Friday, February 13, 2015

Civil Rights and Children's Education

During the last few months of 2014, media stations broadcasted coverage of protests and riots taking place all over the country. The stirrings of social and political upheaval that overtook the United States resulted from the shooting of Michael Brown (18 years old) in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer (28 years old). Officer Wilson claimed he acted in self-defense and was not indicted by a grand jury, prompting people to come out in anger over what was seen as an “unjust” verdict.

The image of Michael Brown became the icon that resulted in civil unrest and national protests, with #blacklivesmatter trending on social media, bringing back the fervor of the Civil Rights Movement of the 70’s.

Another civil rights battle that’s been fought silently in the background for many years is the right of equal opportunity education for children of all races. In 2014, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division conducted investigations which revealed that “African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make of 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of those expelled.”

Although the New York Times stated in the same article that these statistics did not necessarily point a finger towards discrimination of minority students, research that shows black students do not engage in misbehavior more frequently than white students definitely alludes to that conclusion.

Further research has revealed “two kinds of discrimination: cases in which African-American students are treated more harshly and disciplined more frequently than white students who engage in similar misbehavior; and cases where policies — like mandatory suspension, expulsion or ticketing — are administered in a race-neutral manner but have a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”

These disproportionate effects and discriminatory treatments undoubtedly highlight the civil inequality in children’s rights to education. Perhaps this is the root of the issue regarding the stereotype of the troubled, young black man that became the center of such controversy in the recent cases of Michael Brown and Tamir E. Rice.

Looking at the treatment these kids receive in school and how to correct it can be the first step towards creating social change. It is in this context that we should be looking at Dr. Katharine Capshaw’s bookCivil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. In it, she explores the function of children’s photographic books and the image of the black child in social justice campaigns for school integration and the civil rights movement.

In an interview about the book she said, “When you think about children in civil rights you think about the martyred child photograph. But I learned through working on this project that there were many different approaches to representing childhood during the Civil Rights Movement.” While the cases of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice should not be forgotten, we should also not be waiting for events like these to provoke change in the system. We should be looking to the children who are succeeding in school and using them as an example to provoke social change.

Dr. Capshaw previewed her book at San Diego State University last April in a lecture for the NCSCL entitled, "Freedom (and Fury) Now: Civil Rights Photographic Picture Books for Children." During her visit, she sat down to talk with the editors of The Unjournal of Children’s Literature, which included SDSU alumni and former graduate assistants for the NCSCL, Alya Hameed and Kelsey Wadman. If you have not had a chance to read the interview, here is you chance!

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