The Mad and Unhappy Place of Public Education for Black and Brown Children in the United States
By Dawn X. Henderson, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Winston-Salem State University)
Some of the lines in the classic 1982 song, Mad World, capture the lived experience of many black and brown children in the public school system in the United States.
When people run in circles, it’s a very very mad world…
Children waiting for the day they feel good…
Made to feel the way that every child should, sit and listen…
Went to school and I was very nervous, No one knew me…
Hello, teacher, tell me what’s my lesson? Look right through me
Too many black and brown children experience madness and unhappiness in the public education system in the United States. They may feel invisible and wait for the day when they can begin to experience the happiness every child should.
What constitutes madness in public schools?
Madness denotes a kind of dysfunction and disorder; unfortunately, in popular culture we attribute madness to the individual rather than their environment. Black and brown children, especially those who live in poverty, experience frenzied madness in public schools in the United States.
Madness in schools occurs from a continued reliance on referring and placing poor black and brown children into remedial education. Practices in school continue to funnel poor black and brown children into general and occupational courses where they have fewer opportunities to engage in creative learning and use critical thinking skills. These black and brown children are also less likely to participate in advance courses, such as chemistry, physics, and calculus. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 18 percent of white high school graduates had taken calculus in 2009 compared with 6 percent of black graduates and 9 percent of Hispanic graduates.
School environments primarily serve as the context in which children receive referrals for learning disabilities and disorders. Unfortunately, schools may be more apt to assign an ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnosis to black and brown children, when, in fact, they may suffer from post-traumatic stress. The onslaught of trauma-induced behaviors such as aggression, inattentiveness, and anxiety may contribute to further learning challenges.
Madness occurs in schools when these behaviors are targets for punitive discipline. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights indicates this punitive discipline begins at the earliest point of schooling, where 48% of black children in preschool are repeatedly suspended. An overwhelming number of these children receive suspensions for subjective school offenses such as excessive noise, disrespect, and disruption.
Madness occurs in schools when teachers, school personnel, and school resource officers perceive black and brown children as superpredators. Implicit bias and behavioral expectations about black and brown children alter their perception and make them more likely to use attributes such as “disrespect” “oppositional” and “threatening” to describe the behavior of black and brown children (Fenning & Rose, 2007; Neal et al., 2003). Kids’ interactions with adults across school settings provoke unwarranted accusations of wrongful behavior even when they do not commit violations (Townsend-Walker, 2012). As a result, schools more often use school resource officers against black and brown children and refer them more often to the juvenile justice system.
What constitutes unhappy places for poor black and brown children?
An unhappy place constitutes an unsupportive and alienating environment. It is the “look right through me” feeling many poor black and brown children experience. These children may feel unsafe and experience declines in their sense of belonging. Black and brown children begin to feel unhappy when:
public school systems devalue their culture,
they receive continuous messages about their failure, and
they experience continuous punishment for behaviors associated with trauma.
Unhappiness occurs for many poor black and brown children who experience alienation when schools force them to disassociate from their language, accept white middle class social norms, and disavow their contributions to American history. Unhappiness occurs for many “gifted” black and brown children when they encounter discrimination on a daily basis in advanced courses. Unhappiness occurs for many poor black and brown children when statewide academic performance measures reinforce perceptions of their “intellectual inferiority”. Unhappiness occurs for many black and brown children who experience criminalization that diminishes their positive identity.
When poor black and brown children dwell on associated negative emotions, it interferes with their ability to concentrate and academic performance, leading to disengagement and disassociation.
How do we find happiness for black and brown children in this mad world?
Finding happiness for black and brown children must target their mad world, placing emphasis on transforming the policies and practices in the public education system. Psychology has an established tradition of understanding madness in terms of individual factors. For black and brown children, however, the most serious challenges are not within the individual child but are found in our public education system and our larger society. We must start by forging a pathway to happiness for black and brown children by transforming the madness found in so many of our public schools. We must create a “vision for optimal development” by building the capacity of their environments to meet their diverse needs.
Here are some ideas:
Rethink discipline practices for black and brown children in public schools. Preliminary evidence across school districts indicates that adopting system-wide positive behavioral intervention strategies leads to an overall reduction in discipline referrals. Responsive classroom structures that focus on improving the socioemotional skills of children and building their capacities for resilience can contribute to their academic success.
Target diversity training to combat implicit bias among teachers, school personnel, and school resource officers and work with schools to promote an inclusive school climate and culture. Schools can create partnerships to organize a school culture around positive behavior interventions that target the professional development of teachers and school personnel and that model and support positive behavior among children.
Design curricula that respect and value the cultural experiences of black and brown children and foster their agency and efficacy in reshaping their destiny and the destiny of our nation. We can reduce our propensity to rely on remedial education by using knowledge on fostering creativity in the learning environment and higher order thinking.
Black and brown children deserve happiness and opportunities to experience greater prosperity in the United States; they too should “feel the way that every child should”. Too often, the social ills of impoverished neighborhoods, fragmented families, and racial bias define the experiences of black and brown children. We must shoulder the responsibility of shaping the well-being of every child in the United States. We must target research toward policies and practices that increase opportunities for black and brown children to experience happiness and to thrive in our public education system.
Here are a few questions to guide our work:
How can we strengthen partnerships between schools, families, and community agencies to improve academic and socioemotional development among black and brown children?
How can we collaborate with policymakers and communities to shape policies that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline?
What kinds of multi-systems interventions can address the continued educational disparities that exist between black and brown children and their white peers?
Dawn X. Henderson, PhD, currently serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Winston-Salem State University. She is a community psychologist, has written on resilience and interventions for suspended youth in the United States. She is currently conducting research on the implications of school alienation, discrimination, and violence on ethnic minority adolescents.
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