Fear and Rewriting Trayvon: Educator Thoughts

Educators can play a real role in ensuring the Trayvon Martin tragedy does not happen to other children. It starts with how we perceive black boys. 

I imagine Trayvon Martin’s mother wants more than anything to turn the clock back to the night her son was killed by George Zimmerman. To get her son some iced tea, so he wouldn’t have gone out to get any.

That individual act might have changed history. But what we’re debating in America is whether Trayvon’s death reveals a more structural problem that we need to solve.

Research shows that to prevent next harms to young people, it helps to analyze individual tragedies as part of patterns we can counteract collectively. I’ve typically struggled to talk accurately about race and schools, not race and crime. But I’m learning – because these issues affect education too.

Here are some structural things I’d like to undo so that Trayvon would still be alive— and so that more young people don’t meet the same fate.

First, I’d like to undo generations of criminalizing images that make people overreact to black boys.

We can debate Zimmerman’s conscious “intentions” forever, but Zimmerman wouldn’t have killed Trayvon if Zimmerman hadn’t actively followed him, assuming his criminality on sight. Mental associations framing black people as threats are many centuries old. Research shows that even unconsciously, most American brains (across race lines) associate black men with danger and criminality and even gorillas. It’s ugly. It’s old. It makes people cross the street to get away from black people. Research by Phillip Atiba Goff at UCLA suggests it makes police officers use force against black youth at alarming rates.

In schools, research suggests this overreaction to black boys plays a role in another pernicious pattern: educators suspending black boys for small offenses, at alarming rates in comparison to white boys. A Discipline Disparities Collaborative supported by Atlantic Philanthropies is exploring how such school practices and juvenile justice practices together contribute to the over-representation of black youth in the juvenile justice system. Circularly, people then cite prison demographics to argue that black kids “deserve” to be presumed criminal (or, just presumed scary) because they are black.

How we think about youth and crime affects how we think about youth in our schools and neighborhoods. As Elspeth Reeve wrote July 16, “research published in the American Journal of Sociology in 2001 found that people are more likely to think their neighborhood has a higher crime rate if more young black men live there.”

But are these visions of black youth and crime actually fact-based?

As Mike Males of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice noted in Politico, “While the numbers remain considerably worse for blacks than for other groups, murder and violent crimes remain very rare events among African-Americans—and among youth in general …  individual misbehaviors and disparate statistics on rare crimes do not justify harsh attacks on the entire class or generation of young black men.” Michelle Alexander makes clear in her book The New Jim Crow that prison rates have a lot to do with who is stopped and searched and jailed for what—and black youth are stopped and searched and jailed for more, particularly for drug offenses that don’t land white users of the same drugs in jail.

Visions of black youth as killers are vast exaggerations: as Males noted, even in our highest-murder cities like Chicago at their highest points of murder, murder was “rare, less than two-tenths of 1 percent … far from being a behavior that characterized all black youth there—or anywhere else. Since the early 1990s, homicide deaths and arrests have plunged by 70 percent among black youth in Chicago and nationwide — making this generation even less deserving than past ones of being condemned for wanton killing.”

I emailed Mike for a walk through the data, since crime data is new for me to discuss. He put it very clearly:

“If you go to this FBI page ... You’ll find two tables of interest. The first, under Offenses Known to Law Enforcement, is Clearances, Table 28. There, you will find that youth under age 18 commit up to 4.1 percent of homicides in the country, including under 5 percent in large cities. Next, go to Persons Arrested, Table 43, which shows African Americans comprise around half of all youth arrests for murder. Conclusion: African American youth commit around 2 percent of homicides in the United States--you'd think it was 92 percent from media coverage. If you look at previous annual reports, you'll find murder by black youth has plummeted over the last 20 years to record lows.”

Reading more of the FBI data using Males’ process, I saw that black youth under 18 commit a similarly small percentage of the crime Zimmerman was supposedly worried about—up to 4.7 percent of all burglaries.

To interrupt cycles like this, we can consider negative overreactions to black boys as programmed. Interventions helping people recognize these mental linkages are important—and as many education researchers argue, each education program that’s truly successful with black students actively refuses anti-black bias, related to intelligence and potential as well as criminality (see Everyday Antiracism on the former).  We can refuse overreaction when we discipline, resisting discipline that excludes youth from school and refusing to refer our students unnecessarily to police. And when we consider spending upcoming federal dollars on counselors or school resource officers (police), we can react to youth as potential college students (necessitating counselors), not potential criminals.

TV and other media play a role in putting such bias in our brains too and so, require educator attention. The social action group Color of Change recently succeeded in getting Fox to cancel primetime “Cops,” a program filling generations of minds with images of black people spread-eagled or running from the viewer. Let’s fill the airwaves and our school walls instead with images of black boys—wearing whatever they like—graduating from college and inventing things. And as President Obama just suggested, let’s spend our energy helping more youth achieve those goals. Schools around the country have figured out ways to do so.

Finally, as an educator I’d like to undo a generation of legislative domination by gun advocates that has made shooting a constantly available way to overreact to others. This is educator business because guns threaten many youth in our schools and streets—and their constant availability is structural. Zimmerman wouldn’t have been empowered or enabled to follow and then shoot Trayvon if he weren’t carrying a concealed weapon; laws in Florida supported Zimmerman to carry a loaded gun even though he was under a domestic violence restraining order and had been arrested for assaulting a police officer. Additional “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and other states are a blank check for violent overreaction without penalty. Zimmerman was empowered by state law to shoot Trayvon (and then claim self-defense) if he simply felt Trayvon was threatening him. (As the multi-organization Coalition to Stop Gun Violence noted of these laws July 14, “Now you can provoke a fight, and if losing that fight, kill the person you attacked.”) And these laws let too many killers walk away free, especially after killing black people: the Tampa Bay Times points out that in nearly 200 Stand Your Ground-related cases, “people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time.”

We’ve unconscionably mixed a toxic cocktail in America: a legacy of fearing one another plus laws allowing and encouraging people to shoot anyone they find threatening. These structural situations have Americans killing people of all races individual by individual. And as this cycle of fear mounts (as I’ve written elsewhere), educators also can resist increasing pressure to put more guns in schools to “protect” ourselves and the children we love.

Research makes clear that the more laws allow guns around people, the more people get killed. With young people in mind, educators can call for bringing gun safety laws back for public debate. The CDC estimates that firearm injuries already kill 18 children and youth daily; Trayvon’s death is just one of countless examples.

Let’s rewrite this history from here forward. You might not have known it from reading the pundits this past week, but educators can play a real role in rewriting Trayvon’s tragedy.

Mica Pollock, a Professor of Education Studies at the University of California San Diego, is the author of several books on race and diversity issues in education and the editor of Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School, a volume of recommendations and conversation-starters for teachers.

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