'Methodology of Oppression' Is Unacceptable
The extensive media coverage given to recent events at Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., serves to focus our attention on the ongoing crises in public education and to remind us of the need for compassionate, supportive programs for disadvantaged young people.
Eastside's principal, Joe Clark, faces pending charges of insubordination and of unfairly expelling 66 students who, according to Mr. Clark, were "too old" and too deficient in academic credits. Public opinion, sadly predictable, has supported Mr. Clark's methods: A survey in USA Today found that respondents backed him at a rate of 100 to 1, and the White House offered him a job.
In order to judge Mr. Clark's actions, we must evaluate the education system and social climate that have conditioned them. The political and educational leadership that has tolerated the decline of education for many years must be held accountable for acquiescing in the failure of many schools in low-income, predominantly minority communities. Local school-board members and other elected officials who have presided over this educational deprivation are ultimately responsible for creating and perpetuating a system where deteriorating conditions demand immediate reform and drastic measures.
Such circumstances might seem to have dictated and justified the actions of Mr. Clark, who, upon entering Eastside High six years ago, immediately expelled 300 students he identified as detrimental to the campus.
It is, in fact, a hypocritical system that now condemns Mr. Clark for behavior it previously condoned: the wholesale removal of certain students from the campus. By allowing schools in disadvantaged communities to decay--by tolerating injustice--this system has promoted an atmosphere requiring "management by crisis." In such an environment, Mr. Clark's methods are seen as a solution, as long as he doesn't go "too far"; in this instance, he acted without the permission of the board.
Is it possible that the outrage of the local board results more directly from the procedural and legal flaws in the expulsion process, than from a sincere concern for the educational future of the students? Politicians who condemn the process but offer no alternatives are equally guilty of educational cruelty.
The methods used by Mr. Clark, including his instruments of "control"--the bullhorn and baseball bat that he carries through the halls of the school--are merely symbols of acceptable oppression, designed for use on less-powerful, predominantly black students. These tools, along with the strategy of removing students, are praised because we feel comfortable dealing with "those children" in harsh and demeaning ways.
The primary victims are the students themselves, not only those who are expelled and denied educational opportunity--guaranteed by New Jersey law until the age of 21--but also those who applaud and defend the action. It has always been an unfortunate consequence of oppression that the oppressed tend to depend on and defend their own oppression through lack of knowledge or belief that other methods are acceptable. If the bullhorn, baseball-bat, and multiple-dismissal philosophy were attempted in an affluent, middle-class community, the perpetrator would be ousted before the next weekly board meeting.
The fact that Mr. Clark is black serves to deflect the charge of racism toward other blacks; yet this is precisely what is being practiced in the guise of protecting the school. More easily employed against non-affluent black people than against other groups, these oppressive methods become acceptable when the oppressor is also black.
The immediate and long-range consequences of expelling students must be considered. The overwhelming majority of those expelled were young black men, who as a group are traditionally perceived as threatening within our society. Who will be surprised when the offspring of these uneducated, miseducated, expelled young people renew the cycle at Eastside High School in 15 years?
Black children, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged circumstances, deserve support, not condemnation. The appropriate educational offerings for them should be liberating and compassionate, not adversarial and combative.
The students of Eastside High who were expelled for being "too old" were not dropouts. Their continued presence suggests that they were still willing to try despite previous failure. With the dropout rate already disproportionately high for black students, why force them out? Why not introduce support systems that may not currently exist, and use the media attention to organize and galvanize the community on behalf of these unsuccessful students?
As principal of a large, inner-city high school serving only black and Hispanic students, I can sympathize with the need to turn a negative atmosphere into a positive one. Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles faced similar problems a few years ago. But through nurturing and compassionate systems, we were able to realize a significant improvement. These programs included peer and group counseling, support and education programs for parents, weekend tutorials, efforts to reduce truancy and tardiness, emphasis on academic excellence at all levels, and nonviolence training for students. Given the success of such approaches, I find it impossible to empathize with anyone who believes that mass removal of students from school is a solution to any problem.
Furthermore, Mr. Clark's own willingness to be a public symbol of repression should not encourage others to imitate his style. Demanding, as cameras roll, that a young black male student refer to him as "Principal" Clark, while referring to himself as "Batman" and accepting the title of "Crazy Joe" from a television commentator, sends mixed messages. Why does Mr. Clark insist on pseudo-public respect and subservience from the minority students over whom he holds authority, while willingly accepting and encouraging demeaning nomenclature from other authority figures in the majority culture? Is it possible that he has more respect for the latter than the former?
Probably the ultimate tragedy is Mr. Clark himself, who is victimized by a system he did not create. As a victim, he looks for others to victimize in his attempt to make the system operable.
Also participating in the conspiracy, the media demonstrate an unhealthy interest in portraying the negative aspects of Mr. Clark's administration and encouraging him to posture publicly with the language, symbols, and methodology of oppression. Why are we not told of the positive, preventive programs at Eastside High? Is it because it is more "newsworthy" to show the irrational and controversial? The students and teachers in the school deserve better.
During a recent appearance with Mr. Clark on ABC-tv's "Nightline," I was asked by the host, Ted Koppel, in an exasperated tone, "When do you give up, Mr. McKenna, on students who are not performing?" I responded, "Never." I am sure that Mr. Koppel, who seemed disbelieving, would better understand if it were his child in a similar situation. Our schools and educators can never afford to abandon our students, any more than our hospitals and doctors can terminate care for their patients.
Our children need our love and support, and black children need reparation as well. Even though they may give up on themselves, we must never give up on them. To do so is educationally dangerous and morally unforgivable.
Vol. 7, Issue 21, Page 36Published in Print: February 17, 1988, as 'Methodology of Oppression' Is Unacceptable