Friday, May 24, 2013

A Cautionary Tale for Black Females Who Experiment with Science under Capitalism

Sixteen-year-old high school student Kiera Wilmot was recently expelled and charged as an adult with a felony: possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property and making or attempting to make a destructive device. No one was injured, and the young lady had no prior disciplinary infractions.

After international outcry about the unjust harshness of the punishment, Assistant State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty dropped the charges. However, Wilmot was still forced out of her high school and ordered to complete her degree through an expulsion program, separating her from peers and her twin sister. This type of displacement has been shown to negatively effect socialization, as well as student achievement. Not only could Wilmot's school change negatively impact her own mental health, socialization, and academic performance, it could also negatively affect her former and future classmates. Professor of economics and policy studies at the University of Notre Dame, Jennifer Warlick, discovered that students who change schools "can suffer psychologically, socially and academically" while "academic achievement of...students who stay in one school is also negatively affected by the school’s mobility rate." 

While some blame the institutional overreaction on "what a large, unbending bureaucracy can do to its people, including a curious, precocious child"(1) and the "mindlessness" of "zero-tolerance laws," Jesse Lava at Daily Kos considers this primarily a racial issue. The racial discipline gap has been widely documented, with Andrea Ayres-Deets at PolicyMic noting, "...African-American students were 3-1/2 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers" and Tamar Lewin at the New York Times pointing out that "over 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black." 

Christopher Emdin at the Huffington Post also thinks the Wilmot incident highlights race-based discrimination, as well as discrimination against women and disabled persons, that is already rampant in science and engineering fields, pointing out:
"The National Science foundation recently released data indicating that women, persons with disabilities, and three racial/ethnic groups--African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians--constitute smaller percentages of science and engineering degree recipients (as well as employed scientists and engineers) than they do of the population...[T]he science and engineering workforce is largely white and male, and minority women, especially African American women, comprise about 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers."
While the initial disgraceful overreaction of Assistant State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty and the school board was certainly racially motivated and a result of a deeply flawed, assembly-line educational system, there are other factors at play, including the consequences of a disruptive gender performance and capital's insatiable need for unpaid and exploited labor.

Kiera Wilmot failed to perform her (female) gender properly, resulting in punishment by the patriarchy. According to Judith Butler, those who fail to properly perform the rituals and acts traditionally associated with one's gender are punished by a patriarchal society that relies on rigid and heteronormative gender performances to maintain its structure. By displaying curiosity about science, being adventurous, and conducting a hands-on experiment, Wilmot deviated from the female gender role (i.e. female as passive, compliant, verbal/non-physical) that patriarchy requires of women to reproduce itself. Therefore, she will suffer the consequences. Because Wilmot is a person of color, these consequences are further complicated.

The privatized (i.e. for-profit) prison system is no longer satisfied to obtain cheap labor by ensnaring young persons of color with systematic racial police oppression and violence in communities of color and has begun to rely on school expulsions and other civil matters on newly militarized campuses. As the demand for virtually unpaid prison labor increases, capital must increase incarceration rates. Since persons of color are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, these systemic efforts to sustain the pool of inexpensive labor disproportionately effect persons and neighborhoods of color. The racist foundation of the school-to-prison pipeline is obvious when a precocious 16-year-old student with no disciplinary history is carted away in handcuffs and tears then (almost) charged with a felony and expelled for mixing a couple of household chemicals together to learn what would happen. 

The school-to-prison pipeline supplies a steady flow of cheap labor to companies, as well as disenfranchises (primarily) citizens of color in many states. The most efficient way to ensure that working class persons of color trapped by the school-to-prison pipeline are unable to defend themselves from relentless attacks by a capitalist state hellbent on obtaining increasing amounts of inexpensive labor for the longest possible period of time is to drain them of energy and financial resources. This is exactly what is happening to the Wilmots. The Wilmot family resources are being steadily drained, as Kiera's mother misses days of work and pays attorneys with her single-parent income. The Wilmot family morale is also being steadily eroded: The forced school switch has separated Kiera from her twin sister, and she has been forbidden from playing cello in the local orchestra and attending its annual banquet and spring concert.

The reversal of the decision to prosecute Wilmot as an adult on felony charges for a harmless high school science experiment reveals that the school-to-prison pipeline occasionally fails to deliver to capital nearly unpaid labor and subsequently a disenfranchised citizen. The failure of the pipeline to extract cheap labor from Kiera Wilmot then strip away her voting rights is wonderful news for her. However, even when the school-to-prison pipeline ostensibly fails, it nonetheless serves as a warning, an ominous scarecrow of sorts. This scarecrow warns: even if you're a well-behaved young person of color with a healthy interest in science, you remain at risk of being incarcerated, exploited for labor, and disenfranchised; furthermore, properly perform your gender role or you will be separated from friends and loved ones, forbidden to perform extracurricular activities, and psychologically endangered. The scarecrow is a reminder that we are all constantly being monitored by the patriarchal capitalist police state and that very real consequences await those who dare to challenge it.
(1) Bill Bucolo qtd. on WMNF, 5/7/13

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