Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2001

Zero Tolerance

By Henry A. Giroux

Creating a Generation of Suspects

There is a growing sense in American life that politics has become corrupt. Those traditional public spheres in which people could exchange ideas, debate, and shape the conditions that structured their everyday lives increasingly appear to have little relevance or political importance. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into public concerns and collective action. Civic engagement now appears impotent and public values are rendered invisible in light of the growing power of multinational corporations to privatize public space and disconnect power from issues of equity, social justice, and civic responsibility. Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the increasingly popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market values replace social values and people appear more and more willing to re treat into the safe, privatized enclaves of the family, religion, and consumption. The result is not only silence and indifference, but the terrible price paid in what Zygmunt Bauman calls the "hard currency of human suffering."

As those public spaces that offer forums for debating norms, critically engaging ideas, making private issues public, and evaluating judgments disappear under the juggernaut of neoliberal policies, it becomes crucial for progressives to raise fundamental questions about what it will take to revitalize a politics and ethics that takes seriously the values Bauman names: "citizen participation, the public good, political obligation, social governance, and community." The call for a revitalized politics grounded in an effective democracy substantively challenges the dystopian practices of neoliberalism--with its all-consuming emphasis on market relations, commercialization, privatization, and the creation of a world-wide economy of part-time workers--against its utopian promises. Such an intervention confronts progressives with the problem as well as the challenge of developing those public spheres--such as the media, public and higher education, and other cultural institutions--that provide the conditions for c reating citizens who are capable of exercising their freedoms, competent to question the fundamental assumptions that govern political life, and skilled enough to participate in shaping the basic social, political, and economic orders that govern their lives.

For many young people and adults today, the private sphere has become the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure, or possibility. Market forces increasingly narrow the legitimacy of the public sphere by redefining it around the related issues of consumption and safety. And as social visions of equity cede from public memory, unfettered brutal self-interests are combining with retrograde social polices to make security a top domestic priority. One consequence is that all levels of government are being hollowed out, reducing their role to dismantling social programs and protecting corporate interests from being regulated. Big government is now popularly presented as the enemy of freedom, a strategy designed to undermine a dynamic public sphere and pursue policies that criminalize social problems and prioritize penal methods over social investment. The growing lack of justice in American society is directly connected to the lack of political imagination and collective hope.

We live at a time when the forces and advocates of neoliberalism are not only attempting to undermine all attempts to revive the culture of politics as an ethical response to the demise of democratic public life, but are also aggressively waging a war against the very possibility of creating non-commodified public spheres and forums that provide the conditions for critical education, link learning to social change, political agency to the defense of public goods, and intellectual courage with the refusal to surrender knowledge to the highest bidder. Understood as both a set of economic policies and an impoverished notion of citizenship, neoliberalism represents not just a series of market-driven programs but also a coherent set of cultural, political, and educational practices.

Often missing in analyses of neoliberalism are the effects its practices and policies are having on urban public schools and youth. Traditionally, public schools have been seen as an invaluable public good, largely immune from the language of privatization and commercialism. With the advent of neoliberalism however, public schools are no longer seen as a public asset but are now viewed as a private good. Moreover, as the state, stripped of its power to mediate between human needs and capital, loses its capacity to offer social guarantees to youth and other marginalized groups, young people are increasingly removed from the inventory of ethical and political concerns. One consequence is the growing support among the American public for policies, at all levels of government, that abandon young people, especially youth of color, to the dictates of a society that increasingly addresses social problems through the police, courts, and prison system. This is clear not only in the growth of domestic militarization a nd widespread use of zero tolerance policies both in the criminal justice system and the public schools--with their emphasis on mandatory intolerance--but also in the degrading representations, repressive practices, and policies that target young people across a wider variety of public spheres. For example, within the last decade, youth have become public enemy number one--blamed in the press, Hollywood films, and on an endless array of right-wing talk shows for nearly all of our major social ills extending from violence and drug use to the breakdown of family values. Rather than being at risk in a society marked by deep racial, economic, and social inequalities, youth have become the risk.

This shift in the public's perception of young people as ultraviolent, predatory, and morally depraved serves to largely eradicate any notion of adult responsibility for youth, offering few possibilities for analyzing how teens view themselves and their own sense of agency, experience their relations with others within diverse social spheres, and mediate power relations with adults. Symptomatic of the increasing treatment of youth as a generation of suspects is the growing emergence of zero tolerance policies in the schools and the implications the latter have for public education.

