Racial Violence in the United States
Racial Violence in the United States
- Darius D. PrierDarius D. PrierOklahoma State University
Since the “discovery” of the so-called New World, The U.S. has carried a history of a violent past. It is a past in which genocide toward Native Americans and enslavement of Black Americans are uncomfortable truths in the annals of history. The racial legacy of such a violent past has its roots in the ideology of White supremacy. This is an ideology in which racialized “others” are cast as subordinate and inferior to persons socially constructed as “White.” It is not just a designation of ideology but can inform discriminatory practices toward communities of color, with even fatal outcomes for this population. Subsequently, racial violence has become an empirical fact of the U.S. social reality.
The U.S. legacy of racial violence continues to proliferate in the 21st century, albeit in different forms than genocide and slavery. African American, Latino(a)(x), Jewish, Asian/Pacific Islander, and the LGBTQIA+ communities have been subject to targeted acts of racial violence. In addition, women have been the victims of gender violence. The event that signified White America’s animus toward communities of color came to a crescendo happened when White nationalists went to war against democracy through a violent insurrection on Capitol Hill, January 6, 2021. The documented mass murders toward many of the aforementioned groups and the insurrection on Capitol Hill belie and challenge the notion and ideal of progress toward a “color-blind” society.
The resurgence of racial violence since the 2010s has been coupled with many legislators of the nation-state rejecting all forms of anti-racist pedagogy, particularly in K–12 schools. This political movement to cancel discussions of race and racism in schools began with the Trump administration’s executive order to eliminate critical race theory in all areas of the workplace before he left office. While the executive order was rescinded by the Biden administration, several states have passed laws, rejecting any form of anti-racist pedagogy in K–12 schools.
Proponents of the rejection of critical race theory argue that groups cannot be marked or stigmatized as morally incompetent or superior to other groups. In addition, they assert that no group should feel discomfort because of their history and that groups should not be discriminated against because of their race. Furthermore, proponents insist education should not be taught in an ideological or political manner. Critics offer that political efforts by far-right ideologues to reject anti-racist pedagogy can hinder students’ understanding of race, violence, and inequality. They also argue that these efforts are unethical, as they silence a critical education, in which students can read of the world of violence as a means to critique issues of racism, discrimination, and inequitable treatment toward communities of color.
Debating, critiquing, and responding to racial violence in U.S. society are critical to the maintenance and preservation of democracy. Advocates for social justice education argue that the political is pedagogical, that racial violence toward communities of color requires an ethical and moral interrogation of our values as educators. Therefore, critics of those who decenter anti-racist pedagogy in a culture of racial violence suggest that their claims to a neutral education rest on unethical terms for social justice.
- Curriculum and Pedagogy
- Education, Cultures, and Ethnicities
- Education and Society
Historical Context of U.S. Racial Violence
Racial violence toward a collective group, such as African Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Chinese, and so forth, emerged out of social, economic, cultural, religious, and demographic changes in American society (Leonard & Leonard, 2003). According to Ira M. Leonard and Christopher C. Leonard, targeted violence toward these groups emerged out of perceived social and cultural differences that contrasted with White norms (Leonard & Leonard, 2003). They argued, “there has always been a close connection between racism and violence, whether directed at Native America Indians, African Americans, Mexican Americans, or Asians” (Leonard & Leonard, 2003, p. 106). They also mentioned that between 1607 and 2001, an estimated 1.5 million–2 million persons within these groups experienced death by targeted violence (Leonard & Leonard, 2003).
The impetus for racial violence in the United States has its roots in the legacy of slavery. Race was a key driver for America’s proclivity toward violence (Leonard & Leonard, 2003). Violence was important to sustain slavery between 1619 and 1865 and Jim Crow (1865–1965), maintaining the economy during the former and reinforcing a racial caste system for the latter institution. Separation from families, mutilation, whippings, beatings, and amputation of feet were some of the normal methods of containment during racial slavery; and lynching in the South, post-slavery, during Jim Crow, was the predominant method of terror to fasten racial control of millions of African Americans (Leonard & Leonard, 2003). It is interesting to note that lynching of Mexicans and Asians in the West also occurred during the Jim Crow period.
