There is so much that bothers me about the Jena Six case, but for this post, I'm going to focus on one aspect: How threatened school officials in Jena seem to be when black children stand up for themselves and against what they perceive as injustice or maltreatment. Remember, when black students protested against the nooses hanging from the "white tree" (and the hanging of the nooses being dismissed as a prank), DA Reed Walters sought to end their protest by threatening, "I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen."
Now, the fact that the school felt the need to call in the district attorney says a lot--how else can his presence be explained except as a threat? I've never encountered a DA being called in because of what is perceived as a behavior problem. The message is clear: you act in ways we don't like, we involve the (in)justice system. Black children are not given the benefit of the doubt ("Oh, it's just a prank") automatically extended to white children.
Jena school officials' responses are, of course, indicative of much wider problems that manifest themselves in schools. There is an almost obsession in this country with making black children "appropriately" deferential, polite, soft-spoken, willing to take the shit that will be dished upon them in the roles that too many of them will occupy--in low wage labor, in the prison industrial complex, in unremitting poverty. Schools have become perfect places to shape non-political, status quo observant, non-individuals. As Kameelah notes,
I have been convinced that many large public schools function like factory systems. You pop in one student and with the appropriate manipulations, the necessary conveyor belt rides and some pedagogical alchemy and you get the school product: a depoliticized consumer who is more prepared to select the next game system to buy then to think critically about the social context that shapes his financially struggling neighborhood.As an example, Kameelah writes about a new Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) report that found that
teachers tend to view the behavior of black girls as not “ladylike” and therefore focus disciplinary action on encouraging behaviors like passivity, deference, and bodily control at the expense of curiosity, outspokenness, and assertiveness.And, as Ann Arnett Ferguson suggests in Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, schools' discipline systems, in which black boys spend a disproportionate and inordinate amount of time, are often a way that racial order is perpetuated. Ferguson argues that public shcool officials frown upon and punish black boys' self-expression and try to humiliate them into "acceptable" behavior. When that doesn't work, the boys are marginalized and labeled as troublemakers.
For black children, schools become little more than a medium for social control and for instilling and rewarding behaviors deemed fitting based on race, gender, and socio-economic class.
So, imagine my non-surprise, when I watched the Monroe KNOE news the other night and saw a segment discussing the banning, by Jena school officials, of the "Free the Jena Six" t-shirts. The reported noted that the superintendent claimed to have had no problem with the message of the shirts, but felt they were disruptive.
Who, I wonder, did they make uncomfortable?
And why have the students who wore them been put in a defensive position, having to assert that they just wanted to make a statement, not cause trouble?
The Free the Jena Six shirts are banned, according to the superintendent, because they threatened the order of the campus. His claim is a bit narrow; apparently, the self-expression and protest politics of black children threaten to upset the much broader (racial) order of society.