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Henry A. Giroux
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Zero Tolerance, Part 2
The politics/color of punishment
Henry A. Giroux
Critics rightfully argue that as the War on Poverty ran out of steam with the social and economic crisis that emerged in the 1970s, it has been replaced with an emphasis on domestic warfare, and that the policies of social investment, at all levels of government, have given way to an emphasis on repression, surveillance, and control. Starting with Reagan's war on drugs and the privatization of the prison industry in the 1980s and escalating to the war on immigrants in the early 1990s, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex by the close of the decade, the criminalization of social policy has now become a part of everyday culture and provides a common referent point that extends from governing prisons and regulating urban culture to running schools.
It comes as no surprise when New York City mayor, Rudi Giuliani, “over the opposition of most parents and the schools chancellor, formally assigns the oversight of discipline in the public schools to the police department.” Once it was clear that Giuliani would receive high marks in the press for lowering the crime rate due to zero tolerance policies adopted by the city's police force, it seemed reasonable to him to use the same policies in the public schools. What was also ignored by the public and popular press nationally was that as the call for more police, prisons, and get tough laws reached fever pitch among politicians and legislators, the investment in domestic militarization began to exceed more than $100 billion a year.
Domestic militarization gained full legislative strength with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Following the mandatory sentencing legislation and get tough policies associated with the war on drugs declared by the Reagan and Bush administrations, three strikes and you're out policy puts repeat offenders, including nonviolent offenders, in jail for life, regardless of the seriousness of the crime. The general idea behind the bill is “to increase the prison sentence for a second offense and require life in custody without parole for a third offense.” It also provides 60 new offenses punishable by death, while at the same time limiting the civil rights and appeal process for those inmates sentenced to die. In addition, the largest single allocation in the bill is for prison construction.
The explosion in the prison population has also resulted in a big increase in the move towards privatizing prisons. As Robin D. G. Kelley points out, by the close of 1997, at least 102 for profit private prisons existed in the United States, “each receiving some form of federal subsidy with limited federal protection of prisoners' rights or prison conditions.” Prisoners, especially the widely disproportionate pool of African-American inmates which has tripled since 1980, provide big business not only “with a new source of consumers but a reservoir of cheap labor.” As the “prison-industrial complex” becomes a dominant force in the economy of states such as California, competing with land developers, service industries, and unions, it does more than rake in huge profits for corporations, it also contributes to what Mike Davis calls a “permanent prison class.” Moreover, it legitimates a culture of punishment and incarceration aimed most decisively at “African-American males who make up less than 7 percent of the U.S. population, yet they comprise almost half of the prison and jail population.” The racist significance of this figure can be measured by a wide range of statistics, but the shameful fact is that the number of African-Americans in prison far exceeds the number of African-American males who commit crimes, and that on any give day in this country “more than a third of the young African-American men aged 18-34 in some of our major cities are either in prison or under some form of criminal justice supervision.” Rather than viewing “three strike” policies and mandatory sentencing as part of a racist-inspired expression of domestic militarization and a source of massive injustice, corporate America and conservative politicians embrace it as both a new venue for profit and a legitimate expression of the market driven policies of neoliberalism. Social costs and racial injustice, then, when compared to corporate profit, are rendered irrelevant. How else to explain a recent New York Times article by Guy Trebay that focuses on “jailhouse chic” as the latest in youth fashion. Surrendering any attempt at socially responsible analysis, Trebay reports that the reason so many teens are turning prison garb into a fashion statement is that an unprecedented number of youths are incarcerated in the United States. When they get released, “they take part of that culture with them.” The retail market for prison style work clothes is so strong, Trebay points out, that prisons, such as those managed by the Oregon Corrections Department, are gaining a foothold in the fashion market by producing their own prison blues clothing.
