Transcription of the episode “Black and Latinx students, institutional racism, and the carceral continuum”

Jon M: 00:10 Hi, I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: 00:16 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Carla Shedd, associate professor of sociology and urban education at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Carla is the author of “Unequal City: Race, Schools and Perceptions of Injustice,” which was recently included in the Zora Canon, a list of the hundred greatest books by African American women. Her current research centers on New York city’s juvenile justice system and the institutional experiences of young people of color. Welcome Carla and congratulations on the recognition by Zora.

Carla S: 00:52 Thank you so much for having me.

Amy H-L: 00:56 Carla, you often speak about the carceral continuum. What is the carceral continuum and how does it differ from the school to prison pipeline, which is a term I suspect our listeners are more familiar with.

Carla S: 01:10 Thank you for that question. I call myself a scholar of the carceral continuum because it allows for some precision to think about the steps and the trajectories that young people take as we think about their paths toward or away from prison. And it’s not as, you know, neat as a school to prison pipeline. But instead there is a nexus of institutions and there are processes that come together that will steer a young person, not just by you know, their behavior, but also by the structures that surround them toward or away from a carceral institution. So the carceral continuum works for me and that as an empiricist, I will try to note and track the steps progression to and through the system and perhaps some exits from and reentry to it that is not as neat as the idea of a pipeline.

Amy H-L: 02:11 When you say the entrance to the system, how young does this carceral continuum really start?

Carla S: 02:19 I think we can open up our understanding to think about punitiveness and carcerality, you know, even before birth. There are moments where I can think of the gender notions of what crime is or what violence is. And we see discipline disparities as young as preschoolers from department of education data. I will say, well, even in labor with my own child and we didn’t know the so called sex of the child and the nurse said, “This must be a boy. They’re really giving us problems.” This little bad baby boy, and here I am a scholar of criminalization in labor hearing these things, so it could start early. But I also think about the ways that young people confront police and schools or think about their neighborhoods with surveillance towers. And so that is an aspect of carcerality that they’re confronting even if they’re not arrested, or if they’re not in a prison or a jail or a courtroom specifically.

Jon M: 03:23 How can the carceral continuum be interrupted and disrupted? What would that look like?

Carla S: 03:29 Well, I like to think about the brokers on the carceral continuum. And in my book I bring in not just young people’s perceptions and experiences with punishment or punitiveness but also think about those who are implementing the punishment. So you have parents who in the realm of the home and perhaps the the neighborhood are the people who are in charge of discipline. And then in the school you can have teachers who can be brokers toward or away from a carceral continuum. And so I like to think about these actors, the teachers, the principals, the school counselors as these positive brokers that can nurture kids and keep them off a path toward a carceral continuum. And then thinking about those who have the jobs of arresting and punishing – police, prosecutors and judges as being on the other side. And I would love to spend more time in thinking of how young people have those pro social connections to these brokers and have wonderful relationships with their teachers and counselors and others who are steering them toward more education.

Amy H-L: 04:45 You’ve spoken about your experience on a retrospective homicide review committee in Philadelphia. What is that committee and what struck you from that experience that’s relevant to our talk today?

Carla S: 04:57 Oh, you know, in thinking of my own educational continuum and my study of crime, the two years I spent in Philadelphia before moving to New York for my first job at Columbia were so instructive because I had just left graduate school with all my data and got to Philadelphia on this fellowship at Bryn Mawr but stayed in the city, and I envisioned myself to be a type of Dubois. I mean, it was very Duboisian. And in my way of retracing his steps in the city, and thinking about how all these connections come together to even impact the work I was doing on young people in their perceptions. And so there was a medical doctor who was in charge of this retrospective homicide review committee, who someone told him about me being there as a researcher. And he invited me in and we would meet in the coroner’s office in West Philly and there would be people around the table to talk about someone had been recently deceased and to talk about all that had happened in their lives up to that point of pathologist talking of, you know, the cause of their death. And so we had the DA with the representative in the room. You had the school system who would send someone with files on that person from perhaps as early as elementary school to the child welfare case file system being open. And then I was there thinking of all these connections that were obviously so key, but we didn’t learn about them until the person had died and we weren’t thinking about interventions until that person no longer could be saved. And so it really pushed on me to think of my research agenda as a means of illuminating these component parts while young people are still here and we can still do what we say we would do in a society that’s democratic.