Across the nation school districts are lining up to embrace zero tolerance policies. Emulating state and federal laws passed in the 1990s based on mandatory sentencing and "three strikes and you're out" policies, many educators first invoked zero tolerance rules against kids who brought guns to schools--fueled by the high profile school shootings in the mid-1990s. But as the climate of fear increased, the assumption that schools were dealing with a new breed of student--violent, amoral, and apathetic--began to take hold in the public imagination. As school safety become a top educational priority, zero tolerance policies were broadened and now include a range of behavioral infractions that encompass everything from possessing drugs or weapons to threatening other students-all broadly conceived and loosely defined. One of the most publicized cases illustrating the harshness of zero tolerance policies took place recently in Decatur, Illinois when seven African American students, who participated in a fight at a football game that lasted seventeen seconds and was marked by the absence of any weapons, were expelled for two years. Two of the young men were seniors about to graduate. None of the boys at the hearing were allowed counsel or the right to face their accusers; nor were their parents allowed any degree of involvement in the case. When Jesse Jackson brought national attention to the incident, the Decatur school board reduced the expulsions to one year.

Any sense of perspective seems lost, as school systems across the country clamor for metal detectors, armed guards, see-through knapsacks, and, in some cases, armed teachers. Some school systems are investing in new software in order to "profile" students who might exhibit criminal behavior. What was viewed in the past as typical teenage behavior is now criminalized by school officials. For example, a sixth grader in Austell, Georgia was suspended for ten days because she had a ten-inch chain on her Tweety Bird wallet that violated the school district's zero tolerance policy--the chain was defined as a deadly weapon. Officials at Rangeview High School in Colorado, after unsuccessfully trying to expel a student because they found three baseball bats on the floor of his car, ended up suspending him, and USA Today reported on two Illinois seven-year-olds who were suspended for having nail clippers with knifelike attachments."

As Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman points out, zero tolerance has become a code word for a "quick and dirty way of kicking kids out" of school. For example, The Denver Rocky Mountain News reported in June of 1999 that "partly as a result of such rigor in enforcing Colorado's zero tolerance law, the number of kids kicked out of public schools has skyrocketed since 1993--from 437 before the law to nearly 2,000 in the 1996-1997 school year." Within such a climate of disdain and intolerance, expelling students does more than pose a threat to innocent kids, it also suggests that local school boards are refusing to do the hard work of exercising judgment, trying to understand what the conditions are that undermine school safety, and providing reasonable services for all students and viable alternatives for the troubled ones. But there is more at stake. As the criminalization of young people finds its way into the classroom, it becomes easier to punish students rather than listen to them. Even though enforcing such policies clogs up the courts and puts additional pressure on an already overburdened juvenile justice system, educators appear to have few qualms about doing so. Moreover, automatic expulsion policies do little to produce either a safer school or society since, as Clare Kittredge points out, "we already know that lack of attachment to the school is one of the prime predictors of delinquency."

Most insidiously, zero tolerance laws, while a threat to all youth and any viable notion of democratic public education, reinforce in the public imagination the image of students of color as a source of public fears and a threat to public school safety. Zero tolerance policies and laws appear to be well-tailored to mobilizing racialized codes and racial-based moral panics. Not only do most of the high profile zero tolerance cases, such as the Decatur school incident, often involve African American students, but such policies also reinforce the racial inequities that plague school systems across the country. For example, the New York Times has reported on a number of studies illustrating "that black students in public schools across the country are far more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled, and far less likely to be in gifted or advanced placement classes." Even in a city such as San Francisco, considered a bastion of liberalism, African American students pay a far greater price for zero toleran ce policies. Libero Della Piana reports that "according to data collected by Justice Matters, a San Francisco agency advocating equity in education, African Americans make up 52 percent of all suspended students in the district--far in excess of the 16 percent of the general population." A federal study recently reported that "black students are suspended and expelled from public schools far out of proportion to their enrollment numbers.... In 1998, the first year national expulsion figures were gathered, 31 percent of kids expelled were black, but blacks made up only 17 percent of the students in public schools."

