Race, Education and Prison: Nostalgia and Genealogy 60 Years after Brown v Board

School children in Washington, D.C. (c1899). Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

This past week marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education (1954) and the date was met with decidedly mixed feelings in the media sphere. In his presidential proclamation commemorating the decision, Barack Obama emphasizes that “we have confined legalized segregation to the dustbin of history.” Those words come in light of a growing recognition, however, that school desegregation is an overwhelmingly unfinished project, and one that was more or less abandoned after a brief period of focus, and then structurally disassembled by the neoliberal reconfiguration of schools since the 1970s that conveniently operated within the strategically race-neutral discourse of the market. A report put out just several months ago details that the most segregated schools in the country are in fact found in New York, which has the highest per capita amount of “intensely segregated schools” (where, in Black and Latino majority schools, students are accompanied by less than 10% white students, while majority white schools, inversely, have almost no children of color).

And so a strange nostalgia has emerged in some parts for the immediate aftermath inaugurated by Brown v Board, one that seemingly taps into that post-racial discourse enabled by the neoliberal disinvestment in public education that has succeeded in both privatizing large portions of schooling and putting the rest in a mode of perpetual funding crisis to ensure their failure.  Articles documenting “the achievement gap” in public education, like one in the New York Times from 2012, bemoan the loss of a time when schooling was “a great equalizer in American society” (where the “equalizing” in question is meant to signify anti-racism as a legitimate end of public education). Incredibly, but increasingly typically, the article cites a body of recent social scientific research to suggest the “real” achievement gap in American education is now correlated purely to income and no longer race (avoiding, conveniently, how the separability of those two categories is a most torturous venture but for the most ardent neoliberal ideology). The Times quotes a sociologist from Stanford to give its ideological revision of American history legitimacy: “We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race.” The metrics used to make this determination, of course, are standardized test scores, that most neoliberal of measures of the value of children.

As the nostalgic mourning of the passage of a time when it was legitimate and (in principle) efficacious to pursue a politics of education around race and racialization is cemented in this discourse, there are still many vibrant streams of activism around education aiming to take on the neoliberal consensus by challenging charter schools, for profit education, and online schooling. Another major focus is “the school to prison pipeline,” a phrase which conjures the shuttling of students, overwhelmingly of color, from one disciplinary institution to another, incurring unprecedented social death in childhood. The pipeline is a consequence of the overall effect of the war on drugs and increased policing and securitization of public spaces since the 1990s.  In New York City, for example, the School Safety Officer (SSO) unit, with some 4,000 officers, is larger than the police forces of either Washington, D.C., or Boston.  The SSO is also the target of at least one civil rights lawsuit for its brutal tactics and treatment of both students and school faculty, including many unlawful arrests.  The school to prison pipeline is underwritten by a version of the “broken windows” approach to crime, which focuses on heavy punishment of trivial incidents to isolate, punish, and remove students from school, especially through out of school suspension, the theory being that their removal will lead to order and focus. Children are also increasingly arrested or given misdemeanor citations for things that are not crimes for adults, such as missing or being late to school.

Here, too, however, is an opportunity to reflect on the genealogy of the modern public school some 60 years after Brown v Board.  For what both the nostalgic mourners of the apparently lost era of school desegregation politics and the critiques of segregation’s new heir, the school to prison pipeline, overlook is that the public school has never served the liberal, equalizing and uplifting role they ascribe to it in the 1960s.  In fact, the modern public school was born out of the same social movement that produced the very first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899.  The genealogy of the school and the prison, in other words, is inseparable. And this has a big impact on how we understand the relation of the school to the prison and the racialization of childhood.