Jon M: 06:54 That’s, that’s a perfect segue to the next question that I have, which is what are the ethical implications of the role of institutions in the lives of marginalized youth for teachers and other professionals working in these institutions?

Carla S: 07:10 Well, I like to talk a lot about the promise of schools and fulfilling the ideals of our civil society. And I know, as a sociologist, we often critique and we bring out problems, but I also see the schools as a setting for many of the breakthroughs that wouldn’t happen otherwise across dimensions of race and class and place even. We can go back to Brown v Board sort of being the real opening for segregation, dismantling segregation and doing it in that realm versus in the residential realm. So I think of schools as these places of great potential to truly, you know, provide those social supports in accordance with what we say we’re doing in schools with providing a compulsory education. And so why wouldn’t you use this space of socialization to give more to young people rather than to take things away from them, their liberty, their possibilities, even their ideas of who they are, their identities And I want to fulfill more of this promise of really shoring up what young people should be getting in these spaces, especially if they’re spending the largest, you know, most formative portion of the day and of their lives in school settings.

Jon M: 08:37 So putting it in terms of, for example, Deweyan ethics and the idea that one judges sort of an action by its impact on others, how does that play out where you were just saying, how does that play out in terms of say the individual classroom teacher or the principal? How should they be viewing themselves within these institutions that they may or may not have much control over the whole institution?

Carla S: 09:03 Yeah, that’s the amazing thing about structures and being a sociologist. We are obsessed with understanding structures, but also understanding cultures and thinking of the culture and climate of the school and how you as an individual teacher can impact that positively or negatively as well as you know, a principal or school leader really shaping the culture. But then you have to weigh it against how are young people perceiving it? How do they feel when they walk into your school? Are they feeling like this is a place where they’re ready to learn, or are they going through scanning and pat downs as, you know, the kids on the South side of Chicago that I interviewed. I mean, what is that setting them up to do the rest of the day as we think of the entry points and how they confront these spaces. So in a Deweyan way, in terms of our ethical obligations, are we really setting up the experiences, the content of the curriculum, the setting, the physical space in alignment with this ideal that this is a space for educational nourishment and a place where young people should be safe to grow and to learn and to experience the world from a very sacred setting and be ready to go out and change the world positively. And if we’re not doing that, then I will, you know, not be able to say this is a school because that’s what a school should be doing.

Amy H-L: 10:32 Well, we’re familiar with many of the ways that schools reinforce these inequalities. Could you give us some examples of some schools that have been able to reverse that somewhat or either schools or individual teachers who’ve been able to reduce or even ameliorate some of this, both inequality and the children’s experience of being treated unjustly?

Carla S: 11:00 Well, thank you. So I know individual classrooms where you may have a teacher say, this is really a refuge, this is a safe space. And, um, there’s a student who I had a couple of years ago who talked about being in a charter school where they were supposed to walk the children to a neighboring police precinct if the parents pick them up late and they said their classroom really became a sanctuary. So in order to subvert that rule, everyone knew they could walk the children into this classroom and the student and teacher would be able to get them out and get them to their parents without bringing them to a police precinct blocks away. I mean, so think about, you know, what we’re doing and setting this up and this one individual working against a rule structure that makes no sense. And then you have full climates that are so amazing. And I can think of, you know, my own schooling. I went to a boarding school in Mississippi called The Piney Woods School that was started in 1909 by a black PhD who came down to teach the children of former slaves to read. And he started the school in 1909 my grandfather went to this school. My mother and dad met there, both graduated from the school. My sister and I went there. So this was a place and it was basically a feeder to Tuskegee. If you think of, you know, the legacy of historically black institutions and what they represent, a place of safety, a place of nurturing. So I’ve seen the best of what school can be and always knew I was prized, um, not only as a person but also as a thinker. So I have these very different assessments of what we do wrong. And then what I saw personally being done right, that I had to inform my vision as I go in to observe schools as a sociologist. And I will say it matters so much those individual teachers, but it also matters the climate that the principal set up for the teachers. And to really sort of highlight the connection between the neighboring community, how welcome do parents fill in the school? So I’ve looked at all these variables, but you also know what feels right. And you also know how this works when you experience these settings. So there’s a range of ways to understand how schooling happens, both positively and negatively.

