Both demagogues of the contemporary, procapitalist US right and foundational theorists of neoliberalism uphold freedom as the ultimate value and aim of politics. Yet the neoliberal political project is closely tied to the reassertion of traditional hierarchy and authority against the freedom struggles of marginalized groups.“Criminalization, the dominant racial logic of neoliberalism, supplements the demands of stratified and competitive economies with a coercive model of rule through policing.”
Two tenets of the neoliberal project render it compatible with high levels of state policing and control: the belief in natural hierarchies among human beings, both between classes and between racial and ethnic groups; and the belief that exceptions to liberal-capitalist freedom are necessary in order to control those who fail to voluntarily conform to the opportunities it offers. These tenets undergird an unstable alliance between free market advocates, white supremacists, and authoritarians that was forged in the United States in opposition to twentieth-century freedom movements. By justifying state control of populations at the margins of capitalist production through racial hierarchy, this cast of neoliberal elites authorized state coercive apparatuses that erode the freedom they claim to secure. Criminalization, the dominant racial logic of neoliberalism, supplements the demands of stratified and competitive economies with a coercive model of rule through policing. As gateways into punitive relations of control for many young people, US schools have become microcosms of authoritarian neoliberalism, as well as key sites of resistance to it.
The racist ideologies that undergird criminalization in schools and beyond are foreshadowed in early justifications for neoliberal governance. Friedrich Hayek argues that Western civilization alone has achieved the ideal of freedom. Western man, Hayek suggests, uniquely developed the habits, skills, emotional attitudes, tools, and institutions of freedom. The dominance of the Euro-Atlantic states over the colonial world, rapidly decolonizing at the time of Hayek’s writing, was the outcome of a process of social evolution that leads to the “decline” of certain groups “according to the ends they pursue and the standards of conduct they observe.”1Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 89. On this account the liberal capitalist order is “paradoxically” best maintained when paired with a high degree of submission to traditional hierarchy and authority. “Freedom,” Hayek asserts, “has never worked… without a high degree of voluntary conformity,” and thus “in some instances it would be necessary, for the smooth running of society, to secure a similar uniformity by coercion.” Market freedom is necessarily paired with social control, for “coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform.”2Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 123.
These basic tenets of neoliberal thought—cultural racism grounded in an evolutionary account of Western supremacy, and an argument that the inherent goods of Western freedom depend on the control of other peoples and groups—became the core elements of a new reactionary political majority forged in the United States in the wake of the civil rights movement.
The American neoliberal project and public education
In response to a growing black civil rights movement, US elites adapted the argument for market freedom to craft a political program for the defense of white dominance. Conservative think tanks and foundations, such as the Bradley and Walton Foundations, alongside a host of Christian conservative legal organizations founded in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, elaborated social theories and legal arguments that positioned the freedom of the individual in opposition to the state’s interest in barring discrimination and providing equal access to basic social goods. The melding of free market politics and conservatism, forged in opposition to feminism and black civil rights, formed the basis of a new conservative politics, buttressed by burgeoning grassroots evangelical and white power movements. As the US neoliberal project confronted peoples and groups that fell outside of its vision of freedom, its authoritarian tendencies grew.
This development is particularly evident in the transformation of public education over the last half century.3Ashleigh Campi, “The Unstable Alliance for School Choice: Social Movements and American Neoliberalism,” Polity 50, no. 3 (2018): 398–427. The right-wing attack on US public schools was hatched as a strategy of resisting the anticipated Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. In the wake of the decision, conservatives used school vouchers as a legal funding mechanism to direct public monies to private whites-only schools. After the Supreme Court rejected key facets of the legal argument for school desegregation in 1974, halting further racial integration, conservatives moved their focus to attacks on teachers’ unions and school boards, bulwarks of progressive liberal influence over public schools.“Private and charter schools select students most equipped to compete in enrollment processes, and through specialization and disciplinary mechanisms, they push out the neediest students to underfunded neighborhood schools.”
Since the 1980s, the conservative movement has used privatization schemes such as charters and vouchers to replace progressive administrators, teachers’ unions, and elected school boards with education management corporations run by private education entrepreneurs. Charter programs—which subcontract with private, often for-profit, entities to manage publicly funded schools—and voucher programs—which use public funds to pay tuition to private schools—create a tiered school system. Private and charter schools select students most equipped to compete in enrollment processes, and through specialization and disciplinary mechanisms, they push out the neediest students to underfunded neighborhood schools. In addition to increasing socioeconomic stratification, these strategies lead to the concentration of black and Latino youth in the most low-performing schools. Although there is fierce opposition to this conservative takeover, exemplified by the Chicago Teachers Union’s ongoing militancy and the spring 2018 wave of teachers’ strikes across the country, many liberals supported the conservative education strategy, founding private education corporations and charter schools.
The cooperation of the liberal mainstream with the right-wing education project is nowhere more evident than in the national campaign, launched in the 1990s and ongoing today, to extend crime and policing mechanisms into public schools. The 1994 Safe Schools Act (modeled on the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968) tied federal funding to schools’ efforts to track and police student crime. While the rate of school crimes was relatively low and concentrated in a small number of schools,4In 1996–97, 10 percent of schools reported an instance of violent crime. Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 212. crime control remade the school environment for all students, who are increasingly treated as potential victims, or perpetrators, of crime.
