The Danger of White Privilege in Schools

By Iheoma U. Iruka – What if Ethan Crumbley were a 15-year-old Black boy?  While the nation grapples with the tragic events surrounding the recent Michigan high school shooting, there’s one thing that’s clear: White privilege enabled Ethan Crumbley to return to his  classroom after school officials were alerted about potential concerns of violence.

In the near future, more will be uncovered about what school officials could have done to prevent the loss of life in the Crumbley case, but it’s time that we look at the unequal application of discipline practices in schools on Black children, as compared to white children. This one case points to the larger systemic issue of racism benefitting white children in schools, while putting all children at grave risk.

Black children are not given any special privileges or “passes,” and are over-policed in schools. They are suspended, expelled and arrested for lesser offenses, including crimes they did not commit. In Tennessee for example, “the mother of the county” judge disproportionately sentenced Black children for crimes they never committed, including an eight-year-old.

In still another example, the Associate Press’ analyses of 3,000 cases of police use of force against children under 16 over the past 11 years showed that while Black children represented 15 percent of students, they made up more than 50 percent of children who were handled with force. The types of force used include takedowns, strikes and muscling, firearms pointed at or used on children, as well as pepper spray or police K-9s. These children, who were Black and younger than Ethan Crumbley, weren’t given a pass, but instead were treated as criminals.

This continued brutality against young Black children must end. More than 50 percent of Black parents in the U.S. worry that their children will be unfairly and harshly punished, according to recent findings by the Equity Research Action Coalition at UNC-Chapel Hill. As the lead author of this study and the mother of two young Black children, I am terrified that white children like Crumbley will be given a pass to commit a brutal crime while my children’s lives are taken away for no reason.

Woefully, the harsh treatment against Black children exists as early as preschool. These harmful practices, including Zero Tolerance school policies, lead to the cradle-to-prison pipeline. Researchers from Boston University, the University of Colorado-Boulder and Harvard University confirmed the link between strict discipline practices and later arrests and incarceration as adults in their study using data from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. These practices and policies disproportionately harm Black children.

While Black children are not more likely than other children to engage in behaviors that lead to expulsion, they are 2.5 times more likely to be expelled than White children. Data shows that Black children comprise only 18 percent of preschool programs, but almost half of the children being expelled. This is in comparison to white children who make up 43 percent of students enrolled in preschool, but only a quarter of the children expelled.

Black children’s mere presence—or some educators’ perceptions of who they are—increases their chance of being suspended or expelled. Research from Yale University by Dr. Walter Gilliam shows that when they placed an eye-tracking device and asked teachers to note when they see a problem, teachers were likely to watch Black children, especially boys, and identify them as causing a problem. The punchline to this study? There were no problem behaviors in the video. The children were just playing with blocks and toys.

Teachers expect Black children, again especially Black boys, to do something wrong, even when they are not. Teachers are hypervigilant when it comes to Black children. The hypervigilance and severe punishment of Black children and adults are evident throughout U.S. history, ranging from Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was beaten and lynched in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman, to the recent murder of George Floyd for an alleged minor crime, which led to the worldwide calls for racial justice.

Meanwhile, white students like Crumbley are given the benefit of the doubt due to white privilege. He was neither suspended, expelled nor even told to go home, but rather was permitted to return to class. His pass and passes like these cost lives. This is not a push to suspend and expel youth from schools, but rather a call to bring urgent attention to the vastly different experiences and responses children receive based upon their skin color.

As educational experts point out, there are times when children will display behaviors that could cause harm to other children and themselves. Effective and safe disciplinary measures do exist, such as observing when certain behaviors start, and proactively involving parents to develop a plan to promote positive behaviors.

We must stop the criminalization of young Black children that leads to the school-to-prison pipeline, and thoughtfully address white privilege which can cost lives in schools and beyond. The same as Crumbley was given a “pass,” Black children deserve the chance to be treated in an age-appropriate way with the understanding that they’re still developing their emotional, cognitive, language and physical skills.

All children deserve the right to safe, healthy and enriching learning environments free from bias and violence. We can’t allow white privilege to cost more lives.

Iheoma U. Iruka, Ph.D., is a research professor of public policy and the founding director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Dr. Iruka leads nationwide studies and initiatives to protect, promote and preserve the health, wealth, culture and education of Black children and their communities.


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