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    American Public-School Curriculum: Institutionalized Racism

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    As we wake up and head to school, most of us brush our teeth, eat breakfast, and grab our backpack as we head to school to see our friends and learn. The worst thing that may happen at school for most Americans is forgetting to do an assignment or receiving a pop quiz that we were not prepared for; however, millions of ethnic minority Americans, specifically African Americans, have to face uncertainty, racism, lack of resources, and systemic oppression in a variety of ways on an everyday basis. The pop quiz might be the least of their worries as they possibly could end up suspended, expelled, or even jailed as a result of the policies surrounding the current education system in place. From being blatantly discriminated against to snarky and racist remarks from authorities, African Americans have to deal with institutionalized racism as well as many other obstacles on a daily basis, including the ones listed above. The goal of this essay is to add context and analysis for the institutionalized racism that currently overtly exists in the American public education system as well as provide a discussion of possible remedies to a dysfunctional public-school system, such as a culturally relevant and engaging pedagogy, in order to better the experience and to repair the issues revolving around African American youth.

    A problem such as institutionalized racism may seem like something obvious to address and would be on the top of any to-do list for almost any country, especially a country whose nickname is “Land of the Free”; however, many with the power to make changes (educators, policy-makers, Congress, and so forth) continue to turn a blind eye to this issue and instead continue to create and prolong policies and regulations that simultaneously target colored people and favor specific groups of people, especially white America. Despite being such a gargantuan problem for black America, institutionalized racism is swept under America’s abominable rug and as a result, those unaffected by the consequences will continue to live their lives in bliss, ignorant and unaware to this epidemic that targets African Americans on a daily basis. Even in 1973, the United States Supreme Court claimed that “there is no federal constitutional right to education, and this no financial liability for federal government to support schools” in order to legally provide an excuse for the unequal funding between to Southern and Northern schools (Levine 6). Black America is forced to deal with the aftermath and the multitude of obstacles stemming from the persistence of institutionalized racism in America’s education system in a myriad of forms, ranging from achievement gaps to systemic oppression and daily skirmishes with authority.

    The overtness of institutionalized racism in America’s public-school system is apparent through not only through America’s history of divestment from education for people of color but also through America’s “School to Prison Pipeline.” African Americans had to fight and die for centuries in order to gain access to the opportunity for higher education but as of now, the school-to-prison-pipeline currently traps many blacks in a vicious cycle. Underfunded and under-resourced communities are highly susceptible to being part of this cycle of oppression and understanding the influence and problems in these communities is a crucial component in being able to access the issues raised and being able to develop any kind of reform. The success of any model of reform depends on “local conditions…and sociopolitical contexts are critical in constraining or facilitating the successful implementation” (Byndloss 98). Therefore, a better understanding of the complexities and conditions surrounding these impoverished communities and how the repercussions of institutionalized racism directly impact the American public-school system and its black students is vital in creating reform. In the article “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Critical Review of the Punitive Paradigm Shift,” Christopher A. Mallett highlights the “criminalization of education” and the ramifications of the school-to-prison-pipeline that culminates in students being set up and streamlined to incarceration. Mallett writes that the “prison-like environments…harm the learning environment for many students” and “can produce negative reactions, fears, or worries about their school” (Mallett 18). The “zero-tolerance” mentality adopted by many schools has led to the implementation of on-campus police, metal detectors, and an array of other strict policies, including severe punishment for negligible actions, has created a channel for institutionalized racism to manifest itself. If those in authority already have preconceived notions about their black students, the prospect of an unbiased education exponentially decreases. Black students are being set up to end up in prison or stuck in this cycle with suspensions and expulsions creating learning disparities for students and an increase of colored students in juvenile detention. Mallett double downs on black students’ susceptibility by adding that the repercussions of these strict policies are often amplified in low-income and poorly funded communities and schools where people of color often inhabit (Mallett 18). Simply put, if a school resembles and functions like a prison, students will feel like prisoners.

    The current systemic oppression in America’s public-school system as a result of institutionalized racism is evident and brought to life in the research with black female students presented in Monique W. Morris’ book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. Recall the circumstances the school-to-prison-pipeline creates and its effects. Morris highlights the institutionalized racism that manifests in the school-to-prison-pipeline by analyzing and explaining the experiences of black female students in school instead of males in order to provide a more expansive point of view when looking at institutionalized racism in the American public education system. During one of her visits at a juvenile facility, Morris recalls her encounter with Danisha, an eleven-year-old, a self-proclaimed “ho” (Morris 16) At such a young age, Danisha has already assumed the title of a “ho,” or to be clearer cut, has assumed the role of one. Morris brings up the young sexual exploitation that can often take place in impoverished communities. Morris states that “Danisha should have been telling us about her teachers or her fifth-grade homework; instead, she was describing her sex hustle” (Morris 16). Morris spotlights how the American public education system has failed children like Danisha and portrays the deplorable lengths these girls must go to in order to survive. As previously stated, students are being criminalized and victimized as a result of the school-to-prison-pipeline for being a product of an unfair and unjust environment. Whether Danisha’s juvenile detention resulted from the lack of help or resources given to her from her family or school or a different reason, Morris’ leaves minimal space to debate the fact that something out of Danisha’s control forced her into believing that sexual exploitation was an acceptable means of surviving.

