of such rituals and what functions they serve for organized racial oppression in America.
In racist rituals, “whites” often play the following three roles: officiants, acolytes, and passive observers. Such actions may target African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and other ethnic groups in America who are not considered “white”. The range of actions in a racist ritual may include gestures, words, avoidance, and physical attacks. Instruments and props may include job evaluation forms, burning crosses, nooses, police batons, etc. Myths and Controlling Images refer to stereotypes and propaganda images of people of color.

Officiants are the direct and main participants in racist rituals. In the case of the Jena 6 the first officiants are the “whites” who hung three nooses (instruments and props) from the “white tree”. The nooses symbolize the terrorism of lynching campaigns. The probability that one or more of the African American students at Jena High School has an ancestor who was lynched during the Jim Crow era is almost certain. The school superintendent dismissed the nooses as “a prank” instead of connecting the act to an obvious and long history of oppression. Studies show that such a response is commonplace.

In Feagin and McKinney’s (2003, p. 47) study The Many Costs of Racism for instance, one African American employee reported how when a “white” co-worker referred to her as “Buckwheat” and she reported the incident to her supervisor, her supervisor claimed she had no idea what “Buckwheat” meant, said that the employee did not look like a “Buckwheat” to her, and never sanctioned the officiant. By not sanctioning the officiant, the supervisor is acting as a passive participant, one who may feign ignorance and deny that racism is a problem. In Jena, Louisiana, the superintendent of the school system dismissed a racist ritual as a mere prank (acting as a passive participant).
The African American students, since the end of legalized segregation (along with the fact of their very existence in a school with “whites”) cannot be legally barred from sitting under a tree. However, an informal system of reproducing Jim Crow segregation remains in effect in the United States (though it times it appears more explicit in the southeastern states). When the African American students in Jena protested the inaction of punishing the racist act on the part of the school district, the District Attorney acted as an acolyte who knowingly or unknowingly carries out the prerogatives of white supremacy by using his position of power to enforce white supremacy.

“I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters allegedly said. “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”

In a later racist ritual, a “white” student called an African American student “nigger”. This term carries much more historical weight and significance than many “whites” understand. For instance, one elderly African American psychologist said that whenever he hears that term, it sets off the image in his mind of a “black” man hanging from a tree (Feagin and McKinney 2003, p. 48). This particular racial epithet was often chanted during the thousands of lynchings across the southeastern United States (3,500 of which are known where the targets where people of African descent). To get a visual sense of the horrors of lynching, James Allen has published early photographs of “whites” posing (often smiling) with the bodies of men (and to a lesser extent women) who had been lynched (available online at: www.withoutsanctuary.org). Many times the photos would be turned into postcards. Far from being the work of a few psychologically troubled bigots, entire communities (including young “white” children) would turn out for these particular racist rituals and pose by the human remains. In modern times, the District Attorney, in a predominately “white” community has the power to excessively punish the “black” students, in what amounts to a school yard fight, by charging them with “second-degree attempted murder”. In doing so, the D.A. is symbolically defending white supremacy and enforcing the structural violence of an inherently racist social system.

A large element of trying to “put the brakes” on how this particular case connects to systemic racism in America is to get the case to “go away”. The threat of a case like this is that it can galvanize a modern Civil Rights movement. The murder of Emmett Till had such an effect and the Jena 6 could potentially have such an effect. We can expect the white power structure to try and “squelch” the case and claim that it is simply an “unfortunate, isolated incident.”