We often read headlines about black students being abused by white teachers — incidents have included teachers who have cut students’ hair, slapped them in the head, called them the n-word, walked on their backs during a lesson about slavery, threatened them with a lynching for not focusing on schoolwork and yanked and pulled a preschooler by the hair for being sick or sleepy. Videos of security officers body-slamming students, grabbing and punching them or throwing a girl across a classroom have gone viral in recent years.
But the Chicago incident demonstrates that violence in education against black children is not just perpetrated by white teachers and administrators: Black educators have internalized the idea that black bodies deserve punishment and violence. Even though corporal punishment is illegal in public schools in Illinois, a 2009 investigation revealed hundreds of substantiated incidents of Chicago Public School students who have been beaten with belts, broomsticks — even a so-called “whipping machine.”
The problem is pervasive not only in Chicago’s troubled schools but across the nation. Corporal punishment of public school students is still legal in 18 states. Students are hit with wooden boards for minor infractions such as chewing gum, being late to class, talking back to a teacher, rolling their eyes, failing to do homework, violating the dress code or using the bathroom without permission, as well as for more serious transgressions such as fighting. The most recent statistics from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights and reports from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Indiana University’s Equity Project show that despite a gradual decline in paddling, black children are likely to be disciplined more frequently than their white peers, even though there’s no significant difference in behavior between the groups. And the top 10 paddling states where large proportions of black children attend schools where they are routinely hit were also the top 10 lynching states in the early 20th century.
Why do people think that black children’s bodies are fair game for brutality? What made two black female teachers think it was permissible to give a black male student a plantation-style beating at school?
There’s no denying that the white world routinely treats black children as inferior, scary beasts that can only be contained with harsh punishment or lethal violence. Look at how adults responded to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown Jr., Tamir Rice and others — by debating whether these unarmed young people deserved to die. Academic journals are flooded with studies about how biases and a cultural gap between black students and the white women who dominate elementary and secondary school teaching ranks have yielded low performance, high dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions.
But it is even more egregious when black parents and educators participate in this logic of abuse. Studies show that teachers across racial lines have low expectations of black children, especially boys: They tend to view black boys as unteachable, disrespectful, lazy and aggressive and often target them for punishment to help manage unruly classrooms. Teachers and school officials interpret black students’ speech, walk, dress and other casual behaviors as acts of defiance. Research also shows that black parents tend to have lower expectations for their sons than their daughters. Black mothers are more likely than black fathers to express a fatalistic view that their sons will not be high achieving or that they are destined for jail or death.
This despair often expresses itself through harsh punishments.
That’s partly what led so many black people to defend NFL superstar Adrian Peterson, who tore his toddler’s scrotum during a beating with a switch. Or why the infamous “Baltimore Mom” was celebrated for knocking her son upside the head during a race riot. Millions of people have watched, liked, shared and validated black parents for posting videos on social media showing themselves humiliating and beating kids for twerking, lying, having sex, acting out at school, skipping class — even for blowing out a birthday candle too soon.
Former president Barack Obama told attendees at an NAACP event that we should go back to the days when “the village” whupped misbehaving children. Black preachers are among the most vocal supporters of promoting family violence against children. For example, the Rev. Voddie Bacucham Jr., former pastor of Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Tex., famously preached that children need to be spanked “at least five times before breakfast.”
Black parents are about twice as likely as white and Latino families to use physical punishment on their children. Our social ecosystem is thick with this message — whup black children! Whup them because they must learn to obey rules so that white people don’t kill them, even though black children are more at risk of being killed by their own parents, according to annual child maltreatment reports from the Children’s Bureau. Whup black children because they live in a different social reality from white kids and need harsh educational approaches. Whup them at school because their dysfunctional families aren’t beating them enough.
Too often, black people turn conversations about the effects of centuries-old structural inequality back on ourselves, particularly our children. Psychological intimidation and beatings of black students could not be sustained without support from black parents. Back children all over the country are being maimed and psychologically impaired as a result. If black parents didn’t buy into this idea that their children need stricter forms of discipline at home and in schools, these modern-day Jim Crow brokers couldn’t sell that kind of education to us.
But what can we expect when we constantly tell the world that black children behave worse than previous generations and need more whuppings, when we publicly brutalize and humiliate them online and then laugh at their pain?
It’s much easier to call a black child “bad” than it is to do the hard work of getting to the root of that child’s behavioral issues. It’s much easier to whup a black child than it is to admit that we can’t, won’t or don’t know how to destroy the racist systems that harm our communities. Black people who beat their children are ignoring how that abuse deprives their children of the self-confidence and resilience needed to bring about change in their personal lives and in the hurting communities they live in. For too many black children, schools are not a refuge from the whuppings they receive at home or the violence they witness in their neighborhoods, but rather yet another zone of intimidation.
How can we expect white society to take our demands to protect and respect black children seriously when we keep setting such bad examples of how they should be treated?