According to Kelly Brown Douglas, the roots of racial violence are forged around two social narratives—anti-Blackness and White supremacy (Douglas, 2017). It is the interrelationship and dialectical nature between these narratives upon which the foundations of a violent American identity rests (Douglas, 2017).
On the one hand, in the mind and psyche of Europeans, when they first encountered Africans, their presence signified Blackness, which was constructed as uncivil, beastial, hypersexual, vile, and evil. It was not just skin color; but physical features (e.g., nose, lips, hair) that gave Europeans the idea Africans were a different species, closer to that of the ape, which they encountered at the same time as they met Africans. According to Douglas, the descriptors of Africans from Europeans were reflected in The Oxford English Dictionary (Douglas, 2017).
Similarly, Plous and Williams (1995) in their article, “Racial Stereotypes from the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy,” recounted how the aforementioned narratives circulated in The Encyclopedia Britannica, and were promulgated in the court of public opinion by U.S. presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. These authors asserted Americans and Europeans viewed (through pseudoscience) the physical and mental characteristics of Blacks as aesthetically animal-like, inferior in intellect and without much emotion/feeling, which, they opined, best suited their status to that of the slave.
The negative signifiers that shaped an “anti-Blackness” ideology informed the inverse narrative of White supremacy ideology. Douglas stated that the origins of White supremacist thought can be traced to Tacitus and persons of Northern European origin. Tacitus described Germanic people as racially pure, morally superior, and champions of freedom; they became ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons (Douglas, 2017).
The first chapter, “Violence in American History,” of a report entitled, To Establish Justice to Insure Domestic Tranquility: The Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, provides a historical perspective on practices toward different racial/ethnic groups. The racial and historical analysis from this report reverberates Douglas’s articulation of White supremacist ideology of Anglo-Saxons in action. The report indicates that Anglo-Americans instituted both legal and violent, punitive systems by which immigrants could enter the states through a quota system (U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, 1969). They framed southern and eastern Europeans and Asians as culturally inferior; Native Americans would be restricted to the reservations; Blacks were relegated to enslavement, followed by a racial caste system; and violence was frequently used to push out “ethnic” scapegoats (U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, 1969).
Anglo-Saxons could engage in the aforementioned practices because they believed in racial purity and moral superiority and were freedom lovers, characteristics the English and Germans adopted, and that immigrants brought with them to the United States. Whiteness became the overarching umbrella that erased the ethnic composition of fair skinned immigrants and created a racial identity, built on purity, moral superiority, and exceptionalism, ideals adopted from Anglo-Saxons (Douglas, 2017).
Importantly, there is a symbiotic relationship between anti-Blackness and White supremacy in the practice of racial violence through the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. The social and political fabric and foundations of White American identity rest on production, maintenance, and reinforcement of racial violence through the appraisal of Whiteness and denigration and dehumanization of Blackness.
The 1960s was a violent time for anti-racist leadership in American history. The United States had become a beacon of hope with the passage of the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 (integration of schools), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, paradoxically, such hard fought civil rights legislation was countered with racial violence with the assassinations of Medgar Evers (June 12, 1963), John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963), Malcolm X (February 21, 1965), Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (June 6, 1968). While each of these leaders had different tactics, strategies, and ideological positions on race and racism in the United States, they represented forward momentum of remedying justice for communities of color.
The nation’s targeting of African American leadership for assassination was part of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) program—COINTELPRO. In this program, these leaders were viewed as dangerous threats to national security. The targeting of these leaders from the far right, symbolically and literally, represented attempts to kill off rights and opportunities for North America’s Black citizenry.
