‘Pushout’ pushes readers to think beyond conformity for black girls

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 23, 2020

“Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” is a provocative book that should be read and discussed by all educators, parents of students, school resources officers and school board members and candidates — everyone concerned about the schooling in America.

It is largely based on interviews by the author, Monique W. Morris, with black girls about their experiences in schools. The more I watched ”Pushout”-related interviews on Youtube and a documentary based on the book, I realize Morris makes sense, but I find her message unsettling.

Her key idea is that because of “historical trauma,” black girls interact with schools in a way that results in black girls being seven times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be arrested than white girls. Classmates and school authorities are often ill-prepared to effectively interact with black girls because of a lack of cultural competence and training. Morris argues that black boys are victims of the “school to prison pipeline,” but black girls are caught in a variety of “school to confinement pathways” more easily overlooked by educators.

Black girls are pushed out of school by exclusionary school discipline policies, such as culturally biased dress codes and hair policies, inadequate school responses to black girls’ trauma, poverty, family problems and experience with violence. Think about it: a black girl from a high-crime neighborhood will not respond to an approaching school resource officer, i.e. police, the same way that a white student or a black male will.
In the past few years, videos have gone viral on the internet showing police officials overreacting to young black girls with excessive force in schools and at a public pool. That’s why “Pushout” should be read in police departments, not just in schools.

Morris’s approach and message are easy to resist by blindly saying “all students should follow all the rules” but that won’t work. I would not have been open to this book five years ago. Not only am I an aging white male, I am a higher-educated, trained follower of the rules who has succeed by either following the rules or by learning how to circumvent them. Two events, however, prepared me to give “Pushout” a fair reading. First, I have learned about the necessity for black children to “code switch,” to learn mainstream (white) English as well as black community English. This is almost like being bilingual, a daunting task for a first grader learning to read.

Secondly, I had an eye-opening personal experience with a 30-ish African American man at a local soup kitchen where I volunteer. We had a warm, friendly conversation in the lobby area where he wanted to eat his dinner. Before he had his food, I mentioned that everyone is supposed to eat in the dining room. We talked some more, and he got up and went and got his dinner and brought it back to the lobby area. I gently reminded him that he should eat in the dinning area. He replied that the lobby was more pleasant, quiet and relaxing so he preferred to sit on the floor and enjoy his dinner. I said something like “the rule is that everyone should eat in the dining room.” He replied nicely but firmly “If my eating here is a personal affront to you, then I will move; if it is only a rule, I would rather eat right here.” After a few seconds, I said “Go ahead and eat here; it is not crowded.” No harm, no foul.

Morris argues that black girls are often punished in schools for their attitudes and disrespect for authority not for their disruptive or threatening behavior. Dress codes, hair restrictions, and rolling eyes in a show of defiance are easy examples of requirements that black girls are likely to view differently than other students. Hair styles are important for most girls. Consequently, wearing a ball cap or bandana on a bad hair day might make good sense to a girl. Likewise, wanting to wear a natural hairstyle or a hair wrap on a good day might feel like a good idea, too. Both often are precluded by school requirements and put black girls in confrontation with school authorities.

Morris argues that societal stereotypes about black students works against their success in schools. Black youth are often thought to look older than they are and thought to be loud when they “speak up and speak out” to school and legal authorities. Morris proposes that in addition to protecting black girls from bullying and violence, schools should have more proactive programs about intimate relationships; they should foster strong student-teacher relationships resulting in black girls feeling better understood and respected; and that schools implement fair school credit recovery programs.

Morris’s message is unsettling because it presents a challenge to traditional school systems and the conformity they demand. Morris wants to make schools a place of healing not a place where black girls experience more trauma. “Pushout” would be an excellent focus for discussion among teachers, school police officers, school authorities, and among black girls and their parents.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Losing Our Republic

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 9, 2020

It’s not been a good week for democracy in America. The Trump impeachment proceedings, the Iowa caucus snafu and the uncivil State of the Union events all add up to a political system far short of what we hope for. In the end, we get the government that we expect, contribute to and accept. Rome did not decline in a day.