Zero tolerance policies have been especially cruel in the treatment of juvenile offenders. Rather than attempting to work with youth and make an investment in their psychological, economic, and social well being, a growing number of cities are passing sweep laws—curfews and bans against loitering and cruising—designed not only to keep youth off the streets, but to make it easier to criminalize their behavior. For example, within the last decade, “45 states...have passed or amended legislation making it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults” and in some states “prosecutors can bump a juvenile case into adult court at their own discretion.” A particularly harsh example of these measures can be seen in the passing of Proposition 21 in California. The law makes it easier for prosecutors to try teens 14 and older in adult court who are then convicted of felonies. These youth would automatically be put in adult prison and be given lengthy mandated sentences. The overall consequence of the law is to largely eliminate intervention programs, increase the number of youth in prisons, especially minority youth, and keep them there for longer periods of time. Moreover, the law is at odds with a number of studies that indicate that putting youth in jail with adults both increases recidivism and poses a grave danger to young offenders who, as a recent Columbia University study suggested, are “five times as likely to be raped, twice as likely to be beaten and eight times as likely to commit suicide than adults in the adult prison system.”
The United States is currently one of only seven countries (Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) in the world that permit the death penalty for juveniles. In the last decade it has executed more juvenile offenders than all other countries combined that allow such executions. Given the assumption among neoliberal hardliners that market values are more important than values that involve trust, compassion, and solidarity, it is not surprising that Wall Street's emphasis on profits views the growth in the prison industry and the growing incarceration of young people as good news. Gary Delgado reports that even though “crime has dropped precipitously,” stock analyst Bob Hirschfield notes that “males 15-17 years old are three times as likely to be arrested than the population at large, and the proportion of 15-17 year olds is expanding at twice the overall population.” Rather than being alarmed, if not morally repulsed, over these figures, Hirschfield concludes that it is a “great time to purchase shares” in the new prison growth industry.
Zero tolerance laws can be seen in the application of such laws in areas as different as airport security, the criminal justice system, immigration policy, and drug testing programs for athletes. The widespread use of these policies has received a substantial amount of critical analyses within the last decade. Unfortunately, these analyses rarely make connections between what is going on in the criminal justice system and the public schools. While schools share some proximity to prisons in that they are both about disciplining the body, though for allegedly different purposes, little has been written about how zero tolerance policies in schools resonate powerfully with prison practices that signify a shift away from treating the body as a social investment (i.e., rehabilitation) to viewing it as a threat to security, demanding control, surveillance, and punishment. Nor has anything been written on how such practices have exceeded the boundaries of the prison-industrial complex, providing models and perpetuating a shift in the very nature of educational leadership and pedagogy. Of course, there are exceptions such as Lewis Lapham's lament that schools do more than teach students to take their place within a highly iniquitous class-based society. In many larger cities, high schools, according to Lapham, now “possess many of the same attributes as minimum-security prisons—metal detectors in the corridors, zero tolerance for rowdy behavior, the principal as a warden and the faculty familiar with the syllabus of concealed weapons.” According to Lapham, schools resemble prisons in that they both warehouse students to prevent flooding the labor market while simultaneously “instilling the attitudes of passivity and apprehension, which in turn induce the fear of authority and the habits of obedience.”
Pedagogy in this model of classroom management.relies heavily on those forms of standardization and values that are consistent with the norms and relations that drive the market economy. Teachers teach for the tests as students behaviors are consistently monitored and knowledge is increasingly quantified.
Made over in the image of corporate culture, schools are no longer valued as a public good but as a private interest; hence, the appeal of such schools is about enabling students to master the requirements of a market-driven economy. Under these circumstances, many students find themselves in schools that lack any language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility, or the imperatives of democratic life. Lost in this discussion of schooling is any notion of democratic community or models of leadership capable of raising questions about what public schools should accomplish in a democracy and why under certain circumstances, they fail.
The growth and popularity of zero tolerance policies within the public schools have to be understood as part of a broader educational reform movement in which the market is now seen as the master design for all pedagogical encounters. At the same time, the corporatizing of public schooling cannot be disassociated from the assault on those public spheres within the larger society that provide the conditions for greater democratic participation in shaping society. As the state is downsized and support services dry up, containment policies become the principle means to discipline youth and restrict dissent. Within this context, zero tolerance legislation within the schools extends to young people elements of harsh control and administration implemented in other public spheres where inequalities breed the conditions for dissent and resistance. Schools increasingly resemble other enervated public spheres as they cut back on trained psychologists, school nurses, programs such as music, art, athletics, and valuable after school activities. Jesse Jackson argues that under such circumstances, schools do more than fail to provide students with a well-rounded education, they often “bring in the police, [and] the school gets turned into a feeder system for the penal system.” In addition, the growing movement to define schools as private interests rather than as public assets not only reinforces the trend to administer them in ways that resemble how prisons are governed, it also points to a disturbing tendency on the part of adult society to direct a great deal of anger and resentment toward youth.
