Depending on where you live, corporal punishment—the practice of school administrators, staffers, or teachers subjecting students to physical punishment—may seem like it belongs in a bygone era. But in fact, the practice is still legal in many states, many of them in the South.
A new study shared with HuffPost takes a deeper look at places that still practice corporal punishment, or have only recently stopped, and traces its roots. Researchers found that historic rates of lynching are linked to contemporary incidents of corporal punishment, and established that Black students are disproportionately likely to suffer this kind of discipline.
“We suspect that schools in counties with more pronounced histories of violent racialized social control, where physical pain has long been used to discipline and punish marginalized populations, are more likely to employ corporal punishment, and disproportionately impose this punishment on Black students today,” reads the study.
The study reached its conclusions by comparing a database of historic lynchings with self-reported data on corporal punishment taken by schools in 10 Southern states.
Nearly 90% of districts in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi reported at least one school using corporal punishment during the 2011-2012 school year. Black students were at much higher risk for this punishment, despite committing a smaller share of “serious student misconduct,” says previous research cited in the study. Each additional historic lynching in a state’s county, the study found, increased the odds corporal punishment happening to a Black student by about 6%. These odds also increased about 4% for white students.
Aaron Kupchik, professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware and the study’s co-author, emphasized the heavy-handed punishment Black students face “doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
“There’s a historical trajectory,” said Kupchik. “Though this happened 100 years ago, the rates of racial violence are predictive of how we punish Black students today.”
The study can be seen as further documentation of “the afterlife of slavery,” a term coined by academic and writer Saidiya Hartman to describe the way Black lives remain “imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”
Complicating this practice is how widespread and accepted corporal punishment is among some Black communities, where Black educators and parents have accepted this kind of punishment as normal.
“It is well established that Black population support for corporal punishment is rooted in concerns for survival in a hostile social environment,” the study mentions.
Participating in the HuffPost article was Ellen Reddy, executive director of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Durant, Mississippi, which has advocated against corporal punishment in public schools. Reddy is quick to share research on corporal punishment with those who support it, pointing to studies that show this practice actually increases aggressive behavior, as well as putting children who suffer it at risk for mental health disorders. But despite the growing body of research on the harms of physically disciplining one’s children, the attachment to corporal punishment is not an easy one to sever in the Black community, Reddy says.
“It’s the culture. Not necessarily the Black culture, but the culture of where we are, the deep South. It’s part of the culture in which we have been oppressed,” Reddy told HuffPost. “We still have not gotten rid of beating our children and somehow thinking beating is going to make them better human beings.”
In these conversations, Reddy also outlines different practices and resources that could replace corporal punishment, such as peer meditation, and better supported, better-resourced school counselors. People are usually more amenable once they hear there are other methods to address troubling or disruptive behavior, but she still finds people “prefer the status quo if the alternative requires effort and money,” HuffPost writes.
Reddy hopes that the Black Lives Matter protests will help people think more holistically about the harms of corporal punishment, and what it can and cannot control.
“The white community will still view [our kids] as criminals,” she pointed out. “Doesn’t matter how well behaved they are,” she said.