    Furthering the unacceptable public-school conditions and the type of environment surrounding the school-to-prison-pipeline, Morris cites a middle school student named Mia. Mia describes her middle school, saying that “they’re hecka bad…people be smoking up in the gym…always a fight every day” and that she would miss school because of the dangers and distractions surrounding it (Morris 27). “You can’t even really learn…So ain’t no point in going” (Morris 27). Mia’s experience reveals more of the psychological toll that environments with a school-to-prison-pipeline can cause. Mia, at no point, insinuates that she is a bad student or does not like to learn, which exemplifies the unbearable conditions that can lead to students, such as Mia, being unable to learn and perform to their actual capabilities. Earnest N. Bracey’s article “The State of Black Education: The Politics of Educating African Americans Students at Colleges and Universities” also echoes the belief that the current conditions surrounding black education presented to black students not only hinders their ability to perform but also the ability to accurately judge and access their academic performance. Bracey states that the school-to-prison-pipeline is also a product of the Prison-Industrial Complex that America, which results in a necessity to fill up these prisons, leading to the increase in the mass incarceration of colored people, often African Americans (Bracey 2). Epitomized in Mia’s “ain’t no point in going” mentality towards school, as a result of the intolerable conditions surrounding her, Bracey also writes that young black people will be less likely to strive for higher education if they begin to believe that forces out of their control will “keep them (black people) in their so-called ‘place’” (Bracey 2). Though both Morris and Bracey reiterate the constant fight for a fair education that black people have to endure on a daily basis through their work, this fight is not the first-time black America had to deal with forces out of its control.

    Mia’s description of her middle school and Danisha’s life as a “ho” are only two examples Morris uses to exhibit the institutionalized racism that controls the systemic oppression present in the American public school system but her critique of the public school system not only reflects the same issues raised in Christopher Mallett’s article but also historically reflects some of the themes and ideologies presented in the “Hampton-Tuskegee Model of industrial education.” James D. Anderson’s Cambridge Press article, “Northern Foundations and the Shaping of Southern Black Rural Education, 1902-1935,” provides insight into the history and ideologies that surrounded and formed the Hampton-Tuskegee Model of industrial education. In Anderson’s article, the underlying reasons for creating industrial education for blacks, such to benefit the economy and to break trade unions, prove that the implementation of this education was never meant for benefit of blacks. Rather, this education given to blacks was essentially philanthropic facade to mask the true intentions of white America at the time while systematically oppressing the blacks. Morris, in Pushout, poses the question “If the curriculum being taught does not even consider the unique needs and experiences of Black girls seeking to climb out of poverty and the ghetto…do they really have equal access to education?” (Morris 21). Morris’ question is a response to the general curriculum in public schools completely ignoring the needs and factors necessary in creating a curriculum that gives every student an equal education. This present issue of an agenda-driven curriculum reflects the curriculum enforced by the Hampton-Tuskegee Model of industrial education. Scared of losing their jobs, educators today are forced to teach whatever curriculum is thrust upon them, which parallels how the General Board of Education kept a keen eye on black schools and made “sure that they conformed to the industrial curriculum” (Anderson 13). Despite being a century apart, Morris’ research proves that institutionalized racism today has merely created a modern model for black control that resonates with the Hampton-Tuskegee Model of industrial education.

    Moving past the context and analysis regarding the institutionalized racism in the American public-school system that targets African Americans, the next step is to take the knowledge gained from earlier and create solutions to better serve the African American youth in through the public-school system. Morris and Mallett both expose the exclusion, distraction, psychological impact, and sociopolitical and socioeconomic backlash that presently exists in the public-school system. Tackling the challenge of change and reform in order to better the American public school system, Bell Hooks and Dr.Gloria Ladson-Billings provide personal insight and models for combating the problems mentioned previously. In Bell Hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress, Hooks uses her experience as a student and professor to formulate her response to the current realities that black students face in public school. The model she proposes is that of a transformative pedagogy that challenges comfortability of the current norms and addresses the complexities and obstacles black students face (Hooks 144). She claims that a transformative pedagogy that moves away from what has been historically accepted and having students confront themselves in an open and safe environment will reignite the joy of learning and create space for growth. Hooks’ preaches the concept of freedom in learning in her proposed pedagogy to create an environment where everyone and anyone, including black and female students, can discuss the problems without suppression as well as to “demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality” (Hooks 207). Michael J. Dumas in his article, “Against the Dark: Antiblackness in Education Policy and Discourse” also notes the importance of discussion the black America by saying that “Teachers, administrators, and district leaders should create opportunities to engage in honest and very specific conversations about Black bodies, blackness, and Black historical memories in and of the school and local community.” She cultivates these goals in response to the suppression and obedience that she experienced in higher education and her realization about the politics behind education (Hooks 4). Though I agree that our current pedagogy is a banking model and does not remotely create an environment to discuss and confront these issues, I do not believe that this ultimately can be effective because this model does more to address problems rather than solve them. Institutionalized racism is too broad and powerful of a force to be solved through her proposed pedagogy.

