Katherine Kersten’s contemptible March 18 commentary “Undisciplined” was yet another attempt to create fear of people of color in order to further dangerous and racist policies — in this case a fear of students of color in order to instill ever-harsher school discipline policies.
Yet Minnesotans can see through her scare tactics, her misleading claims and her cherry-picking of data.
Kersten begins by making up a false argument: that those working to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions believe that racist teachers are to blame. In her mind, there has to be someone to blame, so rather than teachers she blames the students of color themselves, allegedly proving her case by selecting a few incidents.
This is the typical dog whistle meant to portray people of color as either lazy or violent. The truth is there is no one person or group to blame. Disparities in school suspensions exist for the same reason we have mass incarceration of young people of color: an incredible wealth gap between white people and people of color, disparities in rates of homeownership and much more — the pervasive, centuries-long history of institutionalized and systemic white supremacy and racism.
This is not the time for a blame game. This is a societal reality whose existence and solution involves every one of us.
Kersten then brings out the tired statistics about out-of-wedlock births and the myth that fathers of color are not involved in their kids’ lives. In fact, a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black fathers are actually more involved in playing with, reading and feeding their children than are white fathers, whether or not they live with their children.
What’s most important to know here is what Kersten conveniently left out: that schools and districts around the country are implementing policies to reduce racial disparities in suspensions using research-based practices such as restorative justice and circle processes that are tremendously effective. They provide young people and educators with the chance to see one another as humans, to look at the reasons behind actions, and to seek out solutions that result not only in reduced violence but also in greater understanding of how to sustain strong communities of support and trust.
Furthermore, in the St. Paul Public Schools in particular, where 82 percent of the teaching staff is white while 79 percent of students are children of color, the district and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers are trying to take on the real work of supporting teachers to own and understand the role that white privilege and institutionalized racism play in the struggles we face in public education.
Scare tactics and dog whistles won’t work any longer. People are wising up and rising up.
Julia Hill is a reading specialist in the St. Paul Public Schools, and Dana Bennis is director of learning at the Institute for Democratic Education in America. They live in Minneapolis.