Punishing bad boys: intersections of race, class and gender


Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale look at Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity (Ann Arbour, University of Michigan Press, 2001).

This is a very good book about the depth of American racism behind the school to prison pipeline, the Ferguson and Black Lives Matter protests, and the new civil rights movement which is emerging in the United States. Bad Boys should also be read as a model for sociological research and theory. It is a brilliant example of how to do intersectional analysis.

The book begins –

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. “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. The boy, Lamar, passed with the careful tread of someone who was in no hurry to get where he was going. He was on his way to the Punishing Room of the school. As he glanced quickly toward and then away from us, the image of the figure of Tupac Shakur on the poster advertising the movie Juice flashed into my mind. I suppose it was the combination of the hooded sweatshirt, the guarded expression in his eyes, and what my companion had just said that reminded me of the face on the film poster that stared at me from billboards and sidings all over town.


I was shocked that judgement and sentence had been passed on this child so matter-of-factly by a member of the school staff. But by the end of the school year, I had begun to suspect that a prison cell might indeed have a place in Lamar’s future. What I observed at Rosa Parks during more than three years of fieldwork in the school, heard from the boy himself, from his teachers, from his mother, made it clear that just as children were tracked into futures as doctors, scientists, engineers, word processors, and fast-food workers, there were also tracks for some children, predominantly African American and male, that led to prison. This book tells the story of the making of these bad boys, not by members of the criminal justice system on street corners, or in shopping malls, or video arcades, but in and by school, through punishment. It is an account of the power of institutions to create, shape and regulate social identities.

The statistics about school trouble and punishment were raced and gendered. The numbers for one school year say it all. African American boys were only a quarter of the students at the school, but half of all the children sent to the Punishing Room. Three-quarters of the children suspended from school that year were boys, and eighty percent of these were African American. Ferguson’s aim was to understand the processes which produced the stats. She wanted to find out why the kids who are sent to ‘the ‘jailhouses and dungeons’ in school systems across the United States are disproportionately black and male’. Her question is an old one. Her answers however are complex and unusual.

Now that explicit, overt racism is no longer acceptable in the US, Ferguson shows us how gender instead is used to create a racist reality and punish black people for being black. What we see in this book is the reconstitution of racism done by punishing black boys for what teachers see as their masculinity. As Ferguson herself puts it ‘Though the racial etiquette of today’s form of racism has sent a discourse of racial difference underground, it piggybacks on our beliefs about sex difference in the construction of images. I explore the specific way that black boys are constituted as different from boys-in-general by virtue of the sexing of racial meaning’.

What is particularly instructive is Ferguson’s approach to her topic through the idea of gender and not women or men. Treating ‘women’ and ‘men’, or ‘male’ and ‘female’ as fixed categories would have made it impossible describe the different masculinities modelled in the school. Indeed, central to her account are the different stereotypes and nuanced differences between masculine styles. There are middle class black and white male teachers and ancillary staff at the school, the white boys bussed in from middle class suburbs, the few black schoolboys who may find their way into the middle class through education or sport and the stigmatized tough masculine styles of the black working class ‘troublemakers’ and bad boys.

One of Ferguson’s aims was to challenge ‘the categories of race, class and gender, as if they are isolated and independent social locations’. Addressing questions of intersectionality, she writes –

Sex is a powerful marker of difference as well as race. While the concept of intersecting social categories is a useful analytical device for formulating this convergence, in reality we presume to know each other instantly in a coherent, apparently seamless way. We do not experience individuals as bearers of separate identities, as gendered and then as raced or vice versa, but as both at once. The two are inextricably intertwined and circulate together in the representations of subjects and the experience of subjectivity.

Ferguson’s ethnographic fieldwork was in a West Coast primary school. She describes how educational  practices and stereotypes of racial difference – both of them working in covert and informal ways – maintain a racial hierarchy which is now increasingly defined in terms of cultural, rather than biological differences. ‘Black people, in this form of racism, can only redress their condition by rejecting the cultural modes that make them ‘different’. It is notable that the shape of this new cultural racism in America has parallels in the cultural racisms in Europe that fuel hatred of migrants and Muslims.

Rosa Parks was a reasonably successful primary school and had many anti-racist policies in place. The determinedly race blind teachers were mostly women and mostly white. In the institutional discourse, getting into trouble was not about race, but about individual choice and personal responsibility, about choosing to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘The homily “The Choice is Yours” was printed at the top of the list of school rules to emphasize this connection’. Black teachers and other black school adults hinted to Ferguson, but hardly dared to say out-loud, that race, gender and class made a significant difference to a child’s experience of school.

Ferguson roamed the hallways, sat in the cafeteria, got to know the teachers, hung out in the playground, in the neighbourhood, and visited at home. Most important, she sat in on classes, in the library, and in ‘Miss Woolley’s office’, a euphemism for what Ferguson calls the Punishing Room.

The key to Ferguson’s ethnography was that she talked with the kids, lots of kids. And she asked Horace, one of the young pupils, to be her research assistant. Most of the school adults saw Horace as ‘volatile’ and ‘insubordinate’ Ferguson writes: ‘I could see that he tested, resisted, and defied the authority of certain adults. But it became clear that he was also conforming, obedient, and deeply focused in other contexts in school and out’.