    In Gloria Ladson-Billings’ book, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, Ladson-Billings’ provides an alternative solution that builds on top of the idea of inclusion but instead of giving African American students a place to feel comfortable talking about anything, gives educators a curriculum having educators promote what she calls a “culturally relevant pedagogy” (Ladson-Billings 150-151).  Knowing that the circumstances of students vary and that often times African Americans are already disadvantaged in a variety of ways, this model creates a curriculum that adapts to the students and therefore provides them with a more equal opportunity in the classroom to succeed. Her model stresses adaptability and inclusivity in a classroom setting. Whether it is the language being taught or adjusting the learning experience from visual to physical, this pedagogy aims to “help African American students understand the world as it is and equip them to change it for the better” while retaining the cultural dignity of the students (Ladson-Billings 152).  Though I completely share Ladson-Billings’ sentiment towards a more inclusive pedagogy that requires educators to adapt to their students, I believe that starting reform in a classroom setting first and attempting to have it spread from there is too slow of a process and prone to being shut down by authority figures above educators and also run the risk of not being adopted by other educators because they would have to alter and redo their whole curriculum.

    Hooks and Ladson-Billings did a phenomenal job in introducing concepts and areas to address in their respective models to better the experience of African American youth in the public-school setting and to answer the negative effects that result from institutionalized racism in the public-school system in the construction of my own model for reform. I do agree with Hooks that a classroom environment that allows African Americans to comfortably learn in and discuss issues is important and I do take from Ladson-Billings’ culturally relevant pedagogy that concepts such as inclusion and a curriculum adapting to the students should are necessary components while creating a solution. The fundamental difference between my model for better serving the African American youth in public schools and their models is that I would apply these concepts on a higher level. Both Hooks and Ladson-Billings models are directly applied to a classroom setting whereas I would push for my model to be applied on a state level. I firmly believe that the implementation of the concepts and research from Hooks and Ladson-Billings provided on a state level, the effectiveness of the implementation will be substantially higher. Institutionalized racism is far too enormous a task to leave at the hands of just educators. I speculate that if a whole state can get behind a culturally relevant pedagogy, educators that do not agree with it with nonetheless before forced into doing so and educators who are proponents of a culturally relevant pedagogy beforehand will thrive. Implementation at the state level will also force authorities to acknowledge that there is institutionalized racism in order to begin to properly deal with the aftermath it leaves for African American youth. With a whole state essentially in a unison, African American youth will immediately receive the attention and resources they require to succeed from a culturally relevant pedagogy and state investment into their future that is not just word of mouth.

    In closing, the persistence of institutionalized racism in America’s public-school system overtly operates through a school-to-prison-pipeline that has kept African Americans systematically oppressed. Outlined in Mallett’s article and proved by Morris’ research, the endeavors and conditions black students face every day reflect America’s relationship with black America as a whole. Trying to make amends or rectify by black youth, I discussed possible remedies as well as proposed my own. State-level implementation becomes the decisive factor, I argue, when combating the current public-school experience of black youth of by having those in power and with influence backing the ideals and providing an investment in the future of black youth in America, African American kids can believe that they can survive and escape their environment and begin to comprehend the power that higher education can provide. Better stated in her article, CL. Holley writes “Those who opposed allowing blacks to learn knew the power of learning. But so did we.”

    Works Cited

    1. Holley, CL. “Black Education: We Can, We Should, We Must.” Speakin’ Out News, vol. 31, no. 49, 16 Nov. 2011,
    2. Dumas, Michael J. “Against the Dark: Antiblackness in Education Policy and Discourse.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 55, no. 1, 2015, pp. 11–19., doi:10.1080/00405841.2016.1116852.
    3. Bracey, Earnest N. “The State of Black Education: The Politics of Educating African American Students at Colleges and Universities.” Journal of Arts and Humanities, Feb. 2014,
    4. Byndloss, D. Crystal. “Revisiting Paradigms in Black Education.” Education and Urban Society, vol. 34, no. 1, 2001, pp. 84–100., doi:10.1177/0013124501341006.
    5. Levine, Murray, and Adeline G Levine. “Coming from behind: A Historical Perspective on Black Education and Attainment.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. 84, no. 5, Sept. 2014, doi:10.1037/h0099861.
    6. Morris, Monique W., et al. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press, 2018.
    7. Mallett, Christopher A. “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Critical Review of the Punitive Paradigm Shift.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2015, pp. 15–24., doi:10.1007/s10560-015-0397-1.
    8. Anderson, James D. “Northern Foundations and the Shaping of Southern Black Rural Education, 1902-1935.” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 1978, p. 371., doi:10.2307/367710.
    9. Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 2017.
    10. Ladson-Billings, Gloria. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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