Substituting Prisons for Schools

Henry A. Giroux

current debates about multiculturalism in higher education represent more than
insular disputes between warring factions of professional academics. They
also, with few exceptions, harbor an indifference to the world outside of the
university that borders on bad faith and ethical irresponsibility.

As more and more young
people face a world of increasing poverty, unemployment, and diminished social
opportunities, progressive educators must become more attentive to how
multicultural politics gets worked out in public spheres that are currently
experiencing the full force of the right-wing attack on culture and racial
difference. It is no longer possible for academics to make a claim to a
radical politics of multiculturalism by defining it merely as a set of
intellectual options and curriculum imperatives. Academic multiculturalism
must also examine actual struggles taking place in the name of cultural
difference within institutional sites and cultural formations that bear the
brunt of dominant machineries of power designed to exclude, contain, or
disadvantage the oppressed.

In spite of conservative
Nathan Glazer’s claim that we are all multiculturalists now—as if the
multiculturalists (whoever they might be) need only have the force of logic on
their side—the growing assault against racial minorities has entered a
dangerous and militant stage. This is evident, in part, in the celebration in
the popular press of overtly racist books by authors such as Dinesh D’Souza,
Charles Murray, and their increasingly color-blind liberal cohorts such as Jim
Sleeper and Randall Kennedy, but also in the more overt acts of police
brutality and daily violence being waged against young black and brown
Americans who are filling up America’s prisons at an alarming rate. The
institutional and cultural spheres bearing the brunt of the racialization of
the social order are increasingly located in the criminal justice system, the
urban public schools, in retrograde anti-immigrant policy legislation, and in
the state’s ongoing attempts to force welfare recipients into workfare
programs. Moreover, the popular imagination is being fed a steady diet of
racial panic and right wing extremism through a host of Hollywood films that
suggests that urban kids who are black, brown, and poor are not only dangerous
and pathological but also disposable, subject to attacks by vigilantes and
“night riders.”

During the last five years,
a number of Hollywood films such as Dangerous Minds (1995), The
Substitute I
(1996), and High School High (1996) have cashed in on
the prevailing racially coded popular “wisdom” that public schools are out
of control, largely inhabited by illiterate, unmotivated, and violent urban
youth who are economically and racially marginalized. The increasingly
familiar script suggests a correlation between urban public space, rampant
drug use, daily assaults, broken teachers, and schools that do nothing more
than contain deviants who are a threat to themselves and everybody else. The
film 187 is a recent addition to this genre, but takes the
pathologizing of poor, urban students of color so far beyond existing
cinematic conventions that it stands out as a public testimony to broader
social and cultural formations within American society that makes the very
existence of this blatantly racist film possible.

Directed by Kevin Reynolds
and written by Scott Yagemann, a former school teacher, 187 narrates
the story of Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) a science teacher who rides
to school on a bike in order to teach at a high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Garfield is portrayed as an idealistic teacher who against all odds is trying
to make his classes interesting and do his best to battle daily against the
ignorance, chaos, and indifference that characterizes the urban public school
in the Hollywood imagination.

In the film’s opening
scenes, students move through metal detectors under the watchful eyes of
security guards. The school looks more like a prison, and the students, with
their rap music blaring in the background, look more like inmates being herded
into their cells. The threat of violence is palpable in this school and
Garfield confronts it as soon as he enters his classroom and picks up his
textbook, which has the figure “187” scrawled all over it. Recognizing
that the number is the police code for homicide, Garfield goes to the
principal to report what he believes is a threat on his life. The principal
tells Garfield he is overreacting, dismissing him with “You know what your
problem is? On the one hand, you think someone is going to kill you, and on
the other hand, you actually think kids are paying attention in your class.”
But Garfield hasn’t left before the principal confirms his fears by
revealing that he has told a student in Garfield’s class that he has flunked
the course. Not only has the principal violated Garfield’s privacy, but the
student who he has flunked is on probation and as a result of the failing
grade will now be sent back to prison. The threat of violence and
administrative ineptitude sets the stage for a hazardous series of
confrontations between Garfield and the public school system. Garfield leaves
the principal’s office terrified and walks back to his classroom. Each black
male student he now sees appears menacing and poised to attack. Shot in slow
motion, the scene is genuinely disturbing. Before Garfield reaches his
classroom, he is viciously and repeatedly stabbed with a nine inch nail in the
hallway by the black male student he has flunked.