Jon M: 13:28 Could you talk a little bit more about Piney Woods and just describe sort of how they created that atmosphere? Especially in, I mean, and also, I mean I don’t know what the town was like or what the larger environment that you were in and certainly your parents and grandparents generation in terms of being in Mississippi. How did they do that? What did it actually look like in the school?

Speaker 4: 13:49 So it’s really almost a college campus of its own and a self-sustaining institution. And those early days, I mean there is a working farm there, you know, different facilities, whether it’s the dry cleaning or the print pressing and all of the things and skills that everyone had to learn. And by my generation, I mean my job was in the reading lab, which is quite appropriate, but there were some of my friends who did work on the farm and did learn how to, you know, do wood shop in a real way that was reflective of those earlier times of how do you run an actual city of its own? And it was a safe space. It was a refuge. I mean we all heard the historical stories about Dr. Lawrence C. Jones almost getting lynched and the lynch mob ended up donating to the school. I mean, so it was all of the kinds of far out stories that you wouldn’t believe, but it also was just really good space to grow and learn. And I’m still close to some of my friends who came as from as far as Anchorage, Alaska or Chicago. And particularly in, you know, the 90s when I went there. I mean when urban cities, quote unquote, were dangerous, that’s where parents were sending their children to feel safe from Chicago, from Los Angeles, from New York. Um, so it was very cosmopolitan and even international with Ethiopian students there. And I mean just everyone being in Mississippi and having a very shared language community that spanned the world. So it was, it was a remarkable place for me to come up and understand myself as a thinker and as a valued African American girl, even in the South. And it gave me the foundation of confidence I have today.

Jon M: 15:46 You know, it’s particularly intriguing because obviously what you’re describing is something that spans from 1909 onward and so many of the schools that we’ve been talking to people about, they become wonderful places when there’s an extraordinary school leader or where there’s an extraordinary group of faculty together. But it’s so hard to continue that in a multigenerational kind of way. I mean, this is getting a little bit off probably, but I’m just curious if you have any sense of how, what the structures were that they set in motion to sort of be able to establish that, that it would continue from generation to generation and not get, you know, just become like an ordinary school as time passed on. Is that something that you’ve thought about at all?

Carla S: 16:39 Yeah, I mean I think as the power of a true institution and that it is sustainable beyond one charismatic individual. And so, you know, Dr. Jones had a real team behind him that not just believed in him but believed in the school and what they were doing. And I think that’s what the subsequent leadership really tried to establish that it wasn’t about them, it was about this land. It was about this purpose. It was about these kids who really needed this school across a range of, you know, places that they would have been coming from. So I think that’s how it works. The current president is a JD. Will Crosley. He’s from Chicago, you know, graduated a few years before me and he is carrying on a legacy that is so important to so many of us. And so I think it really is about this bigger mission that people know they’ve benefited from, but they also want to make sure it’s sustainable. And I think what matters is the most, you know, I think moving forward, the people who come there really valued that connection and benefited from the school themselves.

Amy H-L: 17:52 Carla, I’m going to assume that this is a private school. Right. So it’s wonderful and we want to figure out how other children of color can experience this sort of confidence building and preparation for a successful and fulfilling life later on.

