Dangerous and Defiant: The Lens of Antiblackness in a Post-Racial America

I remember the first time I heard the term “post-racial.” It was 2008. Barack Obama had just been elected to serve as our next president. I was in my parents’ kitchen. Someone said that America is now post-racial. My initial reaction was confusion. How could anyone think this? I refuted the claim. We were not living in a post-racial county after the election of our first black president. Over tens years later, we are still not. While some folks may want to claim that America is post-racial, the recent surge in Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as well as the overall discrepancy between Black and white experiences in this country shows that America has a specific kind of racism, one that is antiblack.

Antiblackness is a form of racism in that forces Black people to demonstrate in the streets to fight against violence against and killings of Black people, such as Mike Brown, age 18, George Flloyd, age 47, Eric Garner, age 44, Tamir Rice, age 12, and Breonna Taylor, age 26, all of whom were killed by police officers. Or one could point to the killings of Trayvon Martin, age 17, who was walking home from a convenient store, shot by an armed man who thought he looked suspicious in a black hoodie, “Jordan Davis, age 17, sitting in the back seat of a car with a group of friends, shot dead by a white man who believed they were playing rap (that is, Black) music too loud; Renisha McBride, age 19, shot and killed through a locked door by a white homeowner who said he feared for his life” (Dumas, p.12).

Antiblackness is a form of racism where “the Black is socially and culturally positioned as slave, dispossessed of human agency, desire, and freedom,” and allows whites “to assert their own right to freedom, and right to the consumption, destruction, and/or simple dismissal of the Black” (Dumas, p.13). Antiblackness actively discouraged blackness. It creates a binary in which white equals good, safe, beautiful, and pure, and Black is inherently bad, dangerous, ugly, and evil. Even more, “[t]he Black cannot be human, is not simply an Other but is other than human […] Instead, antiblackness marks an irreconcilability between the Black and any sense of social or cultural regard” (Dumas, p.13). In this context, it is no wonder there is so much violence against Black people. Police and armed civilians don’t see humans when looking at Black bodies, but something that is dangerous and antithetical with (white) humanity. 

Most (well intentioned) white people acknowledge and oppose the violence against and the killing of Black people, especially when it is documented and shared online. Even still, there is systemic oppression (a form of violence) of Black people in other areas of society that are harder to see and therefore reconcile with. Antiblack racism is present in all of our society’s institutions, especially in our schools. Subini Annamma’s research documents the detrimental impact of antiblackness in education which results in the incarceration of Black girls through the juvenile justice system. She notes the School-to-Prison Pipeline, or the ways that students are funnelled from school into the criminal justice system, and the disproportionate rates that students of color are targets of this system. Additionally, students with disabilities are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, and that “[s]tudents with an emotional disability label comprise almost 50% of incarcerated students with disabilities (Annamma, p.313). 

This fact is troubling. Instead of receiving educational support or mental health services, Black children are locked away in a system that prioritized correcting students’  behavior over education. She writes:

They were subjected to socializing practices such as running from one place to another (they may not walk), entering the classroom in silence, and sitting up straight with their feet together and hands on their desk in silence for 5 min (no slouching). After the first 5 min, all girls were expected to sit up straight with their feet together for the entirety of the class. Both teachers and security staff enforced these rules. There were multiple times during every observation when a security staff would open the classroom door, interrupt teachers or students while talking, and direct a student to follow these rules. In one 45-min class observation, class was interrupted for enforcing these socializing practices 18 times (Annamma, p.319).

Such militarist practices do nothing to support the growth and development of children, especially those with disabilities. Instead, they control the movement of Black bodies. They serve as a form of antiblack racism that teachers need to work to dismantle. Instead of seeing Black children as defiant, they need to unpack the reasons for student behavior. When reflecting on their schooling, “students recognized poor classroom management and instruction as factors” leading to their discipline and noted “family detachment, economic pressure, and school failure as factors contributing to the Pipeline” (Annamma, p.314). Teachers need to recognize the struggles students are going through. They need to support students and families, and not allow Black children to receive the label of defiant simply because they cannot see or relate to the Black experience.

It is difficult to argue against Dumas’ claim of antiblackness in our society, especially when examining the racial breakdown of the most powerful institutions in America: “US Congress: 90 percent white; US governors: 96 percent white; Top military advisors: 100 percent white; President and vice president: 100 percent white: US Freedom Caucus: 99 percent white,” (DiAngelo, 2019, p.31). In 2012, 80% of America’s teachers were white (DiAngelo, 2012, p.13). These are the most powerful people and institutions in our country. Educators must come to terms with these numbers and the disparity between white and Black education. But part of the problem is that white Americans continue to insist that they are part of a post-racial, or as Dumas notes, an antiracist society, one that opposes explicit forms of racism in things such as segregation, and feels that because these practices are allege, racism is therefore a thing of the past (Dumas, p.15). This stance allows them to ignore the subtle forms of racism that allow for Black children to receive an inferior education, receive labels such as defiant and dangerous, be shot and killed in our streets, or be locked in prisons.