Fifteen months later
Garfield has relocated and finds a job as a substitute teacher at John Quincy
Adams High School in Los Angeles. The students in this school are mostly
Latino. They wear oversized pants and torn shirts, carry boom boxes blaring
rap music, and appear as menacing as the African-American students Garfield
taught in Brooklyn. As the camera pans their bodies and expressions, it
becomes clear that what unites these inner-city students of color is a culture
that is dangerous, crime-ridden, and violent. Assigned to teach his class in a
bungalow, Garfield’s first day is a nightmare as students taunt him, throw
paper wads at him, and call him “bitch.” Garfield has moved from New York
to California only to find himself in a public high school setting that has
the look and feel of hell. Images of heat rising from the pavement, pulsating
rap music, shots of graffiti, and oversized shadows of gang members playing
basketball filtering through the classroom window paint an ominous picture of
what Garfield is about to experience.

Ellen Henry (Kelly Rowan),
a perky, blond computer science teacher, tries to draw close to Garfield, but
he is too battered and isolated, telling Ellen at one point that when he was
assaulted in New York, it robbed him of his “passion, my spark, my unguarded
self—I miss them.” Garfield’s descent into madness begins when his
bungalow is completely trashed by the gang members in his class. He becomes
edgy, living in a shadow of fear heightened by his past. Ellen then tells
Garfield that Benny, a particularly vicious gang member in his class, has
threatened to hurt her, and indicates to Garfield that she doesn’t know what
to do. Soon afterwards Benny disappears, but her troubles are not over as
Benny’s sidekick, Cesar, and his friends kill her dog. As a result, Cesar
becomes the object of vigilante justice. Roaming drunk near the LA freeway, he
is stalked, shot with a spiked arrow, and while unconscious his finger is cut
off. The tension mounts as Ellen finds Benny’s rosary beads in Garfield’s
apartment and confronts him with the evidence that he might be the killer.
Garfield is immune to her reproach, arguing that someone has to take
responsibility since the system will not protect “us” from “them.”
Ellen tells Garfield she doesn’t know him anymore, and Garfield replies “I
am a teacher just like you.” As the word circulates that Garfield may be the
vigilante killer and assailant, the principal moves fast to protect the school
from a lawsuit and fires him.

Garfield, now completely
broken, goes home and is soon visited by Cesar and his gang, who inspired by
the film, The Deer Hunter, force Garfield into a game of Russian
roulette. With little to lose, Garfield tells Cesar he is not really a man,
and ups the stakes of the game by taking Cesar’s turn. Garfield pulls the
trigger and kills himself. Forced into questioning his own manhood, Cesar
decides to take his turn, puts the gun to his head, and fatally shoots himself
as well. In the final scene of the film, a student is reading a graduation
speech about how teachers rarely get any respect, the shot switches to Ellen
who is in her classroom. Ellen takes her framed teaching certificate off the
wall, throws it into the wastebasket, and walks out of the school.

The conditions that produce
such denigrating images of inner-city public schools—poverty, family
turmoil, violent neighborhoods, unemployment, crumbling school buildings, lack
of material resources, or iniquitous tax structures—are, of course, absent
from 187 and all other films in this rising genre. Depoliticized,
Hollywood portrays public schools as not only dysfunctional, but also as an
imminent threat to the dominant society. Students represent a criminalized
underclass who must be watched and contained through the heavy-handed use of
high-tech monitoring systems and military-style authority. Instead of smaller
class sizes, inspiring teachers, visionary administrators, and ample learning
resources, the children of the urban poor are treated to the latest
“security” techniques. Hence, urban schools are increasingly subject to
electronic surveillance, private police forces, padlocks, and alarms more
suggestive of prisons or “war zones.” Films like 187 carry the
logic of racial stereotyping to a new level and represents one of the most
egregious examples of how popular cultural texts can be used to demonize black
and Latino youth while reproducing a consensus of common sense that
legitimates racist policies of either containment or abandonment in the inner
cities. The depictions of urban youth as dangerous, pathological, and violent,
in turn, finds its counterpart in the growth of a highly visible criminal
justice system whose get-tough policies fall disproportionately on poor black
and brown youth.

Such policies represent
more than the celebrated “war on drugs,” they threaten to wipe out a whole
generation of young black males who are increasingly incarcerated in prisons
and jails, and whose populations are growing at the rate of about seven
percent a year and costs more than 30 billion annually to operate. The figures
are disturbing: “Between 1983 and 1998 the number of prisoners in the U.S.
increased from 650,000 to more than 1.7 million. About 60 percent of that
number are African-Americans and Latinos. More than one-third of all young
black men in their 20s are currently in jail, on probation or parole, or
awaiting trial. We are now adding 1,200 new inmates to U.S. jails and prisons
each week, and adding about 260 new prison beds each day.”

