The Perkins Perspective | Features | Spring 2013
Doing Time: Urban Education and Mass Incarceration
By Abbie Petty, UW Senior
Driving home for the weekend, I tried to dissect the words my mother had spoken over the phone. I debated all the possibilities of what she had meant when she said my brother was not doing so well.
As I pulled up the driveway, I could sense something was wrong. Greeted by eerie silence, I stepped into my childhood home and spotted my mother, looking as fragile as a teacup. With tears spilling from her eyes, she told me that my brother had transformed into a complete stranger.
My brother and I were once inseparable. We finished each other’s sentences, had the same sense of humor, and shared almost everything we owned. He protected me from danger and was always willing to jeopardize his well-being for the guarantee of my safety. Together, we helped each other grieve the passing of our father and we watched over our mother. I knew I could rely on him for the rest of my existence. Yet now, my best friend had become a drug-dependent monster who was constantly high.
The reality associated with my brother’s current state of being was emotionally taxing. I sank my face into my hands in hopes of escaping the nightmare that had me questioning if he would ever return to the cheerful and sarcastic individual I had loved. The months that followed were a combination of false hope and intermittent progress. Screaming rampages, doors slamming, and visits from local police officers eventually became routine.
My brother is just one of the thousands of Americans trapped by an inability to gain control of their lives. Yet rather than offering effective help to drug users, America arrests them and tends to dump them as waste to be isolated from the public.
As a child, I learned about the Civil War and the civil rights movement, battles fought for the belief that all individuals are considered equal. It would be reassuring to think that the remnants of oppression left behind by the shadow of Jim Crow were cleared away by the legislation of the 1960s.But after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness, I have realized that this is not the case. Alexander describes the criminal justice system as perpetuating the racial segregation that persists in America:
"We use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage them in all of the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. ... We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."
The New Jim Crow enabled me to see that the war on drugs is conducted as a war against black and brown people. By branding these people as felons for using drugs, rather than promoting treatment options, the drug war guarantees that poor people of color will stay suppressed. Mass incarceration leads to both the physical removal from society and social death for the incarcerated. Prisons are not rehabilitation centers; those who are released frequently become trapped in the vicious cycle of recidivism and social isolation. I have come to know the inefficiency of the criminal justice system by way of my brother’s experience.
The drug war is not the only way in which the mass incarceration of African-Americans has persisted. Although most would not recognize it, the American educational system also contributes to the high number of African-Americans who have become imprisoned. Supported by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education sociologists Michael Rocque and Raymond Paternoster examined the relationship between race and school discipline in their study "Understanding the Antecedents of the “School-To-Jail” Link: The Relationship Between Race and School Discipline."
Their findings, they write, “show that African-American children receive more disciplinary infractions than children from other racial categories. Classroom factors, school factors, and student behavior are not sufficient to account for this finding.” Because African-American youth are more likely to be punished in school, they have a higher likelihood of academic disengagement, and their risk of involvement in the criminal justice system is exacerbated.
Ann Arnett Ferguson, professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College, has researched the criminalization of black children in the educational system. In her book Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, she argues the structure of the American education system is based upon white values. The standard for good behavior encompasses certain body language, emotions, self-discipline, and dialects that derive from the white perspective. This notion of what entails good behavior neglects what African-American children in inner-city communities are accustomed to. A school environment that does not accept the differences that African-American students bring to the classroom fashions a system in which teachers are predisposed to link black youth to delinquency. A black youth’s defiance is seen as a threat to white hegemony, so when a black student refuses to assimilate to white culture and instead embraces his or her own identity, teachers perceive it as threatening and can be quick to isolate the student from the main population.
This almost happened to me. In the first grade, I was on the cusp of being placed into remedial classes because I pronounced the word “ask” as “axe.” Though I was the most proficient reader in my class, because I was unable to shed what was deemed as “Black English,” segregation from the main population was a way in which to prevent my identity from invading the white dominion. Had not both my mother and father defended my case, I would likely have developed low self-esteem and given up on my own education. Today, at the age of 21, I have still not altered the way I pronounce the word “ask.” But it has not prevented me from remaining on the dean’s list consistently throughout my academic career, nor has it prohibited me from researching for the University of Washington and the Johns Hopkins University. “Blackness” — in all its forms, including dialect — should not be defined as unintelligent. When blackness is equated with a lack of intelligence, as it is now, it reinforces a “school-to-jail” pipeline.
America has adopted a policy of criminalizing African-Americans and removing them from the larger society, both through the education system and the war on drugs. The experience that my brother is currently enduring with drugs is illustrative of this. He is not seen as an individual who is suffering but instead a villain. Like all of those in a predicament similar to him, they are dehumanized so it becomes acceptable not to care. It becomes OK to shove drug users to the periphery and implement overly harsh policies. Moreover, the education system operates in the same manner, pushing African-merican children to the edge to be seen as outsiders. Both the criminal justice and education systems function in a manner that is antagonistic toward black achievement.
To end this, we must change the structure of the American education system; in addition, we must stop criminalizing those who suffer from a drug addiction. Upon completion of law school, I intend to become a civil rights attorney and work for the NAACP, because I want to bring an end to the biased policies that have resulted in our prison system becoming a community of marginalized African-Americans.
Abbie Petty is a senior at the University of Washington majoring in law, societies and justice, with a double minor in political science and philosophy. After graduation, she will be attending law school on the East Coast, with the goal to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
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