The Pedagogy of Zero Tolerance
Many educators first invoked zero tolerance rules against kids who brought guns to schools. But over time the policy was broadened. In many districts school administrators won't tolerate even one instance of weapon possession, drug use, or harassment. One of the most publicized cases took place recently in Decatur, Illinois when 7 African American students, who participated in a fight at a football game that lasted 17 seconds and was marked by the absence of any weapons, were expelled for 2 years. Two of the young men were seniors about to graduate. None of the boys at their hearing were allowed counsel or the right to face their accusers; nor were their parents allowed any degree of involvement in the case. When Jesse Jackson brought national attention to the incident, the Decatur school board reduced the expulsions to one year.
Any sense of perspective seems lost, as schools clamor for metal detectors, armed guards, see-through knapsacks, and, in some cases, armed teachers. Some school systems are investing in new software in order to “profile” students who might exhibit criminal behavior. Two Virginia fifth-graders who allegedly put soap in their teacher's drinking water were charged with a felony. Officials at Rangeview High School in Colorado, after unsuccessfully trying to expel a student because they found three baseball bats on the floor of his car, ended up suspending him. USA Today reported on two Illinois seven-year-olds who were “suspended for having nail clippers with knifelike attachments.” Jesse Jackson offers the example of a student who was suspended on a weapons charge because school officials discovered a little rubber hammer as part of his Halloween costume. Jackson provides another equally absurd example of a student accused with a drug charge because he gave another youth two lemon cough drops.
As Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman points out, zero tolerance has become a code word for a “quick and dirty way of kicking kids out” of school. The Denver Rocky Mountain News reported in June 1999 that “partly as a result of such rigor in enforcing Colorado's zero tolerance law, the number of kids kicked out of public schools has skyrocketed since 1993—from 437 before the law to nearly 2,000 in the 1996-1997 school year.”
Zero tolerance laws make it easier to expel students rather than for school administrators to work with parents, community justice programs, religious organizations, and social service agencies. Moreover, automatic expulsion policies do little to either produce a safer school or society since as Clare Kittredge points out “we already know that lack of attachment to the school is one of the prime predictors of delinquency.” Zero tolerance policies and laws appear to be well-tailored to mobilizing racialized codes and racial based moral panic. Not only do most of the high profile zero tolerance cases, such as the Decatur school incident often involve African American students, but such policies also reinforce the racial inequities that plague school systems across the country. Tamar Lewin, a writer for the New York Times, has reported on a number of studies illustrating “that black students in public schools across the country are far more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled, and far less likely to be in gifted or advanced placement classes.” Even in a city such as San Francisco, considered a bastion of liberalism, African-American students pay a far greater price for zero tolerance policies. Libero Della Piana reports, “According to data collected by Justice Matters, a San Francisco agency advocating equity in education, African Americans make up 52 percent of all suspended students in the district—far in excess of the 16 percent of the general population.”
In Louisiana board member Ray St. Pierre proposed that any student in junior high or high school who is caught fighting “would be handcuffed inside the school by sheriff's deputies and taken to a juvenile facility where he would be charged with disturbing the peace.” In case parents miss the point, they would have to pay a cash bond for their child's release.
In an attempt to root out pedophiles in the public school system in the state of Maine, the FBI is demanding that teachers submit to fingerprinting and criminal history checks. Many teachers have refused to comply and may lose their certification and jobs. Within the current climate of domestic militarization, it may be just a matter of time before the surveillance cameras, profiling technologies, and other tools of the penal state become a routine part of the climate of teaching in America's schools.
Zero tolerance policies also rationalize misplaced legislative priorities. Instead of investing in early childhood programs, repairing deteriorating school buildings, and hiring more qualified teachers, schools now spend millions of dollars to upgrade security. Fremont High School in Oakland, California built a security fence costing $500,000 “while the heating remained out of commission.”