Carla S: 18:14 Yeah. So, I mean, having this private space to do it, you know, they have their own curriculum and you know, some accreditation pieces from the state of course. But you really do have freedom and independence. And I think the mission is to think of schools like this as a demonstration for what we should be doing overall in public schools. And so I know people can critique the innovations that occur on a small scale in private institutions, but they also can be used to really reflect and show if we’re willing to invest in young people in this private space, in this way, why wouldn’t we figure out how to efficiently use our resources in public spaces? Because we pay so much. If you look at these budgets, we’re paying so much for NYPD in New York City schools, we’re paying so much for Chicago police officers, two per high school, that are mandated to be there. And what if we really have mandated counselors? What if we really had, you know, open doors to really think about the needs of young people beyond school hours and how school could facilitate it. So all of the innovations we see in the private sphere, I would love to be able to take the most positive and useful ones to the public realm because the money is there. But what are we using the money on?

Jon M: 19:35 So switching to a very different environment, Unequal City reports on your extensive study of young people in Chicago. What were some of your key findings on perceptions of injustice among the students that you were interviewing and studying?

Carla S: 19:51 So I, you know, it was so lucky to land on that topic in that project and to approach it from different dimensions. So I started off with a survey of about 18,000 9th and 10th graders that I was analyzing with my dissertation chair, John Hagen ,for quant articles, quantitative articles where we looked at these findings of a perception of injustice that usually was studied amongst the adults and how do you understand systems and their fairness and having a really sort of robust survey of young people’s ideas was pathbreaking on its own. But then to think about the impacts of having black, brown, Asian, and white students. There were only about 50 students who identified as native or indigenous. So we couldn’t really analyze their ideas, which, you know, are potent if they’re showing up. But for this range of both identities and backgrounds across the environment of Chicago public schools was remarkable to see that black kids and Latinx kids or Hispanic, as they were identified in the data, had a higher perception of injustice, thinking that police were more likely to stop members of their race, that rich people were more likely to be treated better by police than poor people. And to understand even the gender dimensions of perceived injustice, boys being treated worse than girls and girls understanding that as well as boys. And so thinking from these different perspectives, you get a sense of 9th and 10th graders understanding this. And most people will say, Oh, they’re young. You know, who knows what they know. But it’s also a moment where it’s the largest number of kids are dropping out of school between 9th and 10th grade. And so these trajectories begin to diverge quite early on on those who persist in education versus those who may end up in the criminal justice system. So me having access to not just quantitative survey data and hierarchical linear models that could show black and brown kids, depending on the types of settings that they’re in, that their perceptions of injustice were strongest amongst their peers. But the black kids who went to more integrated schools proceed more injustice than black kids who are in homogenous, racially homogenous environments. So that intrigued me even more to go across the spectrum and say what’s happening to black kids on the South side who are going to school with everyone who looks like them versus the black kids who might leave the South side and go downtown for school and a more integrated environment. And so doing those interviews to follow up on that and observations across different school environments really set a stage for me to say more about the world views as they’re shaped by changing perceptions across race, place, class, and so much more. So it really was an endeavor where I could’ve stopped at the quant, but my questions kept going and I knew there was more to offer.

Jon M: 23:09 So I have a question in terms of how students internalized these perceptions of injustice and how they chose to act on them. Um, I know there’ve been studies, for example, I think Michelle Fine, where students who had dropped out of school were not sort of the least together to use the technical term, were not the least together students, but actually were very together and had simply decided that school wasn’t doing anything for them. It wasn’t getting them anywhere. So did you get a chance to sort of get a sense of how students acted on basis of their perceptions?

