Reflecting on the education of the murderer of eight parishioners in the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a teacher interviewed in the GQ article, “The Making of Dylann Roof,” recalled Roof as not being “part of the in crowd.” The teacher likened him to working-class Bostonians who felt inferior to the Cambridge-bred upper classes. “So maybe Dylann’s family is a good example of downward social mobility,” the teacher added. Another teacher couldn’t remember anything distinct about Roof except that he compulsively used hand sanitizer.
That they couldn’t really remember anything meaningful about Roof means that they never really got to know him. If his teachers had engaged Roof while he was in their classes, if they had succeeded in piercing his isolation, could they have helped prevent his heinous crime?
According to a 2015 analysis in The New York Times, 1.5 million black men are disengaged or “missing” from American society, as compared to black women. Though there is no gender gap in childhood, an imbalance appears during the teen years, and adult black men are disproportionately incarcerated or likely to die premature deaths. This lack of men has long-lasting implications for black women, families and society as a whole.
Whether behind bars or outside, black men are socially isolated because of mass incarceration. The Black Lives Matter movement is in part a defense of blacks who are collateral damage to biased policing. The isolation is not without consequence. Black males exhibit risk-taking behaviors more frequently than their female peers according to findings in the Journal of Black Psychology and Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
Isolation begins in school, and with black kids being hit with higher suspension and expulsion rates, it manifests in the school-to-prison pipeline. Along the way, homicides, sexually transmitted diseases and drug use take the lives of black men and boys.
Teachers play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline by suspending, expelling and counseling students to switch schools who may subsequently end up in prison, or by having students arrested in schools. So they must be a part of ending the institutional isolation of black boys and help prevent their early death, violent crime and imprisonment. I don’t think Dylann Roof’s massacre and the average crimes of black men are equivalent, but if loneliness and isolation lead to something more violent, then teachers should take a preventative stance.
To clarify, isolation occurs at individual and societal levels. Education can mitigate both. Teachers should thwart individual behaviors of powerful students and cliques that isolate their peers. Children who are socially isolated early in their schooling develop mental health problems in early adolescence, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The study also found that children with existing mental health issues had an increased risk of becoming more socially isolated.
I recently heard about an encouraging exercise an elementary school teacher started doing after the Columbine murders. She had all her kids write down which four children they wanted to sit next to the following week. No one else saw their choices, only this teacher, and her students knew she may or may not honor their requests. The reason she did this was to discern patterns in her classroom, to learn which kids were not being requested at all, or which kids didn’t know who to request, who may be getting bullied or who might be doing the bullying. This was her way to learning where her intervention was required, who she needed to encourage to make friends.
We will never know the long-term effects of her simple exercise, but I like to think that she made a real difference in her students’ lives. From cases of bullying that have received more attention in recent years to harassment levels in schools that have risen since Donald Trump was elected president, teachers must manage social dynamics in the classroom alongside academics.
In addition to breaking up cliques, on a more systemic level, school districts have to push for integrated schools to counteract the social isolation of entire communities caused by education policy. Adults’ negative perceptions of low-income and people of color drive white and middle-class flight, as well as playing a part in neighborhoods voting to secede from majority-minority districts. All of this isolates low-income black and brown children in public schools. On the other hand, teaching diverse classrooms can break the self-fulfilling prophecy of white and class-based superiority.
Social isolation can help also explain a woeful trend among black youth. Typically, suicide rates are higher among white communities. However, “[y]ounger children who died by suicide were far more likely to be black than early adolescents,” according to a 2016 Time analysis of a study of youth suicide. Marginalization of communities by education, housing and criminal justice policies may play a significant role in the mental health of a wide swath of people.
“America is more diverse than ever before, but its schools are growing more segregated,” wrote Beverly Daniel Tatum, education researcher and former university president of the historically black Spelman College. Tatum addresses the fiscal costs of re-segregation and its effects on social mobility in her op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Other costs of social isolationism, such as low self-esteem, receive less attention but are as important to our wellbeing. The famous baby doll test in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case that desegregated American educational institutions may be the penultimate illustration of how policy, in this case school segregation, can negatively affect identity. Segregated schools fuel a vicious cycle of social and economic divestment that encourages psychological internalization of superiority and/or inferiority.
But clearly, society has ignored the lessons of Brown vs. Board. Educators and policy makers still have opportunities to teach and apply the ethic that we’re all in this together. The educational holes we dig for ourselves will become others’ graves. History has shown the results of this path we’re on. We can continue on it, or find another way — together.