Ferguson, A. A. (2000). Bad boys: Public schools in the making of Black masculinity. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Jason Fritz

"Punishment is a fruitful site for a close-up look at routine institutional
practices, individual acts, and cultural sanctions that give life and power to
racism in a school setting that not only produces massive despair and failure
among black students, but that increasingly demonizes them" (p.19-20).

There is a name for it in every school: the "in-school suspension room," a "time-out-room," or - as the elementary school students depicted in Ann Arnett Ferguson's research call it - the "punishing room." It is a space set aside for those youth who have broken or challenged school policy in an aggressive manner. However, such spaces are most often inundated with males - the majority of them African American. "Why is that?," one might ask. What is/are the reason(s) for this problematic phenomenon in American educational institutions?

Through her immersion in the lives of twenty-five 5th and 6th grade African American boys at Rosa Parks Elementary School, Ferguson probes for the seemingly elusive answers. She successfully illuminates how institutional procedures - such as those regarding discipline, which are often assumed by many to be objective - are fraught with an alarming degree of subjectivity and become a medium through which a racial order is perpetuated. Discipline decisions made by adults in the schools are often based on teachers' "perceptions of student appearance, behavior, and social background" (p. 53-54). These "discipline issues" with students are no longer seen as individual encounters but rather as more of a product of societal perceptions at large. The implications are enormous; the scene of the all-male African American core group of students in the school discipline room is analogous to systems of incarceration throughout the United States.

African American male students in Ferguson's study are divided into two groups of ten: the "schoolboys" and the "troublemakers." According to the teachers and administrators at Rosa Parks, the troublemakers "had been suspended at home at least once over the course of the year for school infractions such as fighting, obscenity, or bringing toy guns to school" (p. 9). Those students that teachers and administrators consider to be schoolboys "had occasionally been handed a referral slip, and none of them had ever been suspended" (p. 9). Although the behaviors of both groups suggests a certain degree of difference, Ferguson's observations of these two groups of students reflect far more similarities in their in- and out-of-school experiences. Initially, Ferguson believes that these groups will be polarized; however, as the school year progresses, she realizes how the schoolboys are always on the verge of becoming troublemakers. She argues that, as African American males, schoolboys are guilty by association and - in the view of teachers and administrators - always one step away from becoming a troublemaker. In any given situation, a schoolboy has a greater possibility of being sent to the "punishing room" for an infraction than do females or students of other races.

Many of the schoolboys did, in fact, end up in the "punishing room." For the troublemakers and the schoolboys, their difficulties are a direct result of identity formation. Each of these pre-adolescent males is growing up in a society that commonly portrays African American males in a negative manner, especially through the media. These boys must negotiate their Black masculinity and decide for themselves what it means to be Black and male in a society that already assumes, labels, and makes decisions based on reactions to stereotypes rather than on an individuals' merit. The pressures and dilemmas these groups face around race- and gender-based identity construction is always a palpable force that works against these students maintaining a commitment to schooling. This is why schools across the nation witness the continual attrition of "schoolboys" as they join the ranks of "troublemakers."

In addition to problematic school discipline procedures, Ferguson points out that the language that is used and valued in schools is also inextricably linked to institutionalized forms of racism. Received Standard English is the accepted norm in school classrooms and any deviation from this language form is typically frowned upon. Ferguson makes a compelling case for the inclusion of Black English in the school lives of the schoolboys and troublemakers because its exclusion, "involves a violent and painful assault on their very sense of self and on those with whom they most clearly identify that can inflict long-term psychic damage to self-esteem" (p. 207). These African American males grow up speaking Black English and associate this language with people and moments that are central to their lives. To be educated in an environment where this language is viewed as inferior and is constantly corrected is another blow to who these students are. For many of these students, adopting Received Standard English is equivalent to distancing themselves from family and friends and the experiences that form who they are as people. Many of the students in Ferguson's study use both Received Standard English and Black English, talking one way in the classroom and another outside of it. Again, the troublemakers and schoolboys are negotiating critical aspects of their lives at a very young age. These young men learn that the way that they have spoken all of their lives is considered incorrect and "bad." As a result, the whole "bad boy" identity becomes one that is nearly inescapable for these young men. A young man who takes pride in the language of his culture is automatically labeled as uneducated or as one who does not pay attention in English class. In reality, however, these students have a heightened sense of language and make conscious decisions in how they speak.

Most of the African American males in Ferguson's study go to the punishing room because of the way they reacted to a particular confrontation with a teacher or an administrator. In many cases, these reactions, "involved a bodily display of 'stylized sulking' as a face-saving device...for boys, the display involved hands crossed at the chest, legs spread wide, head down, and gestures such as a desk pushed away" (p.68). Though teachers and administrators view this behavior as defiant and disrespectful, these schoolboys and troublemakers are acting out in a culturally-specific manner. Unfortunately, this manner is regarded as more threatening than those expressions of defiance by students of other races. This particular manifestation of disapproval by these young men is highly frowned upon, and the implications for acting out in such a manner are devastating to their futures. Ferguson states that, "cultural modes of emotional displays by kids become significant factors in decisions by adults about their academic potential and influence decisions by adults about the kinds of academic programs in which they will be placed" (p.68). In other words, the language, neighborhood and family histories, and non-verbal cues of these schoolboys and troublemakers are considered when determining the course of disciplinary action that will be taken after they have acted out.

The behaviors and language of these young men are part of their identity formation. However, their cultural expressions of disapproval are viewed as potentially more dangerous, and their language is viewed as incorrect and problematic by teachers and administrators. This is why these students are placed in "punishing rooms" and the lower-tracks of schools across the United States. Ferguson calls attention to the fact that those who work in schools might be unknowingly (or knowingly) perpetuating a form of institutionalized racism that oppresses and mars the identity construction of young Black men. Ferguson points out that these young men are hyper aware of their identity formation; they perform their masculinity through dramatic performances and disruptions in class and they make a name for themselves by using fighting as a strategy to recoup their sense of self and to define themselves as creative, powerful, and competent in the face of the degradation they face in school.

For Ferguson, the only way to eradicate these forms of institutionalized racism is to restructure the entire school system. She states that meaningful changes might take place by changing the curriculum, establishing smaller classes, Saturday tutoring, and year-round schooling. In addition, "antiracist training for student teachers" and "mutual respect between adults and youth" (p.235) is essential in any school system that hopes to educate all of its students fairly and equally. Schools that are restructured in this way, she argues, would help bring new meaning to the term Black masculinity.


Jason Fritz is a student in the Teacher Education Program at the University of
Pennsylvania. He has served as a staff member and board member for A Better
Chance, Inc. in Lower Merion, a non-profit that enriches the lives of
underprivileged youth. His current interest is in teaching secondary English.
He can be reached at [email protected]
.

 

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