The 1980s–1990s ushered in neoliberal policies and practices by the Reagan administration (1981–1989) that were continued by the Bush (1989–1993) and Clinton administration (1993–2001). The public War on Drugs campaign of the Reagan era; the fear mongering of Blackness through Willie Horton ads of the Bush presidential campaign; and the zero tolerance, three strikes crime bill of the Clinton administration fomented a “get tough on crime” atmosphere that antagonized social tension toward the African American community. Racial violence reached its zenith via the public media spectacle of the Rodney King beating on video by multiple cops in Los Angeles, California, in 1992. The sodomy of Abner Louima (1997) and shooting of Amadou Diallo (February 4, 1999) marked a continued pattern of racial violence toward unarmed Black victims, due in no small part to the gross negligence and malpractice of law enforcement officers.
In the 21st century, the powder keg of racial violence would explode with numerous shootings of unarmed Black persons. High-profile police/vigilante shootings of unarmed Black Americans include but are not limited to the following: Sean Bell (2006), Oscar Grant (January 1, 2009), Trayvon Martin (February 26, 2012), Jordan Davis (November 23, 2012), Mike Brown (August 9, 2014), Tamir Rice (November 22, 2014), Walter Scott (April 4, 2015), Alton Sterling (July 5, 2016), Philando Castile (July 6, 2016), Ahmaud Arbery (February 23, 2020), and Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020).
On May 25, 2020, the choking death by knee to the neck of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, for an estimated 8–9 minutes was the catalyzing event that sparked protests around the country and world. The United States had reached a point at which racial violence could no longer be situated as individual isolated incidents in a country that frequently proclaimed equal opportunity and justice for all.
Renewal of Racial Violence Through Trump Politics
The renewal of racial violence in U.S. society is inextricably linked to the ideology, politics, and policies of the Trump administration. His leadership was marked by an aggressive authoritarianism; militarized racism; corporate capitalism; a national security state, rather than the common good; and a hyper-surveillance and policing of communities of color/ethnic minorities, which induced a culture of irrational fear of those cast as other (e.g., Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, African Americans, etc.). Trump’s cabinet reflected these interests, and he along with top White House officials, such as Steve Bannon, played a significant role in rebranding White supremacy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, incidents of hate crimes rose exponentially when Donald Trump took office (Giroux, 2017).
The Trump administration emphasized a police state, rather than a welfare state, which heightened the surveillance, criminalization, and racial violence toward Black and Brown neighborhoods, once familiar in the 1970s (Giroux, 2017). When a police state shapes the culture of the environment, neighborhoods become war zones, police become synonymous with soldiers, and fear, suspicion, hostility, and distrust emerge between the public and persons responsible for public safety (Giroux, 2017). The old mechanisms of punishment and control through slavery convert to new forms of domestic terrorism, witnessed when police exert brute force through tanks, patrolling the streets—countering the public defense of unarmed Black youth, viewed as enemy combatants, gunned down by the police state or vigilantes (Giroux, 2017, p. 900).
Prior to Trump running for office, he revealed his public campaign of racism when the media captured his questioning of then President Obama’s birth certificate. The political implication was the United States voted for an illegitimate president. In addition, Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and those who look like him, were to be viewed as foreign “others,” not of American soil.
White conservatives were particularly concerned with the name Barack “Hussein” Obama, which conveyed false affiliations with the Muslim community, an oppositional politics that challenged North America’s contradictions on the image and characteristics of what it meant to be an “American,” which implied being White. While these claims obviously proved to be false, Trump set the tone for a nativist language that would fuel violent undertones, hatred, and bigotry toward all racialized “others” who didn’t follow his militarized version of White supremacy.
Trump’s election campaign was centered on Whiteness, with his famous slogan, “Make America Great Again.” This was more than a wink and nod to White nationalists and the alt-right movement. It recalled a not-so-subtle time period in which the maintenance of White supremacist ideology was predicated on racial violence, particularly during slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights periods. Subsequently, the historical reference point of American “exceptionalism” and “superiority” came at the expense, exclusion, and displacement of communities of color.