Carla S: 23:51 Yes. So with this idea of perceptions, I matched it with experiences and thinking about the intensity and the frequency of their experiences with punitive structures. So if I have a 9th grader who tells me they’ve been stopped and searched but never arrested. So if you think about, you know, one’s intensity of policing, but to never get to that most stringent sort of point, this young person in the 9th grade says, well, you know, that happened. I was searched, but I, you know, doesn’t it happen to everyone? And they’re still sort of thinking through this because it’s early on, but a 10th grader who says, Oh yes, this happened to me many times and I know it only happens in my neighborhood. It never happens downtown. You know, they have a different sense of how they approach that same experience. But on the survey you really wouldn’t know the difference unless you can probe more. And so that second student can tell me how they go about code switching. Um, the way that they dress, how they will speak to police in a different way, how they take care with the clothing they wear. There was a set of kids who told me, Oh, I never walk with, you know, a bunch of boys or a bunch of my guys. I always grab one girl to walk with and police won’t mess with us because they think maybe we’re dating. But then on the other side of that I’ll interview a girl who’s been searched by police and she says, Oh it’s because I was walking with boys, you know. So this is protective for boys in some ways but could make girls more vulnerable to police contact. So there is a range of sort of information we can get by just probing what for some kids has become just a normative endeavor. You go out on the street, you expect to get searched. And this is not true for so many people across the country. And to highlight the nuance of what was happening for the Chicago public school kids in that moment is key for us understanding the kind of different worlds that we live. And I will say in terms of other outcomes of activism, I have some students who are studying this now at the grad center who are interested in, you know, what these experiences mean for young people wanting to volunteer for campaigns and their exposure to understanding these disparities. If they just say, Oh, the police stop me all the time. Does this happen to other people? But now they know about Philando Castile or they know about, you know, all of these fatal encounters with police across the country. So it’s a different way of understanding it beyond themselves and their experience that I think was the tip of the iceberg when I started this research and now it’s much more in the climate of, of understanding.

Amy H-L: 26:46 How does this affect, I mean these kids who are experiencing this, these risks, certainly restrictive structures. How does that impact the way they look at the other kids in their school environments, the middle class kids, the white kids, how does that shape their relationships?

Carla S: 27:05 I mean, I think, you know, there are other sociologists who looked at, for instance, Al Young, in his book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men, where he says these young men were so cloistered that they really thought it was an individual failing when they didn’t do well. Or you could see, you know, from other sociologists like Mary Patillo and others who really look at privilege of a black middle class and going into spaces, but also saying, wait, why am I still viewed as less than even if I have a similar class position. So there is such great nuance and I think the young people who are in those racially homogenous spaces for some, in some ways I saw it as protective. I saw it as if you’re not able to change the larger structures, like maybe you should think as a 9th grader that this happens to everyone so that you don’t get bogged down with the inequality and the, you know, sort of oppression so young. For those who get that early insight to the larger, wider comparative frame, then they have to do something about it. They’re more active, they talk more about legitimacy. They might, you know, go to the principal and talk about the rules and how they don’t make sense. And so that’s exciting too, even though I know it’s a, it’s a heavier burden to carry so young. So psychologically, I can’t say with precision what’s happening, but as a sociologist understanding, you know, these young people have to carry this in a different way the earlier they’re exposed to these inequalities.

Jon M: 28:48 No, it’s really interesting because a couple of weeks ago we interviewed a couple of student activists in New York, Coco Rhum and and Hebh Jamal and they were both students at Beacon, public school, obviously, in New York where there’s been a lot of student activism led by students of color. And it will be interesting to see if the New York City schools do in fact become more diverse, you know, and partly as a result of the kinds of student activism that they’ve been involved in, whether we’re going to see that sort of have a momentum of increasing student activism as you’re talking about students sort of being on the cusp of being able to see very clearly how things are working for them and for other students. And I’m mostly thinking, and I don’t know how much you know, you’re still in touch with the folks in Chicago, but obviously the Chicago teachers union, unlike the teachers union in New York, has been extremely active, especially in terms of forming ties with the communities and communities of color in particular. And I don’t know whether students have been particularly involved or former students have been particularly involved in supporting and unifying with the teachers in that kind of setting.