Large scale democracy, or a republic, by which I mean popular control of public decisions, has proven difficult to achieve and maintain. A classic folktale about the challenges facing our political system involves the wife of the Philadelphia mayor asking Benjamin Franklin as he came out of the 1776 convention assembly, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Supposedly, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s fear was that the political institutions, including the checks and balances, would be insufficient to prevent the rise of a self-interested zealot from capturing government for personal use, thus becoming a monarch.

Except for the principled Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the U.S. Senate performed mighty shabbily over the past several months, even years. While the acquittal of President Donald Trump was always the likely outcome, it was disgraceful for leading Republican senators to proclaim they would vote not guilty before hearing any evidence and then refusing to hear evidence. The Senate made a mockery of swearing an oath to be an unbiased juror as the majority coordinated the schedule with the White House. Missouri legislators committed a similar mockery on their first day in office when they promised not to “take anything of value” for their decisions as they head off to a fundraiser. Such duplicity is standard practice nowadays.

The videotaped hypocrisy of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and former Independent Counselor Ken Starr was embarrassing to watch. Here are well-educated grown-ups flipping 180 degrees since the Clinton impeachment, explaining it so smoothly while maintaining a professional demeanor. It was enough to make you question the integrity of elected officials.

Reports that a secret ballot in the Senate would have removed Trump but that grown men and women are spineless chickens to do the right thing is disheartening. Our political system’s “checks and balances,” the major invention of our founders, are on life support. It takes a responsible congress to monitor the executive branch and check an imperial president.

Democracy is not only our guiding light in the Senate; it is practiced at all levels of U.S. government. Democracy requires active citizens following transparent procedures. We need interested public officials at all levels of government: as election judges and civil and criminal juries. I was called, but not chosen, for jury duty in Boone County last week. I repressed my urge to tell the judge that I would act like a U.S. Senator and didn’t want to hear any evidence.

Democracy didn’t fare well in the Iowa Democratic caucuses last week either. After a year of saturating media attention in one of our most demographically unrepresentative states, there were reports that some campaigns could not get organized enough to conduct caucus meetings, which erodes the foundation of popular control of government. Then, the new software purchased to count the votes was apparently not fully tested and failed to perform accurately in a timely fashion. Iowa’s plain old human incompetence and excessive trust in technology seem to be the culprits. This is a failure of a political organization to carry out its responsibilities. Undoubtedly, the media’s fascination with speedy reporting, even when unnecessary, added pressure to adopt the new app that failed. I suspect this will mean the end of the Iowa caucuses — only about 28 years late.

Finally, the 2020 State of the Union event, once a display of political grandeur and bipartisan pomp and circumstance, was exposed as an 80-minute infomercial staged with partisan pettiness. Trump did not shake Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand, so she did not introduce him with the traditional fanfare. He gave a particularly misleading and self-promoting speech, so Pelosi — the second most powerful leader in national government — proceeded to shred Trump’s speech on national television. Current norms of retaliation, egged on by blinded staffers, will require, of course, that Trump will not give Pelosi a copy next time. Where will this partisan escalation end?

The State of the Union has devolved over the past couple of decades. Showmanship overshadows substance and facts. Our first presidents delivered a written statement to Congress; only recently, presidents have used it to spread some love to guests in the balcony. Rather than shredding Trump’s speech, it would have been better had Pelosi pulled out a pen and written notes about reforming the State of the Union event, renewing the “checks and balances” and ordering House committees to subpoena John Bolton about his book that the Senate refused to examine.

Sadly, the State of the Union speech will go the way of the presidential press conference.

Democracy is a fragile set of institutions, norms, rules and expectations. Perhaps because of the cooperative behavior of the GI generation, my generation — baby boomers — did not give adequate attention to how to keep a democracy. We assumed it would always be there. We may be wrong.

Down and down
and down it goes,
where it stops,
nobody knows.