While Trump’s policies and practices were centered on the corporate elite, he presented a dangerous rhetoric that celebrated and trafficked in a dog whistle politics of racism—playing upon a White populism, stoking the fears and anxieties of many underserved communities over scarce resources. His campaign signaled a renewal of the “good old days,” when White American “patriotism” was celebrated, preserved, and protected at all costs.
During his presidency (January 20, 2017–January 20, 2021), Donald Trump became a symbolic figure, through which White nationalists could funnel racist ideologies that created vulnerable conditions for communities of color. For example, one of the earlier spectacles of racial violence during his presidency occurred in August 2017. A group of young White men marched on the University of Virginia campus in protest of the statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee being taken down in Charlottesville, Virginia. They shouted racial signifiers, held tiki torches, and communicated symbolic gestures, offensive to the Jewish community and many communities of color. Nazi artifacts, Confederate flags, and other symbols of hate were visible to the public (Hartzell, 2018).
This public spectacle of racial violence culminated with a person from the alt-right killing one person by driving a car through a crowd of protesters. He injured several other bystanders. Trump’s public silence regarding these events of overt racism and anti-Semitism implicitly conflated resistance to racial hatred and bigotry with overt, symbolic, and material expressions of racial hatred. His viewpoint on race relations was a not-so-subtle, early signal of support for White supremacy and White nationalism.
There has been a series of events, leading up to and during Trump’s presidency, in which racial violence was marked by mass murder. The shooting and killing of nine African American parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof (2015); the massacre of 49 persons in an LGBTQIA nightclub in Orlando, Florida (2016); the murder of 11 Jewish persons at the Tree of Life Congregation—a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—(2018); and the fatal execution of eight Asians in Atlanta, Georgia (2021), highlight the continued racial violence toward communities of color/marginalized groups. These recent events of racial/ethnic/religious/gendered violence have shattered the U.S. myth of a colorblind society.
The insurrection on Capitol Hill by White nationalists (and the alt-right) on January 6, 2021, demonstrated perhaps the greatest public breach of North American democracy in recent times. Donald Trump’s supporters bought into his rhetoric that the 2020 presidential election was hijacked. Subsequently, thousands of “patriots” turned domestic terrorists stormed Capitol Hill, waving Confederate flags, breaking windows, stealing furniture and laptops, to “take back their country,” as Trump had implored them to do (Iglesias, 2021; Moskalenko, 2021). The violence committed on Capitol Hill resulted in more than 140 officers injured and five persons dead (Iglesias, 2021; Moskalenko, 2021).
It is not coincidental that an earlier peaceful protest in June 2020 by the Black Lives Matters Movement on Lafayette Park was met with rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd (Iglesias, 2021), whereas the vast majority of Capitol Hill insurrectionists were able to leave peacefully to their homes, without incident (Iglesias, 2021). Trump’s differential treatment between communities of color and White America through the prism of racial violence was consistent through his presidential term.
Trump’s response toward the domestic terrorists on Capitol Hill versus that toward peaceful protesters of the Black Lives Matter Movement preserves White nationalism and the ideology of White supremacy for the former and reinforces hyper-surveillance of and racial violence toward communities of color, regarding the latter group. These events signal the perpetuation and maintenance of the ever-present color line that W. E. B. Du Bois so eloquently reminds us of in his 1903 classic text, The Souls of Black Folk.
Donald Trump’s renewal of racial violence through White supremacist ideology on North American soil has left an indelible impression on the nation’s citizenry. His leadership calls into question the contradictions and threats to North American democracy; the role of race, racism, and the militarization of White supremacist ideology through pseudo patriotism; and anti-Black violence as an unfortunate normal feature within the social fabric of the United States. Educators can draw from social justice frameworks, such as critical race theory, to learn how racial violence in society can intentionally or unintentionally be reproduced and perpetuated in schools. The critical analysis and transformation of racial politics and racial realities in schools is part of the pedagogical project of keeping democracy alive.
