Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity
reviewed by Sandra Stein - 2002
Title: Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity
Author(s): Ann Arnett Ferguson
Publisher: University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
ISBN: 0472111035, Pages: 236 , Year: 2000
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Most educators and scholars agree that in order for meaningful teaching and learning to occur, schools need to be safe and orderly environments. However, in a society where the constructs of race, gender, age and class shape interpretations of behavior, the maintenance of an orderly school environment can interfere with the educational possibilities of certain groups of students. Bad Boys, Ann Arnett Ferguson’s provocative study of a west-coast elementary school, uncovers how daily school routines and practices construct Black masculinity as an oppositional social identity in need of discipline, punishment, and control. Such a construction impedes the educational opportunities made available to African American males.
Through participant observation, interviews and conversations, Ferguson exposes the daily routines of schooling that contribute to the disproportionate number of Black boys who are labeled as "troublemakers" and sent to sanctioned school spaces for punishment. Peppered with incisive rap lyrics, one mother’s powerful testimony, and the author’s own personal reflections, the book looks at both the structures and individual meanings of punishment in school. Revealing how adults interpret children’s emotional expression in ways that are circumscribed by conceptions of race and gender, Ferguson casts school disciplinary practices as part of an overall convergence in racial bias among the media, the criminal justice system, and schools themselves. Through depiction of both the practices of punishment and the social and personal currency that Black boys reap from troublemaker identities, Ferguson provides a persuasive indictment of punishment practices that dislodges some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about school safety and order.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part provides an institutional analysis of how schools produce social identities for Black boys. Here Ferguson weaves together school routines, critical and post-structural theories of schooling, and common media representations of Black males into a persuasive critique of punishment practices. Ferguson shows how society "adultifies" young Black boys, thus pathologizing and fearing what might otherwise be understood as common childhood expression. As racism teaches that Black males are scary, threatening, capricious, and in need of external control, society tends to adultify young Black boys’ behavior, obscuring and distorting its childish qualities.
The second part analyzes how the boys in her study make meaning about and gain power from the oppositional identities assigned to them by schools. Here Ferguson shares the perspectives of young boys who learn that they can command power, gain stature, and earn peer respect through embracing "troublemaker" identities and "bad boy" behaviors. Through the words of her study participants, the author shows how young children are cognizant of the school-based labels that shape their school experiences, and how they challenge the institutional meanings associated with such labels with social meanings of their own.
Scholarship in education raises difficult balancing acts between merely exposing pernicious institutional routines and doing so with the hope of providing useful solutions, or at least recommendations, for reorienting troubling practices. Although an important text for policymakers and practitioners alike, Ferguson’s work falls into some of the traps of applied academic analysis. While the author notes that she wants to "write something that would be not only meaningful to the people that [she] was writing about, but also useful" (36), Ferguson ultimately provides no direction for educators struggling with or against traditional paradigms of school discipline and punishment. Ferguson ends the book noting her resentment for being asked to propose solutions by consumers of her work (234). She instead notes the intractability of racism in public institutions, a conclusion that while well-grounded, provides little hope for educators seeking directions out of the current structures that govern adult-child interactions in schools.
In fact, the portrayal of school adults in this book is occasionally distracting to the main argument. Maintaining the perspective of the boys in her study, Ferguson describes adults in ways that unnecessarily vilify older individuals caught in the same structures. Her structural analysis unravels a bit as she relays individual adult behaviors and interprets adult emotions and motivations. Her portrayal of the school’s principal of whom she writes, "[s]ympathy is not one of her favorite expressions," (40) seems particularly unfortunate and unnecessary. Were Ferguson to show as much compassion in her telling of the actions of the adults who are caught in the same system as the children, her work would not suffer from the inconsistent analysis of institutional rituals and routines.
Her constructivist orientation leads her into another difficult tension between the questioning of basic social constructs and the implication that certain institutional practices violate some normative notion of those constructs. Although Ferguson questions the construct of "childhood," she argues that we treat Black boys in ways that pathologize "normal" childish behavior. In her attempts to deconstruct "childhood," she reifies a normative construct of such, asserting that we tend to condemn black boys for simply being children. While her argument about the adultification of young Black males provides some of Ferguson’s most important, insightful, and persuasive contributions, the implication of a normative way of seeing children and childhood contradicts some of the theoretical premises in which the book is grounded.
Finally, although Ferguson does not provide much sense of the overall instructional program at the school, her few vignettes and observations in classrooms reveal her dissatisfaction with the overall curricular program. One can assume that were there a strong instructional program and a rich, challenging, engaging curriculum available in the school, some of the students’ behaviors that were condemned by adults would not have arisen in the first place. The possible connections here remain unexplored, but are certainly worthy of consideration should the author follow this work up with additional investigation in other schools.
Ferguson’s work is an important contribution to the research on schooling practices. In prying loose some of the core assumptions of school disciplinary practices, exposing the racism inherent in daily interactions, and providing a forum in which boys labeled as "troublemakers" represent themselves, her work warrants significant attention and concern.