Assumption of Criminality as a Microaggression

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The last few of my posts have been addressing the 10 types of microaggressions. So far, we have talked about being treated as an alien in one’s own land, the ascription or denial of intelligence according to racial characteristics, and color blindness. In this post, we will talk about the assumption of criminal status based on race.

When we talk about the assuming criminal status based on race, people usually give the examples of clutching one’s purse as soon as a person of color appears or locking one’s car door only when a group of people of color come by. However, assuming criminal status according to racial characteristics also happens at our schools.

The assumption of criminal status can be seen in the policy differences enacted at schools with a greater number of students of color compared to schools with mostly White and Asian students. For instance, public schools with more minority students are more likely to require uniforms and clear backpacks (or no backpack at all). Similarly, students at schools with more minority students are more likely to be subjected to random metal detector checks. And only at schools where at least 51% of students are minority are there ever daily metal detector checks.

Furthermore, punishments also are also meted out with a strong correlation to race. For example, throughout the country, students of color are suspended for their behavior more often than White students. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the Learning Policy Institute analyzed data from the 2015-16 school year for almost every school district nationwide and found that the rate of suspension for students of color was significantly higher than the rate of suspension for White students. In fact, they found that for every 100 students, Black students lost 103 days of school due to suspensions whereas White students only lost 21 days of school per 100 students.

This disparity is often magnified when examining data for Emergent Bilinguals, who are largely students of color. Teachers often blame “those Spanish kids” for discipline issues in the school even when they have nothing to do with events in question. (Hint: Only students from Spain are actually considered Spanish, not the students from Latin American countries whom they are usually referencing.) A study using data from the State Department of Education in Oregon also found that at Middle and High School, students identified as Emergent Bilingual were more likely to be disciplined than students who were English proficient. Additionally, a study done at Minnesota State University found that although White and Asian students are usually suspended at a lower rate than Hispanics and Blacks, when classified as Emergent Bilingual, their chances of being suspended doubled!

The assumption of criminality of young students of color and Emergent Bilinguals is only likely to increase as we emerge out of the Great Pandemic of 2020. Students of color and Emergent Bilinguals have been most impacted by the pandemic. They have lost more loved ones, experienced more economic hardships, and have had more limited access to schooling due to a lack of child care, the need to work, and/or the lack of connectivity. The trauma associated with these experiences are likely to increase misbehavior, which according to the US Department of Education, means that unless schools change their practices, the students, rather than receiving the love and support from the adults whom they are supposed to trust, will receive even greater hostility.

For schools to change their practices, there must be a reckoning on the part of each educator with their own implicit biases that causes this assumption of criminality of our youth of color. Whether or not we are willing to do this remains to be seen.

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