Listen to the White Southerner: Zero Tolerance in Schools Is Racist

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

“When you shine a light on the problem and don’t do anything, you’re only admiring the problem,” said school superintendent Randy Nelson of the La Crosse, Wis., school district.

“It’s time to stop admiring the problem,” he told his administrators and school police when introducing my technical assistance team.

Leadership is not synonymous with title or position — it’s about personality traits unique to getting things done even in the face of adversity. Either you have it or you don’t.

Effective leaders don’t care where you’re from, if you wear bow ties and seersucker suits and use Southern slang spoken with a Southern drawl. They care only about outcomes. Either you have them or you don’t.

Some leaders north of the Mason-Dixon line have commented on the benefits of a Southern community with a history of racial strife being the first to agree in writing to dismantle an abusive zero tolerance system that wreaks havoc on kids of color. These leaders have taken advantage of this irony by exhorting their colleagues that if Southerners can dismantle a racially discriminative school-to-prison system, why can’t we?

Effective leaders are said to have a knack for finding unique techniques to motivate people to move an agenda, and no doubt using the backwardness stereotypes generated by years of segregationist ways to get others to do what is right for kids of color is unique.

Judge Ramona Gonzalez, who joined the superintendent to bring my team of Southerners to La Crosse, recently told a group of judges why she brought us to a Northern city whose closest tie to the South is sitting on a part of the Mississippi River with floating ice (a sight that brings the fear of God to Southerners and a disbelief that there is a Mississippi of any kind in the North). She stated, “Judge Teske and his team from the South can say things in ways I can’t because of their [Southern] background [and get away with it].”

She explained how a progressive system to reduce racial disparities birthed in the South tickles the curiosity of people on the icy side of the Mississippi. To some it remains a paradox that white Southerners, whose still living relatives were adept at separating white and black to hold onto “white power” by creating ingenious though evil practices to keep blacks from the polls, are today using progressive remedial practices to ameliorate the harsh effects of segregation.

[Related: Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense]

It wasn’t long ago that black fathers were lynched, the homes of black families and churches of black parishioners were bombed, black children and their parents were brutally beaten and bitten by police clubs and dogs, and then knocked to the ground by high-pressure fire hoses — in the South, on CBS and NBC, for all the world to see.

I was a child when the violence occurred, but in my teenage years I watched the Ku Klux Klan donning their white bed-sheeted wardrobe with the red patch over the left breast ironically displaying the symbol of the Christian faith — the cross — and hooding their pointed cone-like head gear. They would gather at major intersections of my county and solicit donations to support their hate-mongering agenda (they vehemently disagree with my assessment of that agenda).

I shudder when I pause to think of how horribly we (Southerners) treated blacks, and it was in my shuddering that I wondered what skeletons are in my ancestral closet — so I inquired. My mom pointed to a slave deed. My grandparents purchased a 16-year-old black girl. Like the sale of livestock, her purchase was recorded on paper describing her condition — down to the number of teeth in her mouth.

It doesn’t matter that these racist institutions of the Old South are gone because the trauma they caused will never be forgotten, and raising a Confederate emblem over a state capitol doesn’t help reduce the trauma.

It is true that the Confederate emblem is part of my heritage, but that doesn’t mean I must embrace it. I have learned that slave ownership is part of my family heritage, and in the vernacular of my ancestors, “I sure as hell ain’t going to like it!”

Those who use the “It’s my heritage” excuse to hold onto a symbol that is hurtful to those whose ancestors were enslaved and segregated by my ancestors are in denial that it’s hurtful, have no heart or suffer a character disorder called bigotry.

The swastika has been banned in Europe, but hate groups have replaced it with the Confederate emblem. This is how the rest of the world sees this part of my heritage, and to wave, display or glorify it would say something about my character — and it’s not flattering.

It is in this historical context that I can understand the power that lies in the notion that Southerners with slave-owning ancestors created the first school-justice partnership designed to eliminate a racially biased practice called zero tolerance.

Judge Gonzalez is right. There are some things that this Southern white male with black slave-owning ancestors can say and get away with: “If I can see the racism in zero tolerance, why can’t you?”

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.


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