Black History Month speech addresses education and justice systems

Dr. Crystal Laura spoke Thursday on issues involving incarceration rates and their link to education in a speech sponsored by the School of Education.

Dr. Crystal Laura addressed the issues blacks have faced and still face in the education system along with the right ways to teach in her speech Thursday afternoon at Maxwell Auditorium.

Laura said that the zero-tolerance policy at schools and mass incarceration denied black youths their rights as citizens, and that teachers should get intimate with them through love, justice and joy in teaching.

"Incarcerated people are often those who from us once needed the most and somehow got the least."
Dr. Crystal Laura

Laura is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Chicago State University and author of "Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline." Focusing on her brother Chris, who was designated as a bad kid by his school, a person of interest by the police, and a gangster by society, Laura addressed injustice toward black males in education, the justice system and media. The School of Education sponsored the speech to commemorate Black History Month.

Laura recalled that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed similar issues about inner city schools, which he called “ghetto schools” at Sims Hall in 1965, a year after the Civil Rights Act came out. She said ghetto schools were racially segregated, offered young people poor education and frustration rather than valuable futures.

“These were schools from which 1 million children dropped out every year," Laura said. "These were schools where children entered to learn but came out dysfunctionally illiterate.”

Laura said that the way society dealt with this kind of social trauma was incarceration, and the incarcerated usually had a low literacy rate, low skills and prevalence of disability.

“With regard to education and schooling," Laura said, "incarcerated people are often those who from us once needed the most and somehow got the least.” 

Laura said that the stereotypes of school authorities and the zero-tolerance policy facilitated the school-to-prison pipeline. She said that authorities of inner city schools routinely and openly labeled black males as at risk of failing, unsalvageable and bound for jail. She also stated that black kids were perceived as dangerous by school authorities.

“The misdeeds of black children in Ferguson," Laura said, "have taken on a sinister, intentional and fully conscious tone that is stripped of any elements as children.”

She said that school authorities suspended and expelled black children under the zero-tolerance policy.

“When we have zero tolerance toward our kids, we fail to see kids being kids, jumping, giggling, fidgeting, being silly. Somehow, these things get diagnosed, and labeled, and medicated,” Laura said. “And when that doesn’t work, we beat them because in 20 states, corporal punishments are still allowed.”

She further pointed out that schools constructed booking stations in the buildings to make school-based arrests easier, faster and more effective. Moreover, she brought up the cradle-to-prison pipeline, where black children tended to suffer from underweight at birth, dysfunctional families as they grew up. They also suffered from discrimination in affordable housing, health care and decent wages. She called these accumulated cycles that marginalized African Americans.

Laura moved on to the school to prison pipeline next using major points of "The New Jim Crow," a book written by civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander. She said Alexander addressed several points about how mass incarceration of African Americans denied them their rights as citizens.

First, the police interrogated, searched and arrested them. Second, the police forced them to plead guilty and imposed extra charges as youth of color. Third, once they were released after spending a long time in prison, the vast majority of them would be discriminated against legally and denied housing, employment and education in their lifetime. Most of them ended up in prisons again.

She pointed out that teachers should practice love, justice and joy in order to address equal treatment of black children in schools.

Laura defined love as witnessing rather than simply observing or looking at others.

“To witness is to validate the existence of stories, and to protect their places in the world. We are acting as witnesses when we participate and learn about others and communicate what we have experienced to others,” Laura said. “The active listening and witnessing is vital to the production of co-ownership of people’s truth, and it is also an obligation of engaging the conversation that is essential to the process of getting into it.”

She addressed justice by stating five characteristics of teacher activists: the consciousness of broad social, cultural and political concepts of schools, the critique of the marginalized behaviors, a commitment to the more genuine and democratic principles in schools, a moral obligation to articulate a countervision, narrative or hope regarding education and a determination to move from rhetoric to civil rights activism.

“Teacher activists might be called transformative public intellectuals. Public intellectuals recognize the demanding labor of pushing back institutions that help to maintain social, political and economic status quo,” Laura said. “They are compelled to engage in these issues anyway on the basis of a universal principle that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior, concerning freedom and justice.”

Laura concluded her speech by addressing joy, which she defined as caring about the everyday experiences of others and sometimes bringing about uneasy consciousness and responsibility. She pointed out that the challenge was to connect the knowledge with actions.

"In the final analysis," Laura said, "getting intimate requires every adult who works with young folks in the educational system to love and respect children, to wake up each day to struggle and stride to social justice.” 

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