A few days ago, the media got word of Jaden Smith’s recent admonishing of schooling on his Twitter account, stating most notably that “schools are a tool to brainwash the youth,” and that “if people dropped out of school we would have a much more intelligent society.” Predictably, the backlash against Jaden’s musings was quick and decisive. Partly because youth’s opinions are seldom critically engaged and easily suppressed in the society, partly because Jaden is very privileged and so the value of school in his own nascent career is probably negligible, and lastly because I doubt many people think it’s a good idea to drop out of school (unless you’re a rich white male who goes on to start a supremely popular tech enterprise—then a debate about the value of education is seriously weighed, but a Black boy saying it—well…I digress)
Of course, numerous studies cite the economic and social benefits of finishing school, and coupled with the disproportionate drop out rate for students of color, obviously dropping out of school is not the answer for the vast majority of Black children. However, Jaden’s comments do serve as a entry point for thinking about the role most of our schools play in stifling the potential and agency of many of our Black children. Especially Black boys. The sheer fact of that matter is that urban schools, the schools that predominately serve our Black students, are failing them. And this failure is not accidental, but is systematically engineered to do so.
One of the reasons for this being that problematically, urban schools in this country have a propensity to think of Black students as walking problems to be solved through strict discipline and punishment. Earlier this year, a study out of UCLA found that since the 1970s, Black students have been increasingly suspended at a rate 11 times than that of white students. Between 2009 and 2010, a whopping 36% of Black males with disabilities were suspended at least once. Furthermore, as you might suspect if you have spent any significant amount of time in an urban school in recent years, most of these suspensions are for minor infractions such as disrupting class, tardiness, or dress code policies, rather than violent crime. The trivial peculiarity of most suspensions speaks to the strange ways urban institutions think of their students as miscreants that need to be pressed into arbitrary conformity. Of course, these overly punitive measures commonly found in urban schools contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, but taken together with overcrowding, underfunding, the charter reform movement fueled by corporations, and the systematic failure to create curriculum that is affirming for Black students, the state of urban schools in America is precisely one that is bleak for our students.
What is perhaps worse is that these structural problems are fueled by racist philosophies from both White and Black folks about how urban youth need to be treated. Schools are institutions that are expected to fulfill the role of imbuing our youth with a sense of human dignity, the capacity to be critical thinkers, and to provide the knowledge to compete in our economy. Instead, schools that serve Black and brown students are fueled by philosophies that urban youth need rigid and harsh discipline—coded as “structure”—in order to be successful. Eerily and yet unsurprisingly, these philosophies coincide with the unfounded and frankly internalized racist myth pervasive in the Black community that many of our youth today just need a “good whoopin’” like the days of yesteryear when all Black people were immensely successful they were all getting spanked regularly. Frankly, if we are to be honest about what most schools are doing to urban youth, I think “brainwashing” is too tepid of a term. Actually, I don’t think “brainwashing” even begins to capture the systemic psychological and emotional harm being done to Black students in today’s public school system. It is actually a profound testament to the strength of Black youth that any of them continue to thrive at all.
If any progress is to be made, we should be sensitive to the voices of Black youth. Jaden’s comment might have been trite or privileged. And I doubt seriously that he went to or is even thinking about a public urban school, nor is that the point. In effect, to be Black and to feel failed by education is a commonly shared experience and that is a problem. Yes, we must put in the work to compel our policymakers and local leaders to create the type of schools that evidence shows actually works for children. But I fundamentally believe that most of the change must be internal. We must lift Black children up with the love and affirmation that institutions in this country have been engineered to diminish. We must challenge our own internalized ideas about how urban youth should be treated in our schools and in our communities. And most importantly, when our Black youth speak, we at least owe their words a second thought.