Critiques and Possibilities for Critical Race Theory to Analyze Racial Violence
Over the past 2 decades, we have witnessed epic events of racial violence that threaten U.S. ideals of democracy. Thus, it is impossible for educators to understand how racial violence operates in schools and society without an understanding of the interrelationship between race, racism, and power in North America. In this context, scholars who center their work in anti-racist pedagogy can assist with educators’ critical awareness of the role race, racism, and power plays in relation to racial violence committed on Black youth in the field of education.
One of the key discourses in anti-racist pedagogy is critical race theory (CRT). Critical race theory is a systematic way of understanding how issues of race, racism, and differential relations of power operate as normal, rather than as an aberrational function of society. Its origins emerge from critical legal studies, in which issues of class within the social structure of society were predominantly critiqued within legal doctrine. However, a discourse of race, and the stories or testimonies that can emerge from racial realities, were absent from the presupposed, “objective” field of law. In response, in the 1970s, scholars such as Derrick Bell (founder of CRT), Richard Delgado, and Kimberle Crenshaw developed a framework that bridged scholarship and activism, in which their scholarship and research informed their activism, and vice versa.
Bell focused on constitutional contradictions and the cost of racial remedies in the legal structure of the Constitution (Tate, 1997). Delgado emphasized the social construction of race and how different stories or counter-narratives can be told to impact decisions in the judicial system, among other social structures in society (Tate, 1997). Crenshaw focused on the intersectionality between race, gender, and class (Tate, 1997). These authors also shaped ideas around property rights (e.g., Whiteness as property in the currency and fulfillment of citizenship) and interest convergence—when seemingly “benevolent” gestures toward communities of color align with the larger politics of the nation-state (Tate, 1997). In addition, they rejected neutral, positivist, ahistorical, and a-contextual positions in legal discourse (Ladson-Billings, 1998). Collectively, they reshaped how race and racism could be understood and acted upon within institutional structures and policies, particularly where the law is concerned.
Since that time, CRT has influenced a number of disciplines, including the field of education. Scholars such as Gloria Ladson Billings (1998), William Tate (1997), and Tyrone Howard (see Howard & Navarro, 2016) have been particularly influential in pushing the agenda of critical race theory forward in education. For example, in 1998 Gloria Ladson Billings wrote an article entitled, “Just What Is Critical Race Theory and What’s It Doing in a Nice Field Like Education?” This was a significant article, which articulated the influence of critical race theory in the ongoing development of a critical race theory framework in education.
Ladson-Billings explored such issues as how racial inequity can manifest in a curriculum that preserves and maintains a “master” script that silences the voices and viewpoints of persons of color in the reproduction of knowledge. She also discussed generic instructional strategies, often not conducive to the learning needs of students of color. In addition, she argued that scientific rationalism has been used to stereotype and stigmatize intelligence on assessments, which fail to account for what students of color can learn and do. She also critiqued school funding as a backward property tax formula that rewards high-income communities with school resources that would be better served in densely populated, lower income, Black communities. Finally, issues such as desegregation become counterintuitive, when White communities are offered magnet school opportunities to keep them in school districts, yet separate from more diverse schools in the area. These are but some examples of the issues to be explored when applying critical race theory in education.
In 1998, Ladson-Billings was cautious about the direction of where critical race theory might land in the field of education. She understood centering race in education would be considered controversial and even unpopular. However, she also recognized the importance and practical implications of the work for underserved, underrepresented, and under-resourced communities of color. It is interesting to note that Ladson-Billings predicted critical race theory would be viewed as a radical, leftist discourse that would be antagonizing to the traditional culture of the education system. Presumably, CRT’s critique and challenge to the slow pace of liberalism, adopted during the civil rights movement, was a controversial stance to persons who felt that the integrationist politics of multiculturalism provided equal opportunity for all.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and critical race theory is at the forefront of controversy among the conservative right. Prior to Donald Trump’s exit as president, he issued an executive order banning critical race theory from the workplace. Trump argued that the framework was divisive to the United States. While this executive order has since been rescinded by the Biden administration, several states, such as Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho, and Texas, have taken up Trump’s cause, passing laws to ban critical race theory from K–12 school systems.