Horace educated her in innumerable ways. Above all, he insisted that she wasn’t going to learn anything about him or his friends if she didn’t pay attention to their music, and especially the gangsta heroes of gangsta rap, who famed the glamour and privilege of being male against the tragedies of urban poverty. She heard the shocking, ‘almost ritualistic’ misogyny of the lyrics, but she also understood that they ‘were a potent alternative site of knowledge for youth about bodies and beauty, sexuality, gender relationships, racial identification, authority, justice and injustice, loyalty and friendship …’ And, via fantasy and pleasure, they articulated some of the very ironies and contradictions that I myself observed as a researcher’.

Racism, and class inequality, are starting points of Ferguson’s analysis, but resistance is central to her account. The Punishing Room is the name she gives the small room, one of the smallest spaces in the school, where students were sent when they get in trouble. It was a place so hidden from the formal educational ideology of the school that it took Ferguson several months to visit and begin to understand the place it had in the student’s lives. A second tiny, suffocating space, which the boys called the Jailhouse, was the most invisible room in the school. The Jailhouse was where students were sent for after school detention and in-school suspension. In the year that she observed these discipline rooms, the school adults opened files on 250 children, nearly half the kids in the school.

On her first visit, she writes, ‘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 the wastebasket as I enter. Five children – four boys and a girl, all African American – are in the Punishing Room this morning.’

Getting into trouble in school wasn’t necessarily a source of fear or shame. For many children it was a way of ‘escaping from classroom conditions of work’ which was ‘routine, monotonous, highly predictably and physically constrained’, into a place for ‘self-expression, for making a name for yourself, having fun, for both actively contesting adult rules and power, as for the sly subversion of adult prohibitions.’ Nor was it ‘the perfect site of surveillance and order that I had assumed, but a social hub, a space in which children put prohibited discourses into circulation.’

None of the children were truants nor criminals. But the boys in particular who had been labelled ‘at risk of failing’ or ‘unsalvageable’ or even ‘bound for jail’ by school adults. In the punishment and detention rooms these children created masculine identities which were bold, dignified and celebrated self-worth. These were identities created in opposition to the dominant ideology of the school which blamed dysfunctional families for behaviour of boys whom the school adults labelled lazy, belligerent and incorrigible.

The focus on dysfunctional families as an explanation is ‘grounded in a gender discourse that identified females … as ‘incompetent’ or inadequate socializers of masculinity. It is a discourse which young boys want to distance themselves from. Class too was implicated in this talk of failing families. At parents’ days, and when the children’s families are called in for conferences, the school adults ‘theorize away school dilemmas and difficulties in dealing with youth’. They ignored the fact that these children are growing up in an economy without work, and they ignored the systemic racism from the top. Rather they settled on a simple formula: ‘troublesome children come from troubled or troublemaking families’. And while mothers, and other women, would be judged inadequate, the teachers, in their swift and damning condemnation of families and the home circumstances of their pupils, were also making judgements about poverty and class.

A second thread of the dominant ideology was also highly gendered. Yet at the same time troublesome behaviour is also seen to be an individual disorder, not one that is social and systemic. And the construction of ‘trouble’ is linked to the stereotypes about the ‘natural’ behaviour of boys and girls. Boys, unsurprisingly, are said to be more ‘physical, aggressive, sexual’. And the bad boys’ masculinity is thought to be constructed as the practice of power plays and brinkmanship.

Girls, by contrast, are considered more docile, more likely to be victims, more in need of protection. Because girls are believed to be more ‘agreeable, tractable and to tolerate the controlled atmosphere of school better’, much of girls’ troublemaking in school is unseen or ignored. There is, however, an understanding that when black girls do ‘get in trouble’, they do so in ways which damage their own life chances, rather than make trouble for others like the boys.

These gendered stereotypes dominate the treatment of children in school, and work to label and produce bad boys. Yet as Ferguson clearly shows, these same bad boys in their relationships with friends and their families are conscientious, caring and socially sophisticated. These are virtues invisible to the school adults, and spurned by the wider society. The gendered stereotypes are also used by the school adults to explain and excuse the ways bad boys’ education is systematically and miserably curtailed.

Ferguson shows that an intersectional analysis is not simple, nor only a matter of describing how oppressions of women, black and working class people reinforce each other. Rather she shows how middle class liberals, black and white, use ideals of masculinity to be cruelly racist/classist to young black working class boys. Through Ferguson offers us a clear understanding of history, and what has, and has not, changed in American society.



Six black players on the St. Louis Ram’s football team honour Michael Brown, the 18 year old Ferguson youth shot dead by policeman, Darren Wilson police officer in August 2014. The players came onto the field with their hands up – the gesture protesters adopted to signify that Michael Brown was surrendering when he was shot dead – after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for any crime. The St Louis Police Officers Association said they found the action of these football players, ‘tasteless, offensive and inflammatory’ and demanded they be disciplined.

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