Ferguson – A Recipe for Disaster

This thing about Ferguson, it is incredibly simple. Think of it as a basic recipe for oppression. Take a cup of racism, sprinkle in a non-responsive education system, add a dash of economic underdevelopment, and garnish with a police force that is for all intents and purposes an occupying paramilitary force. Let that bake for a few years and voila – out of the oven of our post-racial society is a hot, steamy dish of systemic oppression and rage. Like parents in denial, society copes by drinking tone-deaf cocktails of: (1) disbelief – why are they so angry?; (2) not well thought out answers – let’s hire more African American officers, that’ll do it; (3) sophomoric comparisons – why aren’t they protesting about black on black crime; and (4) a continued insistence that there is a need to understand “how this happened?!”

Two critical issues manifest in the implicit narrative about who is worthy of being cultivated as a citizen. They are the education establishment and the psychological reaction to young black boys by society and law enforcement.

National discussions about educational achievement tends to center around outcomes on state standardized tests. The tests have become a proxy for measuring what is called a good educational outcome. Much of this standards-based accountability can be traced back to politicized reports on the state of public education during the Reagan era and most recently to the debacle that is No Child Left Behind. [Quick aside – this is no diatribe against standards. I happen to like the Common Core framework. However, accountability and consequences devoid of the context of the children attempting to learn under our current educational framework is madness.] Interestingly, the No Excuses approach to education has also resulted in a nearly insane reactionary mantra that poverty does not matter. This despite decades of research demonstrating that growing up in poverty impacts the very area of the brain that is generally built to house the processes where learning takes place.

Researcher Carl Jensen would posit that socio-academic deficits play out in academic achievement and behavior problems. The operational gap is that the educational establishment is unwilling (or unable) to meet poor black children where they are. There is a paradigm of school operations that children must fit into or they are cast out, both in terms of access to high level learning opportunities and literally cast out of school through suspensions.

What does this have to do with Ferguson? Canfield Apartments sits in the Riverview Gardens School District. Riverview Gardens is only one of two unaccredited school districts in Missouri. It shares two important statistics with the other unaccredited district – over 90% Black and a 90% poverty rate as evidenced by the number of students that qualified for free and reduced lunch. Both districts have a student mobility rate above 50%, which the researcher John Hattie has identified as the top factor negatively impacting student learning. These factors alone make learning in a formal context challenging. When mixed together they create a formidable barrier to learning and development, especially when a school cannot operationalize ways to mitigate that barrier. Of course mitigation is possible, but there has to be an acknowledgement that the need exists. Instead, what Missouri has experienced is a head-in-the-sand approach to poverty that says all academic deficits will be fixed by making it easier to fire administrators and teachers.

Now, let us address society’s psychological perception of black boys. There has been disturbing research purportedly demonstrating that White police officers are not very good at guessing the age of black boys. Black boys are typically estimated to be three to four years older than their actual age. This is important because black children are seen, as powerfully stated by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, as merely little black people. As a result, black children are not given a developmental benefit of the doubt. Black boys in particular are not only seen as older, but also as more dangerous by virtue of their perceived age. In other words, black boys are seen as young black men who should know better. Couple that with a police force that has visions of itself as a stakeholder alongside the residents and you have a community that has much less a police force and more a paramilitary organization that saw the Canfield Apartments as anti-police. This has been seen before. The Central Park Five were 14-16 years of age when they were arrested, demonized in the media, and falsely imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. Even after DNA evidence exonerated them of the crime, some still insist that they were guilty of something.

Ferguson is a pathological stew of an inadequate educational and developmental system intertwined with a neglectful local government and a hostile police force. Ferguson exists in system that inherently viewed its Black populace as problematic and unworthy of being treated as citizens. Within this dysfunctional kitchen, is it really any wonder how and why Mike Brown was killed? It is a miracle that we don’t have more.

Photo Credit: Reuters

Phillip C. Boyd, JD

Phillip C. Boyd, JD is an attorney and educator currently serving as an assistant superintendent in the St. Louis area. He is a fierce advocate for at-risk children and believes in the potential of all children to become powerful citizens.

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