Black Minds Matter Lecture: "Assumptions of Criminality"

At 12:30 on November 29, 2017, the Chang Hou Lecture Hall once again became a screening room for the fourth week of San Diego State College’s Professor J. Luke Wood’s free online “public course,” Black Minds Matter. Despite low turnout, the event proceeded as scheduled, showing this week’s lecture on Assumptions of Criminality.

Professor Wood began by explaining microaggressions: actions that result from a perceived belief about a person based on their physical characteristics. For young black men, both their race and gender cause them to be doubly perceived as dangerous. He continues by describing how people automatically assume that black men have bad intentions. He cites multiple examples of this behavior on college campuses: teachers stepping backward when approached by a male student of color after the class session has ended, seeing a group of men of color and saying to the group (jokingly), “oh, here comes trouble,” or  asking only black male students for their student IDs. Even as children, black boys are described as “defiant and hyperactive” compared to their “energetic” counterparts. This leads to a singling out for punishment, quicker and harsher punishment, and even a quicker assumption of mental deficiency in black students. Naturally, this consistent bias ultimately leads to unfair treatment of black boys throughout their education.

Before introducing his guest speakers, Professor Wood outlined a few suggestions he had to begin to fix these harsh inequalities in education. The first pointed out a need for race consciousness and a refusal to ignore how race and racism influence individuals in the learning environment. With that baseline, Professor Wood advocated for moralizing practices in ensuring that the curriculum, examples, and discussion are culturally relevant while also proactively affirming the morality and inherent dignity of Black minds. Furthermore, he implored educators to hold their colleagues accountable, intervening when others acted on conscious or unconscious bias. Professor Wood also noted that often black boys are treated as men who hold more culpability and therefore deserve more stringent punishment for behavior. Rather, as he explained, educators should “treat each day as a new day,” using non-confrontational tones while critiquing privately and praising publicly. Only then will black students feel comfortable in their learning environments.

Dr. Nesha Savage is the Acting Dean of Student Development and Matriculation at San Diego City College. In this role, she helped create the City Scholars Program for formerly incarcerated students, otherwise known as returning citizens. She describes how while many are knowledgeable about the school to prison pipeline, fewer know about the “school to prison to school pipeline.”  

Dr. Savage works daily with these students, noting how “they come to the classroom seeing themselves as offenders - they’re called offenders and felons. We need to show them that they have something to contribute. That they have value.” To do that, she has found the need to work closely with parole officers. For returning citizens to succeed in school, they need additional help like tutoring and workshops on how to type, requiring to stay past normal school hours and sometimes conflicting with meetings with parole officers. In addition to balancing these two obligations, many students also have to work to provide for their families. With all these burdens, professors must be aware of their situations and cognizant of the need to foster personal growth.

The next two speakers, Professor Tyrone Howard and Dr. Pedro Noguera are both professors at UCLA. Professor Howard is a Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies’ Urban Schooling Division. He is also the Director and Founder of the Black Male Institute at UCLA. Dr. Noguera is the Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Faculty Director for the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. Both men spoke about the need for student and parent involvement in early childhood education.

Recently, Professor Howard has been dedicated to speaking out against zero-tolerance policies and underscoring how they negatively impact young black men. He repeatedly asserted that “everyone has implicit bias. That doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human.” Implicit bias appears everywhere in the classroom: teachers putting black students at the back of the class, turning them away from the learning environment, hyper surveillance of anything black boys do. In his studies, Professor Howard found that often black students were sent to the principal’s office simply for being themselves, and when that is treated as a problem, they slowly begin to act more and more like a real "problem." He lamented the idea that parents can no longer “assume good intentions when it comes to schools treating young black boys,” and encouraged them to be present, vocal, and vigilant.

Dr. Noguera emphasized the lack of a “silver bullet” that would solve all the problems facing black students. In order to create real change, real support systems must be built to encourage a healthy and safe learning environment. He echoed Professor Howard’s statement that “most principals know the teachers who are the culprits,” further asserting that the students themselves also have these insights. He strongly advocated for student input, calling for parents to talk to their children since they are the ones directly experiencing what is happening in the classrooms.

Professor Wood closed the lecture with some questions for the audience to ponder: what are the assumptions of criminality? How do classroom management practices adversely affect black boys and men? How do we hold other educators accountable for the poor treatment of black boys and men? He specifically emphasized personal actions and encouraged audience members to think about the ways they could change “the paradigm that we see… embracing a new educational paradigm that empowers our students and communicates love.”

You can find the full lecture here.