As compassion and understanding give way to rigidity and intolerance, schools increasingly become more militarized and function as a conduit to the penal system. The measure of such a transformation is not limited to the increasingly fortress-like quality of American schools--which are marked by the foreboding presence of hired armed guards in the corridors, patrolled cafeterias, locked doors, video surveillance cameras, electronic badges, police dogs, and routine drug searches. It is also present in a culture of fear that exhibits a deep distrust, if not hostility and revulsion, towards young people, especially youth of color. In Louisiana for instance, school board member Ray St. Pierre proposed that any student in junior high or high school who is caught fighting "would be handcuffed inside the school by sheriff's deputies and taken to a juvenile facility where he would be charged with disturbing the peace." In case parents miss the point, they would have to pay a cash bond for their child's release. As a result of St. Pierre's notion of getting tough on misbehavior, the school provides not only an opportunity for students to leave with a diploma but also with a police record. The image of kids being handcuffed, pulled out of a school, and dragged away in the back of a police van or patrol car has become so commonplace in the United States that the psychological, political, and social consequences of such a brutal policy barely raise an eyebrow and are more routinely met with public approval.

As well as turning schools into an adjunct of the criminal justice system, zero tolerance policies also further rationalize misplaced legislative priorities, and that has profound social costs. Instead of investing in early childhood programs, repairing deteriorating school buildings, or hiring more qualified teachers, schools now spend millions of dollars to upgrade security. This logic of domestic militarization produces an authoritarian irrationalism, as in Fremont High School in Oakland, California where school administrators decided to build a security fence costing $500,000 rather than replace the broken heating system. In fact many states now spend more on prisons than on university construction.

Young people are quickly realizing that schools have more in common with military boot camps and prisons than they do with other institutions in American society. In addition, as schools abandon their institutional role as models for democratic citizenship, they lose their ability to provide students with the skills to cope with human differences, uncertainty, and the various symbolic and institutional forces that undermine political agency and democratic public life itself. As schools become militarized and fenced off from the communities that surround them, they lose their ability to become anything other than spaces of containment and control. Discipline and training replace education for all but the privileged as schools increasingly take on an uncanny resemblance to oversized police precincts. Coupled with the corporate emphasis on privatizing schools, the motif of punishment and withdrawal--civic and interpersonal--governs this new form of school regulation and administration.

Neoliberalism works not only to produce a depoliticized consumer culture, it also limits the possibilities for any noncommodified social domains where young and old alike can experience dissent and difference as part of a multicultural democracy, locate metaphors of hope, respond to those who carry on the legacies of moral witnessing, and imagine relationships outside of the dictates of the market and the authoritarian rule of penal control. Educators and others need to rethink what it means to not only challenge a system that turns its children into a generation of suspects, but also how it might be possible to radically transform a social order marked by zero tolerance policies that reinforce modes of authoritarian control and social amnesia in a vast and related number of powerful institutional spheres. This suggests the need for both a collective struggle for public space and a public dialogue about how to imagine reappropriating a notion of politics that contributes to the development of authentic democ racy while simultaneously articulating a new discourse, set of theoretical tools, and social possibilities for reviving civic education as a basis for political agency and social transformation.

Zero tolerance is not the problem as much as it is symptomatic of a much broader set of issues centered around the gulf between the regime of the political--everything that concerns modes of power--and the realm of politics--the multiple ways in which human beings create and question established power, transform institutions, and reject "all authority that would fail to render an account and provide reasons ... for the validity of its pronouncements." Because it has no stake in defining political culture outside of the interest of the market, neoliberalism systematically denies citizens the tools and vocabulary that would link the possibilities for self-reflection, deliberation, and collective action to opening up public space and deepening the imperatives of democracy. Neoliberalism offers no intellectual tools or political vocabulary for addressing this gap nor does it have any interest in supporting forms of civic education designed to question, challenge, and transform power as part of a political and et hical response to the demise of democratic public life.

There is more at stake here than recognizing the limits and social costs of a neoliberal philosophy that reduces all relationships to the exchange of goods and money; there is also the responsibility on the part of critical intellectuals and other activists to rethink the nature of the public, and how new forms of social citizenship and civic education that have a purchase on people's everyday lives and struggles might be expressed through a wide range of institutions. I believe that intellectuals and other cultural workers bear an enormous responsibility to oppose neoliberalism by bringing democratic political culture back to life. Part of this challenge suggests creating new locations of struggle, vocabularies, and subject positions that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within existing institutional and social formations. In part this suggests resisting the attack on existing public spheres such as the schools while s imultaneously creating new spaces in clubs, neighborhoods, bookstores, schools, and other places where dialogue and critical exchanges become possible.