Carla S: 30:08 Yeah, I really appreciate the work being done, particularly those Monday marches at the Beacon students and I’ve been watching it from afar for sure, but I think it is impactful, but it’s also reflective of these early stages of stratifications. Like, to think of these are the kids who got into Beacon, a selective, you know, public school The sorting started age four. If we think about the landscape of New York City as an unequal city and the preschool and the day cares and on through elementary school. So they’ve seen enough to go through all of these early stages of education to understand the inequality and to not be cloistered. So that I think you do get the ones who feel most impacted to say like, look, here I am in this other world that kids in Harlem may never know about if they don’t leave uptown, depending on gentrification and other housing and residential structures that really could keep people from not understanding it unless they’re bridging these worlds. So I’ve been very enamored with the work happening and having a new chancellor who is really, you know, at least brave enough to say “segregation” and to really acknowledge it, that New York will be a very important climate and place to watch. Chicago, it’s been fascinating to sort of always have my eye to Chicago even as I’ve lived in New York for over a decade and to care about it so much and to see the strikes and to understand the stakes of what happens when, you know, I studied Inglewood a neighborhood in Chicago and the biggest schools that were there serving kids have been closed and shuttered. And so what that means to have a school, a neighborhood with no school. As an urban sociologist, it’s so impactful. And what is a school without a neighborhood? It’s not a school. It’s not truly what a school should embody. So these are key places to watch in New York and Chicago have played against each other in so many ways over the past few years where it was at first Barack Obama and Arnie Duncan kind of going to the national scene as education secretary that made Chicago relevant for me, even though I was out of Chicago. But to see it now and to understand these struggles in the midst of just very stratified cities will be important for years to come, and I hope they win the fight. I hope they keep fighting, but it’s daunting for sure.

Jon M: 32:54 You just said what is a school without a community? Do you think that it’s critical for schools and is it more so say elementary, middle, and high school to be neighborhood or community based, or does it work to have, for example, New York had this whole thing of these schools that were in networks of sort of common teaching practices and stuff that were all over the city? What’s your sense of, is one model substantially more necessary or better than another?

Carla S: 33:27 You know, I don’t think I can just say off hand that one model is better than the other. I will say. and if you think about communities and what makes up a community is the people, but also the institutions and schools are a huge part of that. And me knowing New York as a person who came here for a job and had to figure out where I stood in the community made a difference. And I think people experience New York differently depending on if they have children in school and where they have kids. And I’ve spoken about this on another education outlet where you can have à la carte cart experience. You could say, I’m going to move to this neighborhood and oh my kids and this private school and those worlds really don’t have to intersect. But I’m thinking about the possibilities of having these institutions merge and a symbiotic way that is not negative the way I study education and carceral institutions. But to think of neighborhoods really benefiting from the schools as a strong side of community. And it’s just those possibilities, but it’s not something that I could say is unilaterally better in such a, you know, heterogeneous place, but it works for those small neighborhoods. It works for hometown America where you have the neighborhood school, then you know you’re going to this elementary school, you know, you got to this middle school and people pass through it. So it’s, it’s taken for granted in certain places. But then in these other huge settings like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, then you have this larger market and things can go awry, I think, if we have too many options and people are saddled with so much to figure out.

Amy H-L: 35:20 Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

Carla S: 35:23 Let’s see. I think the idea of New York and the hurdles that people have to jump just to both live here, but also be educated here, it’s so important that think about this as not normal. You know, whether it’s the preschool, pre-k admissions or elementary schools that move into middle schools and then having the high school environment where it’s just an open forum. So I think thinking of a continuum in education is as important as the work I’ve been doing on a carceral continuum. And I think some of the missteps and perhaps inequalities and inefficiencies we see on the education side, they show up on the second end of what I’m studying now, the juvenile court system. So I do want to, you know, talk about that a little bit where we can understand young people who go through delinquency court or family court, which is the topic of my current study. And you have to think what were their educational experiences, what types of home and community lives that they have, where they show up in this space. And then, in this punitive space, they’re supposed to be given the resources to do better, to reform them. Um, it’s, it’s rather frustrating, I will say to understand that a court can give counseling to young people after they’ve been arrested and have a case before a judge more easily than you could get counseling at an earlier age in your home neighborhood or in your school.

Jon M: 37:08 Well, thank you so much.

Carla S: 37:12 Thank you for having me.

Jon M: 37:16 Thank you listeners for joining us. Check out our website for episodes and blogs or contact us at We’ve begun to post annotated transcripts of our interviews. We offer professional development on social emotional learning and ethics in the New York City area, and we’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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