As I sat in an airport rental car center waiting for my husband to reach the agency’s counter, I noticed two toddlers pull on the stanchions used to keep customers in queue. The boys’ guardian got up from her seat, where she was holding a baby, to reprimand the boys several times. Still, the toddler boys tried to swing their little bodies on the retracting belt barriers. Their play went on for at least 20 minutes. Eventually, they pulled the whole mechanism down, their bodies falling to the floor. Their guardian sprang quickly to her feet and, using her one empty hand, forcefully grabbed one boy at a time and shoved them in the chairs next to her.
None of the customers in line seemed to be irritated. They didn’t appear to label the boys’ play as misbehavior. No agency attendant came over to scold the children or to admonish their guardian for failure to discipline her children. The boys’ actions seem to be interpreted as what they likely were—the necessary energy release of two little children who had been confined in an airplane for at least a couple of hours.
Being a scholar who studies the impact that children’s race has on their schooling experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder how the response to these boys’ play might’ve been different had the boys, and their guardian, been Black. Quite honestly, I fear what might have happened if the boys had been Black. History justifies my worry. I think of Emmett Till. I think of Trayvon Martin. I think of Tamir Rice. All of whom were killed for simply existing as boys in Black bodies and doing things boys do.
I also thought about the recently revealed comments by Nury Martinez, who, until she resigned from both positions, was a Los Angeles City Council member and the council president. In leaked audio, Martinez was caught referring to her colleague’s Black son playing on a parade float this way: “They’re raising him like a little white kid, which—I was like, ‘This kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.’“
Martinez’s comments open the door for educators to reignite conversations about ways anti-Black racism is enacted in school policies and practices. Data show that Black boys in Martinez’s state are victimized in schools. In a 2021 report on how disciplinary practices impact Black students in California’s public schools, the authors found that “the patterns of higher levels of disproportionate impact for Black boys in K-3 is reprehensible.”
Unpacking Martinez’s comments reveals important insights about the ways Black boys are pathologized. First, although there’s no evidence apart from Martinez’s report about the boy’s behavior, we do know that Martinez perceived it as misbehavior. Next, she seems to insinuate that Black boys either don’t deserve to be raised like their white peers or that white parents (such as this boy’s father) don’t know the right way to raise a Black child. Finally, she explicitly states physical abuse is the only appropriate discipline response—with the possible implication that this is the way Black boys in particular should be treated. Unfortunately, Martinez’s harmful beliefs are pervasive in schools and among school leaders.
Unpacking Martinez’s comments reveals important insights about the ways Black boys are pathologized.
Brian L. Wright, an expert on Black boys in the early grades, drew on considerable research when he gave a bleak assessment of how Black boys are typically perceived.
“Throughout the United States,” he wrote, “Black boys tend to be viewed as troublemakers from a very young age. Adults often see Black boys as older and less innocent than their White peers (a practice called adultification), and their play is perceived as more dangerous, violent, and not developmentally appropriate.”
Martinez’s comment about beating the Black son of her colleague is especially distressing given that corporal punishment in schools is still on the books in 19 states. Morgan Craven, the director of policy and advocacy for the Intercultural Development Research Association and a vocal critic of corporal punishment, expresses concern about how such punishment policies impact Black students, who are already more punished than their peers.
In a 2020 article, I argued for an analysis of racism that is particular to Black students because of historical characterizations of Black culture as deficient and Black citizens as problematic. Analysis specific to anti-Black racism helps show the full range of racial disparities and the best ways to eradicate them. Here are two important things that schools should do:
- Ensure that Black students are treated with an understanding of and respect for Black culture.
- Recognize the strengths of Black culture and see Black culture as an asset.
Had Nury Martinez witnessed what I did at the airport rental car center, she would have likely thought exactly what I thought—that the boys were just rambunctious children doing what children do. This would’ve been my reaction regardless of the boys’ race. Martinez’s words suggest that she wouldn’t have allowed Black boys such grace. Her comments lead me to assume that Martinez would have judged the boys harshly had they been Black.
It is important to point out that school discipline data suggest that Martinez’s views are not an anomaly. Far too many educators contribute to the pathologizing of Black boys. Educators’ hypersurveillance and disproportionate suspensions have been documented for decades by scholars and practitioners trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
As a Black woman, a racial-equity scholar, and an aunt to Black nephews, I’ve seen the devastation that this incarceration pipeline has brought to our community. It’s way past time that educators treat play as play and become part of the solution.
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Stop Demonizing Black Boys. Let Them Play, Too