Monday, September 16, 2013

"None of the above": The school-to-prison pipeline and the new Jim Crow.

"None of the Above," the latest production from Hidden Voices, is a truly riveting critique of one of the most troubling trends of our time: the systematic bias against children of color in school disciplinary procedures, under the guise of objective "zero tolerance" policies. Under these policies, something as innocent as bringing a Midol to class for a friend could well be the trigger of a suspension, then an appearance in court--and so the school-to-prison pipeline begins.

You can read much more about this devastating phenomenon from such sources as the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. But if you haven't seen the Hidden Voices production, you're missing the human dimension to all of the statistics.

Written by Lynden Harris and directed by Kathryn Williams, the 40-page script was distilled from hundreds of pages of workshop recordings produced over a period of thee years. The performance is in the format of a radio call-in show. Moderator "Ernest Justice" (Philip Smith) deftly manages a conversation with student activists, a defense attorney, a Teach for America teacher, one very outspoken student, other teachers, a restorative justice worker, and other well-intentioned folks as well as call-in listeners, not all of whom are so sympathetic. By the time the evening is over, it is hard not to feel a little numb, and not a little powerless to change such overwhelming structural forces.

And yet doing nothing is the last thing that Hidden Voices intends to accept. "Do one thing," says the program copy, listing two pages of possibilities. A few of them:

Join the Raise the Age movement. North Carolina is one of only two states that charge children for crimes as if they were adults.

Get involved in the Restorative Justice movement. Help give juvenile offenders and their victims an opportunity to address the harms caused productively.

Tutor a child. Mentor a child.

Talk to someone about what's happening in the schools. Reach out. Listen.

If you missed it, there are a few other chances: next weekend at the UNC Stone Center, and Oct. 5 on the Duke campus.

For me, "None of the Above" raises an opportunity to mention a book that fundamentally changed my understanding of our world--sometimes it's not an exaggeration to say that about a book. Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness opened my eyes to terrible racial injustices in the criminal justice system that extend all the way from discipline in the school room to the administration of the death penalty.

Our "color-blind" laws are of little help--in fact they become rather confounding--when we grapple with the Trayvon Martin murder, for example. Last Thursday night, the Town's Justice in Action Committee hosted a panel discussion on "Lessons Learned from the Trayvon Martin case." The room was packed. Our police chief, Chris Blue, explained the procedures he has in place that ask his officers to self-check against racial profiling. Let's hope it's working.

And let's keep talking.

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