The irony is that critical race theory is highly respected, popular, and prevalent in academia. Its value, as an academic discourse, lies in its critical, social, explanatory power to analyze how issues of race and racism can impact systemic inequities in schools (e.g., diversity in leadership, educational policy, curriculum, gifted versus special education placement, instruction, assessment, suspension/expulsion practices, funding, etc.). Scholars and critical educators have used CRT to examine these issues independently—not as part of a system-wide, mandatory curriculum. It has not been advanced as a standardized, core competency of teacher preparation programs or in-service teaching in U.S. K–12 schools. The latter point is significant, regarding policymakers’ assumption of CRT’s use in schools, which is separate from the value and impact that it could have in schools. In other words, policymakers have created an issue around critical race theory that is not there because teachers are unfamiliar with it, given that is is not part of their formal training in preservice teacher education programs in schools/colleges of education nationwide.
The hyper vigilance of the conservative right’s rejection of critical race theory’s presence in K–12 schools is a challenge to all forms of anti-racist pedagogy, writ large. Antagonists of critical race theory generally fear that White communities will be condemned and viewed collectively as morally deficient and blamed for a past they were not part of. They also assert that education should not be taught in a political manner. In other words, educators should teach in an objective, neutral, color-blind context. In addition, they argue that education should not be discriminatory or hold one group as more morally superior to other groups. Furthermore, they contend that meritocracy should not be rejected as a structurally flawed measurement of success but embraced as an appropriate principle of hard work ethic.
Critical race theory, as a framework, holds no superior judgment nor advocates for discriminatory treatment toward any social group or community. However, it critiques discriminatory treatment, experienced by communities of color, which is often provoked by a White supremacist ideology. In addition, critical race theorists argue that the differential treatment experienced by communities of color is evidence that both color blindness and meritocracy are myths. Furthermore, critical race theorists argue that there is a historical continuum, between the past, present, and future, by which issues of race, racism, and power must be contextualized to achieve racial equity in education. Finally, competing ideological positions over what race means in the construction of curriculum and pedagogy at the federal level of racial politics suggest that education, historically and in the present moment, has never been separated from being political.
Despite criticisms, there is great promise and possibility for the use of critical race theory as a framework to analyze racial violence in society and schools. The practical implications for what this means in schools is still a work in progress. However, one cannot understand how racial violence functions without understanding the everyday ordinariness of racism; the social construction of identity; the intersectionality between race, gender, and class; and the structuring of subjective policies and practices that segregate and position many communities of color one-down—Black youth in particular. School systems are situated in a sociocultural and political context by which these tenets of critical race theory help us understand how racial violence toward communities of color is carried out in practice.
Deconstructing Racial Violence on Black Youth in Schools
The study of race and racial violence, over the course of time, requires a study of history, culture, and ideology. Critical scholars for social justice education are particularly concerned with how public social concerns, such as racial violence, can be critiqued and transformed to create a more democratic society. However, this requires a centering of race and racism, to understand the dialectical tension and interrelationship between Whiteness and anti-Blackness; how institutional structures of power can create violent conditions for communities of color; and the role of anti-racist pedagogy for disrupting and transforming violent racist actions. The racial violence exerted on Black children in schools has been particularly pernicious.
Black children as early as 12 years old, or younger, can experience racial violence. For example, Nathaniel Bryan foregrounded critical race theory, BlackCrit theory, and Black male studies to formulate what he terms Black PlayCrit literacies. This is a framework, via race, anti-Blackness, White supremacy, and gender, that studies the ways in which Black male youths’ right to play is denied through anti-Black misandry violence. Black male youths’ bodies are not read in the same manner as their White counterparts. In addition, White teachers can harbor racist stereotypes, contributing to anti-Black misandry violence in classrooms. Anti-Black misandry violence carries a legacy of dehumanization, instituted in slavery, that enters into the present and future, between the negative readings of Black male youth in relation to their denial of play in schools (Bryan, 2021).
