“Kill the Indian Save the Man” Capt. Richard H. Pratt
Saint Paul Public Schools has been in the media often over the past several months mainly due to their contract with Pacific Education Group (PEG) and the discipline policy aimed at curbing suspensions for students of color. Yesterday they were in the news once again, and once again the rhetoric and resulting frame does little to actually shed light on the situation, nor, more importantly, on potential solutions.
The Pioneer Press article details a rough week in Saint Paul schools, there were fights, police tased a student, and to top it off, a gun was found in a students backpack. Nobody disagrees that these things are problems. Everybody wants to create a safe and healthy school. The tension comes when we start to think about potential solutions.
On one side of the spectrum are folks like Aaron Benner and Joe Soucheray who seem to believe in the more traditional and punitive forms of punishment such as suspensions and expulsions. They place the blame squarely on the students and, as Soucheray claims, poor parenting. Besides the racist overtones, this approach assumes the benevolence of the large society. It removes any responsibility from us for creating the conditions which facilitate and feed the anger and pain these students are literally fighting their way through. It perpetuates the idea that students, specifically students of color, have a deficit which schools are charged to remedy.
On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who believe that there are reasons young people are acting out. We know that poverty breds violence. We know that trauma marks too many of our young people and their communities. Superintendent Silva said as much at her press conference when she said students are bringing stress from poverty and other issues with them into the classroom. And why wouldn’t they? But that doesn’t mean we are helpless.
As adults debate back and forth about PEG and Positive Behavior Intervention the question about how to heal remains largely ignored. What we refuse to engage is the hard truth of how our country is marked by white supremacy and racism. PEG is right: racial bias largely marks the interaction of teachers and students because we live under white supremacy. If PEG is failing it is because they aren’t explicit enough about how to combat that reality.
Culture is the solution. Without culture there is no hope for creating schools that serve all our citizens. Culture is what roots us in values and traditions and establishes norms. In America this means whiteness. And that’s not a good thing because whiteness is not real. Whiteness is a social construct meant to be a wedge between poor people and landowning elite. It’s only tradition is violence; it’s only purpose is to legitimize inequality. It is nonculture. How can systems setup to protect whiteness ever be sites of positivity? What’s more astounding is we expect young people to be willingly assimilated into culturelessness. We scratch our heads and ask “what’s wrong with them?”
Contrary to what Brenner, Soucheray, and their ilk would have you believe the responsibility lays squarely on our shoulders: those of us that are living cultureless. If we are genuine in our desire to end the suspension disparity; if we truly want an end to the opportunity gap; if we mean what we say and want to see schools be places that help shape healthy and productive people engaged in their learning, we must engage in the real cultural work this task calls for. To leave this aspect out will only further perpetuate the trauma of whiteness, and we can expect little progress.