William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn rightly argue that zero tolerance policies do not teach but punish and that students need not less but more tolerance. Ellen Goodman echoes this view by claiming that schools that implement such laws are not paying attention to children's lives, because it is “harder to talk with troubled teens than to profile them.” But these criticisms do not go far enough. It is also necessary for educators to place school-based zero tolerance policies within a broader context that makes it possible to see them as part of the ideology of neoliberalism and domestic militarization that is ravaging conditions for critical political agency, destroying the deployment of even minimal ethical principles, and undermining the conditions necessary within schools and other public spheres to produce the symbolic and material resources necessary for critical citizenship, freedom, democracy, and justice.
Schooling and the Crisis of Public Life
As the state disengages from its role as a mediator between capital and human needs, and market forces bear heavily on redefining the meaning of education as a private enterprise, it becomes more difficult to imagine public schools as important contested sites in the struggle for civic education and authentic democracy. Educators and others need to struggle both for public space and a public dialogue about how to imagine reappropriating a notion of politics that is linked to the regime of authentic democracy while simultaneously articulating a new discourse, set of theoretical tools, and social possibilities for reviving civic education as basis for political agency and social transformation. Zero tolerance is not the problem as much as it is symptomatic of a much broader set of issues centered around the gulf between the regime of the political—everything that concerns modes of power, and the realm of politics—the multiple ways in which human beings question established power, transform institutions, and reject “all authority that would fail to render an account and provide reasons...for the validity of its pronouncements.”
The war against youth must be understood as an attempt to contain, warehouse, control, and even eliminate all those groups and social formations that the market finds expendable (i.e., unable to further the interests of the bottom line or the logic of cost effectiveness). For progressives, this suggests a decisive and important struggle over a notion of politics that refuses the ongoing attempts to make public life irrelevant, if not dangerous, by replacing an ethic of reciprocity and mutual responsibility with a market-driven ethic of individualism in which “competitiveness is the only human ethic, one that promotes a war against all.”
There is also a responsibility to revive a notion of cultural politics that makes politics more pedagogical and the pedagogical a permanent feature of politics in a wide variety of sites, including schools. In this instance, politics is inextricably connected to pedagogies that effectively mobilize the beliefs, desires, and forms of persuasion that organize and give meaning to particular strategies of social engagement. Challenging neoliberal hegemony as a form of domination is crucial to reclaiming an alternative notion of the political and rearticulating the relationship between political agency and substantive democracy.
Intellectuals and other cultural workers bear an enormous responsibility in opposing neoliberalism by bringing democratic political culture back to life. Part of this challenge suggests creating new locations of struggle, vocabularies, and subject positions that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within existing institutional and social formations and “to give some thought to their experiences so that they can transform their relations of subordination and oppression.” Cornelius Castoriadis insightfully argues that for any regime of democracy to be vital, it needs to create citizens who are critical thinkers capable of calling existing institutions into question, asserting individual rights, and assuming public responsibility. In this instance, critical pedagogy as an alternative form of civic education and literacy provides oppositional knowledges, skills, and theoretical tools for highlighting the workings of power and reclaiming the possibility of intervening in its operations and effects. But Castoriadis also suggests that civic education must be linked to the task of creating new locations of struggle that offer critical opportunities for experiencing political agency within social domains that provide the concrete conditions in which people can exercise their capacities and skills “as part of the very process of governing.” In this context culture becomes a space for hope, and pedagogy becomes a valuable tool in reclaiming the promise of democracy.
Zero tolerance has become a metaphor for hollowing out the state and expanding the forces of domestic militarization, for reducing democracy to the rule of capital, and replacing an ethic of mutual aid with an appeal to excessive individualism and social indifference. As despairing as these conditions appear, they increasingly have become the basis for a surge of political resistance on the part of many youth, intellectuals, labor unions, educators, and other activists and social movements. Under such circumstances, it is time to remind ourselves that collective problems deserve collective solutions and that what is at risk is not only a generation of young people now considered to be generation of suspects, but the very promise of democracy itself. The issue is no longer whether it is possible to invest in the idea of the political and politics but what are the consequences for not doing so. Z
Henry Giroux is a faculty member at Penn State and is author of The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence.