12 July 2010

Inexperience and Reproduction

Most of you know that at one point, in what I call a former life, I was a police officer in New York City. Luckily, I believe, I began my job there in the days before Rudy Giuliani twisted the concept of New York policing into what I tend to describe as a neo-fascist control system.

I started thinking about this as I read a New York Times article about policing in one part of Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood. And I began thinking about education too. 

"Sure we have order, but at what price!'' - Milhouse in the Simpson's famous "Bart the Hall Monitor" episode

Three basic ideas come through in this NYT piece: One is the value of trained and experienced people when "society" (the dominant societal group definition) intersects with social groups which are somehow "different." The second is the nature of "difference" itself. The third - what actions can change?

For the first idea, the question is, can we bring differing peoples in without being colonialists? For the second the question is, can we have identity while still being part of a whole? For the third, what should we be investing in?

"The school is a police state. Students are afraid to sneeze. And I have you to thank."- Principal Skinner to Hall Monitor Bart Simpson, Separate Vocations 

 

In both policing and education there is a constant tension between the desire of the powerful for "social reproduction" (Rudy Giuliani wanted New York to be "One City" where everyone behaved like an Upper East Side white conservative, KIPP wants to make sure all minority students know how to "act white") and the need to craft a new and better society. When this line is walked well it is usually by mixing a few common needs (laws against murder and robbery, a common core of knowledge) with a wide range of both group and individual adaptation. When I joined the NYPD it's 75 precincts (OK, OK, back then it was just 73) all operated very differently, based on community needs, and within even that "justice" and "policing" was a very individual things, built up by an apprenticeship system in which new cops learned the precinct and its people from experienced officers, and thus knew how to approach and deal with different individuals. "It ain't one city," a lieutenant once told me, "it's 8 million cities, plus all the commuters and tourists." Just like - standardized tests and educational statistics be damned - your school isn't one school, your class isn't one class: you have a community of individual learners.

If you are building a better city, or building a better generation, you do that by engaging and empowering individuals. If you are attempting social reproduction, you are concerned with enforcing common codes efficiently. If you are building a better city or a better generation you are adapting rules so that they work to support individual needs. If you are attempting social reproduction you are creating rules for the benefit of the power structure.
(White Plains Road in the 47 at right >>)
Now, the Giuliani idea, still embraced today (though routinely simultaneously denied) by the Bloomberg administration, was that social reproduction was the goal because society divides into superior and inferior sections, and the only way to improve society is to force the norms of the superior group onto the inferior group. Thus Rudy was deeply annoyed that officers in a neighborhood like the 47th Precinct would accept that kids would hang out on the street at night or might smoke pot outside. These behaviours just weren't acceptable on East 75th Street in Manhattan (at right >>).

We cops argued that we knew better. We knew the norms of our communities. We had learned them the hard way, by day-after-day and night-after-night of interacting with our neighbors. We knew that life was really hard for most of our community, and that most of our community wanted things safe and relatively peaceful, and we had no interest in antagonizing any of those people for picking on them by harassing them for - in a literal take from the Times article - crap like "spitting on the sidewalk." "Why would you want to bust their chops?" a veteran cop told me early on, "We want them on our side." "Never give a ticket to a guy if kids are in the car," another veteran told me, "The dad drives away cursing you and you just made two generations of enemies. Say "be careful" and leave them alone and you've made two generations of friends."

Of course we didn't think we were superior to the residents of our precincts, we realized that we were much like them, just luckier to be a few generations removed from the ghettoes ourselves.

In the same way good teachers know that there can be, for example, very different forms of story telling, reading, and writing. In the same way good teachers vary their lesson plans based on student needs and response. In the same way one evaluation method (say, a test, or homework completion) might be very telling about one student and completely irrelevant when applied to another.

Of course this requires training and knowledge. If you believe in social reproduction instead, enforcement or teaching is best carried out by automatons who will simply do as they are told - or, in reality - by these rookie cops in New York or the untrained Teach for America resume builders in schools.
"The United States Supreme Court established the legal basis for stops and frisks — reasonable suspicion of a crime — in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. But the officer in that case had a far different level of experience than many of the officers walking the streets of Brownsville. He had patrolled the same streets of downtown Cleveland for 30 years looking for pickpockets and shoplifters.
"By comparison, the nearly 200 officers who operate in the neighborhood as part of Mr. Kelly’s “Impact Zone” program — flooding problematic crime pockets with a battery of police — are largely on their first assignment out of the academy.
"The data show the initiative is conducted aggressively, sometimes in what can seem like a frenzy. During one month — January 2007 — the police executed an average of 61 stops a day." - The New York Times
These rookie cops in Brownsville lack the veterans to surround them and say, "don't do that kid." Just as the Teach for America "corps" lack the experience in ed schools which might lead to systemic doubt. And both abuse with their consistency, especially abusing the most vulnerable.

But it works if you've been born into the winning class and want to make sure you stay there. Because it pretty much guarantees that those "on the bottom" cannot possibly catch up - they are starting behind, and by forcing them onto the same path trod by their better born competitors, you are keeping them behind.


Breaking the mold of society, breaking the traps minorities fall into requires new paths, and new power structures. In policing it requires police-community cooperation on goals and tactics, and it requires investment in things other than policing (if you read the Times story you might wonder why so many cops and so few locksmiths, intercom repair people, and housing corridor cleaners, for example). In schools it requires learner-teacher collaboration which finds the best way for kids to get where they need to go.

But both require individual vision, and both require massive training and hard experience, and "shortcuts" are just an excuse for not doing the right thing.

- Ira Socol

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