Ivan Eugene Watts and Nirmala Erevelles centered their work on the structural violence of schools, particularly in relation to Black and Brown youth. There is a particular social, political, economic, and racialized context of how violence is exerted by schools and responded to by Black and Brown youth. Watts and Erevelles situated their framework within critical race theory and disability studies to discuss how intersections between race, class, gender, and ableism are subject to particular forms of social control—a structural form of violence by schools when students don’t conform to “standard” rules, regulation, and policies (Watts & Erevelles, 2004).
Schools, operating as a structural form of violence, can often function as institutional state apparatuses or internal colonies, where students are segregated and sorted into classrooms, alternative schools, or where officials wait for them to graduate or they drop out (Watts & Erevelles, 2004). Black and Brown youth enter this cycle of structural violence, in which subjective behavior measures of discipline, according to social constructs around “deviancy” or labels, such as emotionally/intellectually challenged, cast students as dangerous threats to the school environment.
Students of color often experience state-sanctioned violence in the streets in ways that are similar to their differential treatment toward racial violence happening in schools. There has been a longstanding issue with Black students being punished (e.g., suspension and expulsion) at higher percentage rates than their White peers, often for the same or lesser offenses committed (Love, 2016). The racial violence occurring on the streets (e.g., police brutality) to Black and Brown folk is mirroring violence toward communities of color in schools. However, Bettina Love argued that there is a spiritual form of murder at play—assaulting the mind, soul, and body through systematic and institutional forms of racism, and ushering Black children into the school-to-prison pipeline (Love, 2016).
This spirit murder (Love, 2016) and physical violence toward Black youth often occurs when the bodies of Black folk are racially criminalized through fixed ideologies and narratives of being considered as dangerous threats. It is interesting to note that the media have played a significant role in representing fixed ideologies and narratives of Black youth as dangerous, creating a culture that would render their bodies more vulnerable to racial violence.
Crime, sports, and entertainment are the typical, predominant themes associated with Black persons in mediums such as newsprint or television (Prier, 2017). Representations of crime, in particular, are often distorted between Black and White communities in these cultural forms. In addition, urban films, produced by White, multinational media corporations, have a history of socially constructing the Black male image as “dangerous” and “crime-prone” individuals in need of military style intervention (or racial violence) in schools, situated as “war zones” (Prier, 2017).
When the primary cultural reference point of knowledge about communities of color is the media for many White teachers, prior to coming into contact with Black children, they are vulnerable to acting upon prototypical schemas—commonly associated stereotypes about the criminalization of Black students that have become normalized in American society. When teachers act upon a set of distorted narratives, images, and symbols, they may engage in disproportionate, punitive practices, in which detention, suspension, and expulsion serve as the prerequisites for the miseducation of and racial violence toward Black youth. More detailed discussion of the role of the media in relation to punitive or violent practices toward African American male youth can be found in The Media War on Black Male Youth in Urban Education (Prier, 2017).
In 2010, Anthony and Keffrelyn Brown conducted a literary analysis of 19 social studies textbooks (5th, 8th, and 11th grades) in Texas, grounded in cultural memory and critical race theory, to analyze coded themes within racial violence, across slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights/Black Power eras. What was consistent in their analysis was that events of racial violence, committed by individuals or group actors, were individualized as autonomous and aberrational, “crazed” persons/groups—the result of a few bad citizens.
In addition, Brown and Brown (2010) argued that much of the texts disconnected the perpetrators or actors from the formal or informal ways in which they were tied to local, state, or federal entities who possessed the authority to relegate or deregulate such violence toward the African American community. Subsequently, Brown and Brown argued that a major flaw in the representation of racial violence in social studies textbooks was the authors’ failure to articulate the institutional, systemic, social, political, and economic ways in which racial violence impacted public life and democracy for African Americans (Brown & Brown, 2010).
