Every year, I ask my students to identify phenomena in our world that are both imagined and real. In other words, what are some things that:
Have not always existed?
Have or can change?
Society could function without?
Currently have some degree of influence over us?
Some of the more impressive responses have been “borders,” “money” and “race.” This is how I name the concept of constructs for my students. By the time I pose this series of questions to my sixth graders, we’ve talked about geographic constructs—the Equator and Prime Meridian, cardinal and intermediate directions, yearly time changes and standard time zone—just to name a few. Constructs were designed to maintain some degree of order for our physical and political world, governing many of our daily realities and creating safety. But, why are ideas humans built so powerful a force over us?
White Supremacist Monuments in Public Spaces and Public Schools
If you journey across the architectural landscape of the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant parcel of land that isn’t named after or has some hat tip to White supremacy. This interactive map lays out the vestiges of just the Confederacy, a shorter-lived experiment than our United States of America.
Imagine how populated this map would be if it marked venerations of local and national leaders, thinkers and professionals committed to upholding White supremacy in general, both stateside and abroad. This far-from-exhaustive list of historical figures were committed to creating, maintaining or exacerbating a racial pecking order, and any public veneration of their likeness is meant to reinforce or call back to the same order. And the timeline of when and where these monuments were erected coincides with heightened periods of racial terror and violence.
A true reckoning with White supremacy is a call for examining and quite literally changing the architectural landscape and infrastructure—clearing the land of public veneration to oppressive history and constructing public art and systems that better reflect the values we claim to hold dear.
“To protect and serve” is an oft-referenced summation of an officer’s duties, and I don’t doubt that there are many on the force who hold this call dear and act accordingly. However, the actions police officers have taken to intimidate and suppress demonstrations in our current moment are, again, an abuse of power to maintain order. This institution, especially as it is currently constructed, upholds tenets of and serves as a monument to White supremacy and should be abolished to reimagine our concept of a public safety-making body. But that's not where it ends.
Parallel policing structures and culture exist within our schools. Whether it’s the presence of school resource officers or punitive policies around disciplinary action, White supremacy via policing behavior disproportionately of Black students is far too commonplace. Recent uprisings in the sustained movement for Black lives have amplified calls to action in regards to end policing within school buildings because policing the micro-communities that exist within schools with intimidation tactics and punitive discipline upholds the tenets of White supremacy, too.
A New Concept of Justice
A third structure that must be dismantled and reimagined is our current concept of justice. When I speak of destroying monuments to White supremacy and reimagining something more just, I mean jails, prisons, and other tangible and intangible structures of the carceral state, as well. There’s mountainous evidence that supports the argument that chattel enslavement was legally abolished yet evolved into the prison industrial complex and still exists as a means of strengthening the profiting potential of prisons.
Admittedly, I’m a novice when it comes to squarely calling myself a prison abolitionist. For quite a while, I’ve found the death penalty, jails, prisons, and detention centers to be inherently inhumane practices. I’d say, “Look at how racially biased the current system is,” or argue, “We could at least release people incarcerated for non-violent offenses.” However, reforming a system that is operating as designed for White supremacy will arguably only help injustice evolve and operate less visibly.
And whether it’s behavioral management systems in individual classrooms, or a school system’s policies around discipline, expulsion, and how they feed the carceral culture, the school-to-prison pipeline is another monument to White supremacy. Zero-tolerance policies and the increasing number and expanding types of offenses that violate behavioral expectations feed the school-to-prison pipeline. While confronting and eradicating White supremacist policies and practices, we must also build school communities committed to transformational justice.
These constructs—statues, policing, and prisons—are spoken of as beacons of truth, justice, and freedom yet have routinely demonstrated how exclusively to whom they dole out those rights and privileges. Our symbols and systems are already broken. Why not use this moment to reimagine and recreate institutions that better protect, include, and champion Black lives and livelihood?
The same goes for White supremacist constructs that exist in schools. In our work to dismantle all monuments to White supremacy, let’s continue identifying what policies and practices stand between us and more just and equitable schooling experiences, too.
Vanessa A. Williams is currently a middle school social studies teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. Prior to teaching, she studied anthropology and education at Davidson College and received her master's in education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education studying Education, Culture and Society.
Vanessa previously served as a site coordinator for a CDF Freedom Schools ...