This state of affairs is
compounded by the disturbing fact that as a result of serving time nearly half
of the next generation of black males will forfeit their right to vote in
several states. How can a cultural text such as 187 be used to engage
students in addressing their own views on race and multiculturalism? At the
very least, educators can address 187 not merely in terms of what such
a text might mean but how it functions within a set of complex social
reactions that create the conditions of which it is a part and from which it

Engaging the potential
discursive effects of films such as 187 might mean discussing the
implication of this Hollywood film in appropriating the name of the
controversial California proposition to deny mostly non-white students access
to public schools. Or engaging how 187 contributes to a public
discussion that rationalizes both the demonization of minority youth and the
defunding of public and higher education at a time when in states such as
California “approximately 22,555 African Americans attend a four-year public
university…while 44,792 (almost twice as many) African Americans are in
prison [and] this figure does not include all the African Americans who are in
county jails or the California Youth authority or those on probation or

Hollywood films such as 187
must be addressed and understood within a broader set of policy debates about
education and crime which often serve to legitimate policies that disempower
poor and racially marginalized youth. For example, nationwide state spending
for corrections has increased 95 percent over the last decade, while spending
on higher education decreased 6 percent. Similarly, “over a ten year period,
the number of correctional officers increased four times the rate of public
higher education faculty.” It is not surprising that the chosen setting for 187
is primarily California, a state that now “spends more on corrections (9.4
percent of the General Fund) than on higher education.” While it would be
absurd to suggest to students that films such as 187 are responsible
for recent government spending allocations, they do take part in a public
pedagogy and representational politics that cannot be separated from a growing
racial panic and fear over minorities, the urban poor, and immigrants.

Films such as 187, The
Substitute I & II
, and Dangerous Minds fail to rupture the
racial stereotypes that support harsh, discriminatory crime policies and
growing incidents of police brutality, such as the highly publicized torture
of Abner Louima by a Brooklyn patrolperson or the recent shooting death of
Amadou Diallo by four New York City plainclothes police who riddled his body
and an apartment building vestibule with 41 bullets, in spite of the fact that
Diallo was unarmed. Such films have little to say about police assaults on
poor black neighborhoods such as those conducted by former LA police Chief
Daryl Gates against south-central Los Angeles.

What is unique about 187
is that it explores cinematically what the logical conclusion might be in
dealing with urban youth for whom reform is no longer on the national agenda,
for which containment or the militarization of school space seem both
inadequate and too compromising. Carried to the extreme, 187 flirts
with the ultimate white supremacist logic, i.e., extermination and genocide of
those others deemed beyond the pale of social reform, inhuman, and despicable.
187 capitalizes on the popular conception reported endlessly in the
media that public education is not safe for white, middle-class children, that
racial violence is rampant in the public schools, that minority students have
turned classroom discipline into a joke, that administrators are paralyzed by
insensitive bureaucracies, and the only thing that teachers and students share
is the desire to survive the day. But the implications of cultural texts such
as 187 become meaningful not just as strategies of understanding and
critical engagement that raise questions about related discourses, texts, and
social issues, they also become meaningful in probing what it might mean to
move beyond the sutured institutional space of the classroom to address social
issues in related spheres marked by racial injustices and unequal relations of

The popularity of such
films as 187 in the heyday of academic multiculturalism points to the
need, in light of such representations, for educators to expand their
understanding of politics as part of a broader project designed to address
major social issues in the name of a multiracial democracy. This suggests
getting beyond reducing multiculturalism to simply the study of texts or
discourse in order to address multicultural politics as part of the struggle
over power and resources in a variety of public spheres. This might mean, as
Michael Berube points out, struggling to change how the “economics of school
funding and school policy [work to] sustain segregation in American public
education [through] inhuman fiscal policies that have ensured the continuous
impoverishment of schools attended wholly by black or Hispanic
schoolchildren.” Or what it might mean for students to engage in a politics
of multiculturalism aimed at reforming a criminal justice system that
disproportionately incarcerates and punishes minorities of class and color.
Issues of representation and identity in this case offer the opportunity for
multicultural educators to explore and challenge both the strengths and limits
of cultural texts.

This suggests developing a
pedagogy that promotes a social vocabulary of cultural difference that links
strategies of understanding to strategies of engagement, that recognizes the
limits of the university as a site for social engagement, and refuse to reduce
politics to matters of language and meaning that erase broader issues of
systemic political power, institutional control, economic ownership, and the
distribution of cultural and intellectual resources in a wide variety of
public spaces.

I recognize academics can
not become public intellectuals by mere force of will, given the professional
and institutional constraints under which they operate. But if
multiculturalism is not going to take seriously the link between culture and
power, progressive educators will have to rethink collectively what it means
to link the struggle for change within the university to struggles for change
in the broader society. This may be risky politically and pedagogically, but
the promise of a multicultural democracy far outweighs the security and
benefits that accompany silence, conformity, and a retreat into color blind