Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why the black boys are fighting...

By Andrew E. Colarusso

I'm no social psychologist. I'm no anthropologist, ethnographer or doctoral analyst by any means. I'm only an (astute) observer and it is from observation that I write this article. I go on no authority outside of my own experience, which is to say that my analysis and conclusion is highly subjective. 

I've been contemplating: what is at the root of violence in inner city public high schools? Particularly among the boys. Having recently had the honor and privilege of co-teaching alongside my high school creative writing teacher, I was witness to some disturbing phenomena. Between classes (during passing as they saytwo boys locked in combat and goaded on by peers, spilled into our classroom. My first impulse was to pull them apart before some serious damage was done, but the teacher cautioned my doing so. For one, who knows what could happen--I could be seriously injured. Two, if teaching professionals are to actively try and prevent fighting, they can also be held liable for unintended consequences. Three, it is always implied that that's what the security guards are for. One boy grabbed the other boy forcefully by the collar, pushing him hard through a few desks and up against a chalkboard. The aggressor had a twisted grin on his face while the boy being pushed against the wall wore a fearfully helpless expression. Soon I had the impression that this fight was not so much a fight as it was a demonstration--of power, of authority, of aggression, of an imposed social order. 

Two things are visibly certain: 1) More and more black and latino students are being placed in remedial classes, even in instances when they are not developmentally delayed and 2) black and latino students in inner city public high schools are more likely to experience violence from peers and authority figures (teachers, police officers) on a daily basis. These phenomena, happening within the New York City public school system, speak to greater trends in politics, justice and economics (both local and national). But why? There is certainly a dedicated literature to this discussion and there are myriad reasons why this is happening. It isn't any single person's fault and it's not something that can be completely eradicated. We have to acknowledge that an element of horseplay will always be a part of male development. 

For a long time I kept thinking of that boy's grin as he pressed the other student. For him, there must have been an element of pleasure in the encounter. Had this scuffle been precipitated by a financial or verbal dispute, the consequences would have been more grave and both parties would have had cause to be more aggressive. This dispute was one sided--something more like bullying. 

They are both being conditioned into a vicious cycle of arousal, aggression and fear. Where are their outlets? I played sports to keep myself from going overboard--a lot of students do. But some students never get that chance. 

As I've witnessed it, the question we must ask: Where are these students receiving affection and physical attention? The exigencies of a growing body cannot be ignored and actuarial science (while it may be effective in illustrating correlative trends) cannot measure the individual's need. It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child--where is the village? Are these students being reminded, with a kiss and hug, with encouraging words, that they are loved, that they have purpose? Is it a household with an absentee parent or parents who are overworked? 

So much of what we know to be success and resilience comes from a solid foundation of love. We, as adults, must not be afraid to responsibly engage our students and challenge them to grow. We must encourage those younger than us to aspire to greater heights, even when they make mistakes. It doesn't hurt to give a student, a young brother or sister, an affirming hug, an embrace, a handshake. These young men are conditioned to withdraw from that sort of positive affection and affirmation with shame (NO HOMO, for example). Many respond more readily to violence and disciplinary reproach--so much so that they come to expect it as a part of their reality. And unfortunately it is a part of their reality.

To properly discipline a child, reproach must be tempered with love and understanding. Otherwise it's just abuse. So when are we going to come together as a village and mend our wounded places?

More reading:
The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education by Pedro A. Noguera
"Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria" by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving by Donna Britt