Progressives need a new vocabulary for linking hope, social citizenship, and education to the demands of a substantive democracy. While I believe we need a new vocabulary for connecting how we read critically to how we engage in movements for social change, I also believe that simply invoking the relationship between theory and practice, critique and social action will not do. Any attempt to give new life to a substantive democratic politics must also address how people learn to be political agents and what kind of educational work is necessary within what kind of public spaces to enable people to use their full intellectual resources to both provide a profound critique of existing institutions and struggle to create, as Stuart Hall puts it, "what would be a good life or a better kind of life for the majority of people." As progressives, we are required to understand more fully why the tools we used in the past feel awkward in the present, often failing to respond to problems now facing the United States and other parts of the globe. More specifically, we need to understand the failure of existing critical discourses to bridge the gap between how the society represents itself and how and why individuals fail to understand and critically engage such representations in order to intervene in the oppressive social relationships they often legitimate.

The growing attack on youth and public education in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying our intellectual, ethical, and political projects, especially as they work to reabsorb questions of agency, ethics, and meaning back into politics and public life. Along these lines, Sheldon Wolin has recently argued that we need to rethink the notion of loss and how it impacts upon the possibility for opening up democratic public life. Wolin points to the need for progressives, theorists, and critical educators to resurrect and raise questions about "What survives of the defeated, the indigestible, the unassimilated, the 'cross-grained,' the 'not wholly obsolete'." He argues that "something is missing" in an age of manufactured politics and pseudo-publics catering almost exclusively to desires and drives produced by the commercial hysteria of the market. What is missing is a language, movement, and vision that refuses to equate democracy with consumerism, market relations, and privatization. In the absence of such a language and the social formations and public spheres that make it operative, politics becomes narcissistic and caters to the mood of widespread pessimism and the cathartic allure of the spectacle.

Against neoliberalism, progressives need to resurrect a language of resistance and possibility, a language that embraces a militant utopianism while constantly being attentive to those forces that seek to turn such hope into a new slogan or punish and dismiss those who dare look beyond the horizon of the given. Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites, the mark of courage on the part of intellectuals in and out of the academy who use the resources of theory to address pressing social problems. But hope is also a referent for civic courage and its ability to mediate the memory of loss and the experience of injustice as part of a broader attempt to open up new locations of struggle, contest the workings of oppressive power, and undermine various forms of domination. At its best, civic courage as a political practice begins when one's life can no longer be taken for granted. In doing so, it makes concret e the possibility for transforming hope and politics into an ethical space and public act that confronts the flow of everyday experience and the weight of social suffering with the force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic social transformation.

Zero tolerance has become a metaphor for hollowing out the state and expanding the forces of domestic militarization, for reducing democracy to the rule of capital and replacing an ethic of mutual aid with an appeal to excessive individualism and social indifference. Within this logic, the notion of the political increasingly equates power with domination, and politics with consumerism and passivity. Within this insufferable climate of manufactured indifference, increased repression, and unabated exploitation, young people become the new casualties in an ongoing war against justice, freedom, social citizenship, and democracy. As desperate as these conditions appear at the present moment, they have increasingly become the basis for a surge of political resistance on the part of many youth, intellectuals, labor unions, educators, and other activists.

One glimmer of hope can be found in the recent examples of protest and resistance set by young people on campuses across the country dedicated to fighting the increasing corporatization of higher education as well as those who marched in Seattle, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and in other cities protesting the actions of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the overall injustices perpetrated by global capitalism. For many of these young people, politics is about expanding the possibilities of democracy, community, solidarity, and social justice. Their struggles for social and economic justice remind us that collective problems deserve collective solutions. The crisis of youth and race is really symptomatic of the much broader crisis of democracy; in spite of what is portrayed in the dominant media, the enemy of democracy is not difference but bigotry, widespread poverty, the growing racial divide, under-funded public schools, and miserable health care for large segments of the population.

For many youth, the future appears to be a repeat of the present, a period not unlike what the singer and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron once called "winter in America." The time for social change has never been so urgent; the fate of an entire generation of young people is at stake. As parents, critical

citizens, and educators we need to defend democratic public life, construct vibrant public spheres, and develop strategies and social movements that connect meaning, justice, and social agency with a viable notion of democratic politics.

Henry A. Giroux teaches at Penn State University. His most recent books include Channel Surfing: Corporate Culture's War Against Youth (St. Martin's Press, 2000) and Impure Acts: The Practical Politics of Cultural Studies (Routledge, 2000).

Source Citation

Giroux, Henry A. 2001. Zero Tolerance. Tikkun 16(2): 29.

tags: Education, Justice & Prisons