Teacher education programs have presented a tepid discussion of racial violence in social studies curriculum (Brown & Brown, 2010). Faculty and students tend to have a different cultural memory for how issues of race, racism, and racial violence from the past can impact contemporary events in the present-day context (Brown & Brown, 2010). The void between instruction and lived experience with racial realities in society (among faculty and educators), impacts how students draw meaning of history, the social and historical context that shapes it, and how teachers can make history relevant to the social, historical, and everyday lived experiences of students’ lives.
The literature regarding racial violence committed on Black youth is part of a historical continuum—between past and present contexts, where the slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and civil rights/Black Power eras loom large over the complexities of how Black children are treated in the early 21st century in schools and the larger society. They have transitioned from property to an estranged form of citizenship, where their rights or denial thereof have been determined by the degree to which they conform to the normalized practices of school and society. Keep in mind, the racial optics of their being (e.g., Blackness) is often the threat or precursor by which racial violence is carried out in different forms—both structural and spiritual. The punitive practices of racial violence Black youth experience in schools and on the streets require a deeper understanding of anti-racist pedagogy in education.
Racial violence sits at the very foundation and emergence of the United States. In addition, racial violence is inextricably linked to anti-Blackness, Whiteness, and White supremacist ideology. These are social constructs by which theoretical frameworks, such as critical race theory, prove to be of great value in the production of anti-racist pedagogy and social justice education. The transition of critical race theory’s utility in the field of law to the field of education offers educational researchers a more aggressive, epistemological lens than previous, genuine efforts and hard-fought gains of multicultural education. This is an important distinction, given that the structuring of racial violence in schools and society requires a more activist, scholarly approach to anti-racist pedagogy than simply inclusive education in the curriculum or education reform.
Attempts to decenter race in education through the passage of laws banning critical race theory in education nullify progressive efforts, between educators and students, to disrupt thought processes that act on racist ideologies, in which communities of color confront racial violence on a daily basis. The scholarly literature on critical race theory offers a systemic analysis of how racial inequity is embedded in institutions, such as schools. This is particularly important when and where different forms of racial violence in these institutions encumber communities of color.
Advances made in critical race theory (or critical studies of race) since the 1970s now offer scholars opportunities to read racial violence through inequitable, subjective measures of discipline; distorted portrayals of systemic racial violence and agency in the history curriculum; majoritarian, stock, narratives in media; the denial of play at the early childhood education level; and even spirit murder on the mind, body, and soul. When critical race theory is absent from academia or schools, scholars and teachers are void of the intellectual tools to carry out anti-racist pedagogy in practice.
Finally, the Trump administration set forth a political agenda by which race (e.g., Whiteness and anti-Blackness) and a mainstream brand of White supremacist ideology (e.g., alt-right) would play a central role in leadership decisions. In addition, he tried to exert such an ideology by placing critical race theory as a threat to American ideals of patriotism. Trump’s false warrant to these claims encourages a nativist, ethnocentrism—steeped in White supremacy—whose ideology is inadequate to address the national context of mass murders, police shootings, and “vigilante” justice exerted on communities of color. Trump’s contradiction of terms, regarding his professed North American ideals of patriotism versus White dissent and disdain toward communities of color, provides a rational for the viability and validity of critical race theory in U.S. society.
Although Donald Trump is no longer in office, the legacy of his ideals remains with far-right zealots who wish to “take back their country.” For example, at the time of this writing, news reports caution U.S. citizens that a rally may take place on September 18, 2021, on Capitol Hill, by pro-insurrectionists, seeking justice for those who have been charged with crimes from the January 6 insurrection of 2021. Groups from the far right, such as the Proud Boys, are expected to be in attendance. This news is consistent with critical race theory’s stance, that racism is a permanent fixture in society and that we must trace and track its effects within institutions, policies, and social structures to dismantle and transform the manifestation of its social realties. The work of critical race theory in educational research and practice is critical to the dismantling of racial violence exerted on communities of color in U.S. society and schools.
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