Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Zero Tolerance and the Politics of Racial Injustice

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Zero Tolerance and the Politics of Racial Injustice

Article excerpt

Zero tolerance is an education policy and practice that undermines the life chances of students, particularly African American students. The practice of zero tolerance and its consequences on students of color cannot be understood outside of the criminal justice practice of zero tolerance, its consequences on African Americans and communities of color, and the dominating political climate that rationalizes social exclusion. Zero tolerance needs to be opposed democratically at both the classroom and community levels. In conclusion, Raymond Williams's concept of "equality of being" is interpreted to provide a set of principles that can be appropriated in developing democratic opposition to zero tolerance and creating safe and democratic learning environments.

"The content of education, as a rule, is the content of our actual social relations, and will only change as part of a wider change" (Williams, 1983, p. 310).

However zero tolerance might be defined and supported as an idea, the practice of it is much less defensible in a democratic society. Whether zero tolerance is the guiding principle in law enforcement or the catchphrase for punitive disciplinary practices in schools, the use of zero tolerance is always exclusionary, which is to claim that the victims of the practice are denied a basic equality of being, the foundation of any substantive and vibrant democracy. The conception and execution of zero tolerance are instructive in how equality of being is denied to African American youth (and class minorities). "Zero tolerance" in its conception implies one-way communication or domination: One powerful group, or alliance of dominant social and political actors, sets the stage for "appropriate" ways of seeing, feeling, being, thinking, acting and relating in public-spaces, namely public schools. This not only suggests that the proponents of the idea of zero tolerance marginalize a priori behaviors in which their racial group (or class) does not-or would not have reason to-engage, but also that they have a vested interest in doing so. Consequently, zero tolerance in its execution defines and polices the parameters of "permissible" behaviors; it answers "questions of who belongs where, what categories mean, and what effect they have on people's life chances and opportunities" (Lewis, 2003, p. 285). This not only suggests that the execution of zero tolerance excludes certain students as social and political actors from schools (and, as will be demonstrated, society), but also that other students, teachers, and administrators learn what it means-under what conditions and to whose benefit-to be a citizen. Like any disciplinary ritual, zero tolerance is a controlling pedagogical practice that shapes the way students, teachers, and administrators can intervene in school life and produces visions of future social relations (see Butchart, 1998).

While my central interests are in demonstrating how the legislation, adoption, and practice of zero tolerance deny African American (and other) youth a basic equality of being, and to provide a philosophical framework from which democratic social relations in schools can be constructed, the general practice of zero tolerance in schools indicates much about the rapport between public schooling and the tendencies of force in "our actual social relations." Thus, I will briefly sketch the broader social, political, and economic climate that rationalizes the exclusionary practices of zero tolerance in schools. I will then provide an extensive account of the legislation and adoption processes of zero tolerance, the rationality underlying it, and the antidemocratic consequences incurred primarily by African American youth. As will be shown, the practice of zero tolerance is demonstrative of the pitfalls to applying a general principle to specific needs of disparate school contexts. Therefore, I will interpret Williams's (1983) concept of "equality of being"; not as a systematic alternative to zero tolerance, but for the set of principles that can be appropriated from it in local efforts directed at producing safe and democratic learning environments. …

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