In February of 2019, a positive behavior support coach who was employed by the district in Madison, Wis., allegedly physically assaulted and ripped the hair out of the head of an 11-year-old Black girl. In the same school district, several teachers and substitutes have been fired or resigned earlier this academic year after reports they used racial slurs in the classroom. In the neighboring school district of Middleton, Wis., a school bus driver was fired after the district confirmed he had slapped a Black child. All these incidents in Wisconsin happened within months of each other.
In Binghamton, N.Y., four 12-year-old Black girls reported they were strip-searched at their school for acting too hyper and giddy in January. School officials likely assumed the girls were on drugs because their Black joy was unrecognizable. Of course, no drugs were found and the district denies strip searching the girls. However, the district does admit that asking students to remove some of their clothing is in compliance with a “sobriety check”. The girls’ parents dispute the district’s claims, and a civil lawsuit from the parents and a third-party investigation are still ongoing.
Last Halloween, 14 staff members at Middleton Heights Elementary, 30 miles west of Boise, Idaho, were involved in dressing up as Mexicans and the border wall for Halloween. The district’s superintendent issued a public apology and placed the teachers on paid administrative leave.
Sadly, incidents like these fill my social-media timeline on a weekly basis. With regularity, school districts’ spokespersons portray these incidents as isolated events, the work of a few overzealous, culturally insensitive but “good” teachers. These responses never acknowledge how racism is systemic, institutionalized, and structural, or how racism breeds and is maintained by violence.
Physical and psychological attacks on Black and Brown children’s bodies and culture are more than just racist acts by misguided school educators; they are the spirit murdering of Black and Brown children. This type of violence toward children of color is less visceral and seemingly less tragic than physical acts of murder at the hands of White mobs and White self-appointed vigilantes, the shooting of unarmed people of color by police officers in their own homes and communities, or the senseless violence in some Black communities, which are all conditions of racism.
What I am talking about is a slow death, a death of the spirit, a death that is built on racism and intended to reduce, humiliate, and destroy people of color.
Legal scholar Patricia Williams coined the term “spirit murdering” to argue that racism is more than just physical pain; racism robs people of color of their humanity and dignity and leaves personal, psychological, and spiritual injuries. Racism is traumatic because it is a loss of protection, safety, nurturance, and acceptance—all things children need to enter school and learn.
The spirit murdering of Black and Brown children leaves a trail of unanswered questions: How do children learn after being physically assaulted or racially insulted by a person who is supposed to protect them, love them, and teach them? How does a Black or Brown child live, learn, and grow when her spirit is under attack at school, and her body is in danger inside the classroom? How does a parent grapple with this reality? How are children’s imagination and humanity stunted by the notion that they are never safe in their schools because of the color of their skin or the God they pray to? Where does the soul go to heal when school is a place of trauma?
School officials continue to misdiagnose the spirit murdering happening in their schools every day, even in a time when folks are screaming in the streets that Black Lives Matter, demanding immigration rights, calling to end police brutality, standing up to Islamophobia and transphobia, and demanding racial justice. When schools mirror our society’s hate, educational justice becomes out of our reach.
In 2016, Bettina L. Love, the author of this Commentary, spoke to Education Week about African-American girls and discipline. Here’s what she had to say:
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as The ‘Spirit Murdering’ of Black and Brown Children