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Bad Boys

Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity

Ann Arnett Ferguson

Publication Year: 2000

Statistics show that black males are disproportionately getting in trouble and being suspended from the nation's school systems. Based on three years of participant observation research at an elementary school, Bad Boys offers a richly textured account of daily interactions between teachers and students to understand this serious problem. Ann Arnett Ferguson demonstrates how a group of eleven- and twelve-year-old males are identified by school personnel as "bound for jail" and how the youth construct a sense of self under such adverse circumstances. The author focuses on the perspective and voices of pre-adolescent African American boys. How does it feel to be labeled "unsalvageable" by your teacher? How does one endure school when the educators predict one's future as "a jail cell with your name on it?" Through interviews and participation with these youth in classrooms, playgrounds, movie theaters, and video arcades, the author explores what "getting into trouble" means for the boys themselves. She argues that rather than simply internalizing these labels, the boys look critically at schooling as they dispute and evaluate the meaning and motivation behind the labels that have been attached to them. Supplementing the perspectives of the boys with interviews with teachers, principals, truant officers, and relatives of the students, the author constructs a disturbing picture of how educators' beliefs in a "natural difference" of black children and the "criminal inclination" of black males shapes decisions that disproportionately single out black males as being "at risk" for failure and punishment. Bad Boys is a powerful challenge to prevailing views on the problem of black males in our schools today. It will be of interest to educators, parents, and youth, and to all professionals and students in the fields of African-American studies, childhood studies, gender studies, juvenile studies, social work, and sociology, as well as anyone who is concerned about the way our schools are shaping the next generation of African American boys. Anne Arnett Ferguson is Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies and Women's Studies, Smith College.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Law, Meaning, and Violence


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Though the actual work of writing this text has been a solitary activity, it has never been a lonely one. I wish to acknowledge and thank the colleagues, friends, mentors, and teachers who “kept my company” along the way and gave me critical advice, and much needed encouragement. At the University of California, Berkeley, Michael Burawoy got me ...

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Chapter One: Don’t Believe the Hype

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pp. 1-23

Soon after I began fieldwork at Rosa Parks Elementary School, one of the adults, an African American man, pointed to a black boy who walked by us in the hallway.1 “That one has a jail-cell with his name on it,” he told me. We were looking at a ten-year-old, barely four feet tall, whose frail body was shrouded in baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt. ...

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Field Note: A Field Trip

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pp. 24-28

He dragged me by the hand into his world one Saturday afternoon at the movies. On the afternoon that I crossed over, if ever so brie›y, Horace and I were in one of those late-twentieth-century cinemas where half a dozen movies are simultaneously showing in theaters carved out of what used to be one big extravagant room. We were ...

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Chapter Two: The Punishing Room

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pp. 29-44

I can hear laughter from the Punishing Room before I get to the door. A crumpled ball of paper sails by my face in the direction of a wastebasket as I enter. Five children—four boys and a girl, all African American—are in the Punishing Room this morning. Two are sitting with books and papers spread in front of them. The three standing in one ...

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Field Note: First Impressions

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pp. 45-48

My first impressions of the children and their families came from the school: from what teachers and administrators said, from school records and test scores. It was a powerful, seamless story that reinforced a “natural” connection between certain groups of children and certain outcomes. The following piece is my regurgitation of the ...

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Chapter Three: School Rules

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pp. 49-73

School rules govern and regulate children’s bodily, linguistic, and emotional expression. They are an essential element of the sorting and ranking technologies of an educational system that is organized around the search for and establishment of a ranked difference among children. This system is designed to produce a hierarchy: a few individuals who ...

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Field Note: Self-Description

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pp. 74-76

Hyper. Like if I eat sugar I end up practicing my football moves inside the house. I collide with the chair and the chair goes back and forth and I collide with the furniture. Sometimes kind. Because I like to do things for people. Like my sister this morning, she was trying to get the braids out ...

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Chapter Four: Naughty by Nature

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pp. 77-96

Two representations of black masculinity are widespread in society and school today. They are the images of the African American male as a criminal and as an endangered species. These images are routinely used as resources to interpret and explain behavior by teachers at Rosa Parks School when they make punishment decisions. An ensemble of historical ...

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A Shift in Perspective

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pp. 97-100

The material presented up to now has documented the institutional practices that produce social identities of “at-risk,” troublemakers, “unsalvageables.” From this point on, I turn to look at the meaning of getting in trouble from the kids’ perspective. We change from a standpoint that features the school’s identifying practices to one where the ...

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Chapter Five: The Real World

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pp. 101-133

It was candy, sweet, chewy, a pink and white swirl on a stick, glossy and fragrant from a big jar and offered to me for sale by a fourth-grade girl that got me thinking seriously about the meaning of rules for different groups of children in the school. Until that moment, school rules were really only words written on a piece of paper. Myelisha, a pupil in the ...

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Field Note: Mothering

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pp. 134-162

Donte lives with his mother, Mariana, and his brother in an apartment over a local fast-food restaurant on a busy street not far from a major intersection. The stairway up to the apartment is dark as night and gets darker the closer I get to the top of the stairs. There are two apartments on either side of the narrow landing; the doorways are ...

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Chapter Six: Getting in Trouble

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pp. 163-194

Horace has that drained look in his eyes that is always there when he first emerges from the classroom at the end of the day. He moves as if there is just enough energy left to get him through the door and out of school. I see the identical look of stunned exhaustion on the faces of teachers, but I am not surprised to find the aftermath of a hard workday ...

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Field Note: ODD Symptoms

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pp. 195-196

My conviction that children’s school behavior was becoming widely explained and understood as a matter of individual children’s pathology extracted from any social context deepened when, in 1994, children’s disobedience was officially classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This classification, ...

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Chapter Seven: Unreasonable Circumstances

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pp. 197-224

Just a few days after the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen who had beaten Rodney King, I overheard a conversation between a teacher and the PALS counselor in the hallway of Rosa Parks School. The teacher, a white woman, was deploring the behavior of an eleven year old African American boy, D’Andre, in her ...

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Field Note: Promotion Exercises

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pp. 225-226

The sixth-grade promotion exercises were to be held on the playground, and all of the sixth-grade classes rehearsed for the big event each day for four days. Not all of the children are present at the rehearsal, however. Some, like Claude, have been eliminated from the procedure, and he sits watching the lines of kids file out on the ...

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Chapter Eight: Dreams

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pp. 227-236

This book began with an anecdote about the school’s vice principal identifying a small boy as someone who had a jail-cell with his name on it. I started with this story to illustrate how school personnel made predictive decisions about a child’s future based on a whole ensemble of negative assumptions about African American males and their life-chances. ...

Works Cited

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pp. 237-242


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pp. 243-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026623
E-ISBN-10: 0472026623
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472088492
Print-ISBN-10: 0472088491

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2000

Series Title: Law, Meaning, and Violence