The invention of modern childhood as a sheltered period of delay in which children’s ostensible natural innocence and imagination would be cultivated through education was not an isolated romantic ideal of Progressive Era reformers and educators like John Dewey.  When Progressive Era feminists like Jane Addams agitated for compulsory public education for children, they made the demand for explicitly extra-educational strategic reasons, too: compulsory attendance would keep children off the street and out of the factory, two places that caused, in their opinion, juvenile delinquency.  Though Addams joined other inventors of the categories of modern childhood and adolescence, notably G. Stanley Hall, in proposing that youth was naturally a period of intense emotion and energy that sprung normally from its function in the development of the future adult self, the “spontaneous joy, the clamor for pleasure” and “the desire of the young people to appear finer and better” needed to be “properly utilized” (15-16) by society through education.  Failing that cultivation, the resultant category of delinquency was to be addressed by the newly created juvenile courts in whose establishment and management in Chicago Addams played a central role. Indeed, state laws requiring compulsory attendance of school across the United States were contemporaneous with the establishing of juvenile court systems at the turn of the century, and their proponents were one and the same.

An 8 year old in St. Louis appears in juvenile court, charged with stealing a bicycle (1910). Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.


Another famous Progressive Era figure, Jacob Riis, sums up this new extension of disciplinary power through the child’s body by opening his 1892 book The Children of the Poor with the succinct declaration, “The problem of children is the problem of the state” (1).  Although Riis places great faith in education, arguing that “The immediate duty which the community has to perform for its own protection is to school the children first of all into good Americans, an next into useful citizens” (92-93), he does not for a moment disconnect this from juvenile delinquency and punishment (and his use of the phrase “for its own protection” is telling in that regard); on the contrary, he writes of them in one and the same breathe.  For an entire chapter, for instance, Riis bemoans the lack of truant officers in New York City, who are needed in his estimation to go out into the streets and arrest children for not being at at school; the construction of a “truant home,” he explains is the only way to ensure the success of the Progressive drive to get a hold of children and govern them. “Prohibition of child labor,” he remarks sardonically, “without compelling the attendance at school of the freed slaves is a mockery” (232).

The use of the word “slaves” by Riis to refer to industrial workers is no doubt symptomatic of his and other Progressive Era reformers disavowal of the specificity of anti-black racism in their social projects. Likewise, Addams’ The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909) focuses on the children of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, with only sporadic and disconcertingly uninterested reference to Black children. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s bracing historical study of the American link of blackness to criminality, The Condemnation of Blackness (2010)does the important work of diagramming the racialized divergence in discourses of crime and juvenile delinquency right from the beginning of its social scientific study and institutional practice in the late nineteenth century.  In fact, he turns to Addams and The Spirit of Youth at one point to highlight the forming Progressive sentimentalism around white children, whose delinquent tendencies were treated as environmental in origin and excellent candidates for rehabilitation through public school.  For Black youth, on the other hand, a segregated and violent judgement was already taking root, one that essentially nullified the potential romantic childishness of Black kids and saw them as hardened criminals from birth (118-120).  As modern statistics began to note the wildly disproportionate numbers of Black youth being put through the new juvenile court system, social scientists and policy makers took this as empirical proof of the criminality inherent to blackness, rather than as a justification for efforts at reform, education and rehabilitation such as taken up with white children (230).

What this genealogy suggests is that education has never operated without the prison and the juvenile court. To say that both are institutions of modern disciplinary power, of course, is hardly to say something new; the point, rather, is about emphasizing that connection. It is not the loss of a temporary moment of reform permitted by Brown v. Board sixty years ago that has permitted the criminalization of public schools and the abandonment of anti-racist pedagogy as the center of public policy. Rather, from the very beginning, compulsory schooling was meant to serve as a way of whitening European immigrants and increasing the value of those children for the future by saving them from a sentimental form of delinquency. At the same time and from the very beginning of mass schooling, the juvenile court and prison were identified as the rational institutions with which to govern Black children.  School segregation and the contemporary school to prison pipeline are rather two actualizations of that original logic of the modern US administrative state. Childhood and education, in that sense, have always been racialized, and have always been part of the project of the carceral state.

Without any Progressive Era or 1960s nostalgia to fall back upon, though, this genealogy sets out very clearly the strategic function of the prison and the school. A politics of childhood, education and race for the twenty-first century needs to situate itself within this long genealogy of differential governance if it wishes to invent something different for the school and the prison in the future (or abolish their interdependency).

A kindergarten in Hampton, Virginia (1899). Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.



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