Not only in this country heavily invested in race, but have moved to one that the abolition of slavery, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the election of a black president have not been able to end. It is a form of racism that is harder for white folks to point out, but it is ever present in the society. It is a form of racism that discourages Blackness, Black bodies, and Black lives. Educators need to name this antiblackness if they are truly committed to dismantling it and work toward equitable education and the dismantling of the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

References:

Annamma, S.A. (2014). Disabling Juvenile Justice: Engaging the Stories of Incarcerated Young Women of Color with Disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 35(5)., 313- 324.

DiAngelo, R. J. (2012). What does it mean to be white? Developing white racial literacy. New York: Peter Lang. Chapters 1, 2, and 10.

DiAngelo, R. J. (2019). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Dumas, M. J. (2016). Against the Dark: Antiblackness in Education Policy and Discourse.

Hey white people, it’s not about us. And that’s okay.

A few years ago, my husband and I took a Lyft from downtown Portland to our nearby Airbnb. It was February. We took this trip right after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The previous week, the U.S. saw millions of women participate in marches in major cities across the county. In the previous years, we saw the development of the  Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after black men and women were killed by the police. More and more people were able to witness these events, either in person or through new outlets and social media. It was amazing, but even some progessive white people felt uncomfortable by the shift in the dominant narrative. 

That night in Portland, our Lyft driver started a conversation.  He was friendly and asked us what brought us to the city. Somehow we came to the topic of the Women’s March and BLM. He was, I should point out, a white man. He casually told us that he supports these movements, but he doesn’t know where he fit in. He didn’t feel like he could have a voice in those spaces. I tried to gently inform him that he doesn’t need to have a voice in all those spaces. That it wasn’t about him. That he could be an ally. But I got the impression that what he really wanted was to be the center of a movement (maybe one for down-and-out 30-something year old white dudes who have to drive for rideshares to make ends meet? Shall I suggest reddit?).

Recently, our country has seen a surge in the BLM movement. There have been many people of color (POC) angry at even more killings of black people by the police. Many have taken to the streets to demonstrate against systems of power that have oppressed them, and their parents, and their grandparents. White people have joined in these demonstrations or have shared messages of allyship on social media. They, too, are angry at these very visible examples of how our society hurts and oppressive POC. But these injustices don’t just happen in the streets or in their homes. There is a long history of institutional inequalities that white people need to grapple with as well. We need to also examine the less visible spaces where POC are unequal, such as education. 

UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access published a report in 2004 detailing the ways that the California educational system has not done enough to desegregate our schools after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Here are some of their findings:

  • California students are racially isolated, with Latinx and black students more segregated than any other state
  • Schools serving predominantly low-income students of color often lack the fundamental things they need to learn, such as qualified teachers, stable faculty, adequate instructional materials, and adequate and safe facilities 
  • These unequal conditions lead to disparities between Academic Performance Index (API) between white students and students of color (Oaks, et al, 2004). 

These “opportunity gaps” underestimate the ability for black and brown students to achieve success in school. Not only that, they limit their ability to graduate from high school and move on to higher education or a successful career.

While we have seen some trends toward racial integration in our schools, there is more racial segregation than before. A newer report found that California is the most segregated for Latinx students with 58% who attend “intensely segregated schools,” with only 15% white classmates (Frankenberg et al.). Additionally, we have a president and Republican platform that wishes to deny educational access to undocumented students, with statements such as “In a time of terrorism, drug cartels, human trafficking, and criminal gangs, the presence of millions of unidentified individuals in this country poses grave risks to the safety and sovereignty of the United States” (Spring). 

Not only are our students segregated in our school, learning a “Eurocentric curriculum that is unresponsive to the needs of students of Color,” but their teaching staff is also overwhelmingly white, even when the students themselves are not (Kohli, R; Nevárez, A; & Arteaga, N, 2018). How can we expect our students of color to succeed when they are in segregated schools and lack the necessary equipment to learn? How can our students succeed in life when they aren’t receiving a quality education? As a future educator, I need to be critical of my own teaching practices and find ways to engage and support my students with a curriculum that is culturally responsive and equitable. Just as POC are finding their voice within marches and demonstrations, I need to support my students of color as they find their voices in my classroom and within the educational system. White people do not need to center themselves in this political movement. It’s our time to be true allies. 

References:

Frankenberg, Erica, et al. (2019) “Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown.” Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown – The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown.

Kohli, Rita; Nevárez, Arturo; and Arteaga, Nallely (2018) “Public Pedagogy for Racial Justice Teaching: Supporting the Racial Literacy Development of Teachers of Color,” The Assembly: A Journal for Public Scholarship on Education: Vol. 1 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. Available at: https://scholar.colorado.edu/assembly/vol1/iss1/3

Oaks, Jeannie, et al. (2004) Separate and Unequal 50 Years Aftef Brown: California’s Racial “Opportunity Gap” UCLA/IDEA Instituyte for Deocracy, Education and Access. 

Spring, Joel H. American Education. Routledge, 2018.