Criminalization: Instilling antidemocratic forms of rule
Policing in schools
Preemptive criminalization is a practice of rule wherein authority figures surveil, threaten, and punish members of populations whom they seek to control. Patrolled, in some cases, by onsite police officers and headed by administrators under the directive to track and divert any potential for crime, public schools become environments of preemptive criminalization. In his study of youth in Oakland, California, Victor Rios tracked the impact of what he calls the “youth control complex” in that city. The youth control complex Rios identifies—comprised of teachers, parents, probation officers, street cops, and youth services officials—exemplifies the integration of the criminal justice system and public schools. The black and Latino boys Rios studied faced an environment of pervasive criminalization, in which schools, youth centers, shop owners, and police treated them as guilty until proven innocent; schools used the criminal justice system to resolve conflicts; and schools punished boys who had been victims of crime.5New York: NYU Press, 2011More Info → Faced with school authority figures who took punitive postures while demanding total compliance, and police who staged hypermasculine confrontations through continual harassment, these young boys found their sense of possibilities for themselves and their futures hemmed in by the realities of criminalization.
The rule of law requires that individuals encounter the threat of state force only when they infringe known, standing laws; pervasive, preemptive, racially targeted policing reveals that rule of law accommodates antidemocratic forms of rule by command. The profound social exclusion faced by the young boys in Rios’s study exemplifies the effect of the increase in policing in the United States since the 1970s.6According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total number of justice employees increased by 86 percent between 1982 and 2003, with the federal government seeing the largest increase of 168 percent. The most recent year with comprehensive federal, state, and local police force employment data available is 2003. Kristen Hughes, “Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States, 2003,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, May 10, 2006. As police interrogate and threaten people of color on the streets, in stores, and in schools, they attempt to instill a relation of command and submission that is a feature of authoritarian, rather than liberal-democratic, forms of rule.“A 2011 study of Texas schools found that ‘students suspended for discretionary violations were nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.’”
Neoliberal education reforms play a part in an antidemocratic project by exacerbating racial and socioeconomic inequality between schools, while intensifying police and containment mechanisms of control. Studies find that harsh disciplinary policies adopted in many schools, such as “no excuses” policies, suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, channel students into the criminal justice system, producing what activists have dubbed a “school-to-prison pipeline.” A 2011 study of Texas schools found that “students suspended for discretionary violations were nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.”7See Tony Fabelo et al., Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement (New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2011). In 2013–14, the national Civil Rights Data Collection study of all public schools found that black students were nearly four times as likely face out-of-school suspensions as their white peers, and students with disabilities were more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without special needs. While the study did not collect data on sexuality and gender identity, LGBTQ activist organizations argue that discriminatory, punitive school environments impact this group as well.8Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Brief for the “End the School-to-Prison-Pipeline” Hearing of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, December 12, 2012, 448–453. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112shrg86166/pdf/CHRG-112shrg86166.pdf. One study found that nonheterosexual teenagers were 40 percent more likely to be punished by school authorities and the police than heterosexual teens, and advocacy groups report that this treatment extends to trans and gender nonconforming youth, contributing to high rates of unemployment, homelessness, and suicide.9Kathryn E. W. Himmelstein and Hannah Bruckner, “Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions Against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study,” Pediatrics 127, no. 1 (2011): 49–57.
Privatization of schools
Harsh disciplinary policies are a particular problem in charter schools, whose semiprivate status lets them avoid the oversight and accountability of traditional public schools. One study, for example, found that a significant numbers of charter schools suspended 50 percent of their students. Charters also disproportionately punish black boys and students with disabilities; in 2013–14 black, male youths were punished at a rate 19 percent higher than their representation in public schools, and 32 percent higher than their representation in charter schools. By disproportionately targeting black and brown students, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth, punitive school disciplinary practices not only deny these students equal access to education by pushing them out of schools, they subject them to authoritarian forms of rule that have potentially profound impact on their sense of self-worth and social belonging, as well as their ability to imagine and pursue their futures.10Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016More Info →
Building on the work of advocacy organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dignity in Schools, Journey for Justice, and the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, among others, the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice under the Obama administration launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative in 2011. The Initiative investigated school disciplinary practices, increased federal enforcement of antidiscrimination law in public schools, in particular charter schools, and worked with schools to put in place alternative disciplinary practices.
Rolling back many of these efforts, the Trump administration has accelerated the trajectory of neoliberal education reform. The 45th president and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, are openly hostile to traditional public education. In his inaugural speech, Trump labeled public schools part of the “American carnage.” DeVos comes from a super-wealthy extended family of education venture-philanthropists, and she has built her career advocating for school privatization measures. The Republican tax reform bill of 2017 benefits the network of wealthy conservative private school supporters she represents by providing tax credits for families to pay tuition for private schools. The 2018 federal budget cut $9 billion of public school funding, while diverting $1.4 billion for the expansion of voucher and charter school programs.
While empowering for-profit education companies and wealthy parents to push forward privatization measures, and the resultant stratification of schools, the Trump administration has also moved swiftly to roll back protections for the most marginalized students, while increasing punitive control measures in schools. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under Secretary DeVos rescinded guidance to public schools intended to protect transgender students’ rights and recently took steps to forego investigation of other civil rights claims against schools.
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting by an assailant allegedly radicalized by white power groups of the sort President Trump provokes, Trump vowed to “harden” the nation’s schools and rescinded Obama-era efforts to reform disciplinary policies. He outlined a plan for further integrating public schools into state police apparatuses, suggesting that up to 40 percent of teachers should be armed, and that this number could be reached by encouraging retired military and national guardsmen and women to become teachers. This incident exemplifies the cruel political manipulation that for half a century has cast black and brown students victimized by divestment and coercive discipline as perpetrators of disorder, legitimizing the assault on the most vulnerable students, their teachers, and their schools.