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'Sitting on the Garbage Can'



[The Blackboard Jungle, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress]

From its opening scenes, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s The Blackboard Jungle cast the urban school and its largely immigrant student body as the “human waste”[1] eugenicists cited often in their sketches of inner-city turmoil. The use of the term jungle in its title, at once denotes savagery, inhospitable and untamed surroundings, and danger. Even before its opening credits, the film gives as a prologue, the following message:

We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth. Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency – its causes – and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools. These scenes are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem.

The phrasing, “American youth” indicates whiteness and places the mostly immigrant and Black characters, as outsiders, outliers of a civil society, and saboteurs of a proud educational tradition. Additionally, the youth depicted in The Blackboard Jungle are the nightmarish representation of dysgenic collapse and the boiling over of genetic delinquency into the normal, healthy schools of fit all-American kids. The film crafts these teens as the embodiment of corrupt germplasm, and McCullough’s “social degradation.”

Through exposure to drugs and violence, as well as the negative mental and intellectual influence of Blackboard’s “inferior” youth, America seemed truly doomed. The Blackboard Jungle follows well-meaning English teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) as he enters the North Manual Trades High School in the Bronx; a school known for its “disciplinary” issues. Approaching the outside of the schoolyard, the camera pans the antics of a disorganized area with trash on the ground, kids smoking and dancing to blaring music, and the raucous bunch framed by an outside fence as though animals.

When an attractive woman walks by on the street outside the schoolyard, the boys throw themselves against the fence, whistle, and bang metal lids down on the tops of trash cans. It is as if the fencing is the only thing keeping the youth from some lewd and violent act against the woman. The film pushes the message further a scene or two later when one of the senior teachers, Jim Murdock, informs the new instructors that the school represents the garbage can of the educational system, likens it to Alcatraz prison, and claims the staff function as protectors of womanhood.

They have us with college degrees to come here and sit on the garbage can and keep [the students] in school so, women in the city can walk around for a few hours without getting attacked.

This lament makes the teens into juvenile delinquents, sex perverts, and criminals who lacked the ability to be educated or reformed. In this way, Murdock presents the classic eugenic classification of criminal feeblemindedness with the school serving as the asylum.

To be clear, the nation faced in the 1950s very real issues related to juvenile delinquency, youth gangs, and what was believed to be the slow degeneration of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant control. Cultural assimilation increased, for better or worse, as both migration and immigration challenged the hegemony of White American thought. What raised my ire and eyebrows screening The Blackboard Jungle recently, was the utter calamity global education systems have become and the growing lament that many of the children within public schools are simply ineducable. Truly, from the U.S. to the U.K., informal conversations with educators cast the 9-to 17-year-old student as unruly, thick (or slow learners), lazy, threatening, violent, and disinterested. Even the best instructors spoke of how taxing the job had become in recent years and they placed the blame, largely, on neglectful parents.

It is not by happenstance that The Blackboard Jungle entered popular culture as a novel in 1954 and a film, one year later – as the nation’s highest court grappled with the Brown v. the Board of Education desegregation case. Fears over integration often took on the tone of racial insecurity over miscegenation (race mixing), a dumbing-down of instruction, and the loss of White identity through what the British now term, “status deficit.”

Anders Walker writes in “Blackboard Jungle: Delinquency, Desegregation, and the Cultural Politics of Brown,” that politicians like Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver used the film as a metaphor for what would happen to Southern schools if the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision were enforced. Walker found a shocking number of reports and testimonies, including an “Investigation of Public School Conditions,” a Report of the Subcommittee to Investigate Public School Standards and Conditions and Juvenile Delinquency in the District of Columbia, on the heels of Brown. These reports charted the failure of integrated schools based on the violent and sexual immorality of Black students and their dysgenic homelives – including out-of-wedlock births and cases of venereal disease.

Among the problems cited in the report were “fighting, lying, stealing, vandalism, obscene writing, vulgar talking, absenteeism, tardiness, and truancy,” as well as more serious offenses. Of particular concern were offenses revolving around sex. “[S]ex problems in the predominately integrated schools have become a matter of vital concern to the parents.”[2]

By counting issues of low character – lying, stealing, vulgar talk, and truancy alongside sexual perversion, the authors of the report connected many of the traits associated with inherently feebleminded youth and formulated an argument for segregation as a national eugenic defense. The virtue of the nation, according to John Bell Williams and the co-authors of the report, Joel T. Broyhill of Virginia, Woodrow Jones of North Carolina, and James C. Davis of Georgia, hinged upon keeping schools segregated both racially, and eugenically.


Conversations and interviews I initiated with leading educators across the nation lead to quite a few "off the record" debates (and arguments, if I'm totally honest) that found me defending kids, their parents, their communities, and shamefully, their genetic capacity. One associate, Dr. X, and I actually "fell out" when she exclaimed that after dealing with ignorant, low-class parents, she expected to do little more than babysit the 14-year-old sophomores in her charge. "What's in the bitches, comes out in the pups," she said.

I was livid that such a coarse comment could be made about children. This educator, with nearly 30 years of skin in the game, attempted to calm my fury by explaining rather matter-of-factly, that most of the young people she "taught" came from broken homes that were rife with drug or alcohol dependency, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and very little structure. She called me bitterly naive for believing any children bathed in trauma could be expected to grow in intellectual spaces; and more importantly, whether a function of nature or nurture, most of her students only interrupted the learning environment for others. They would have been classified subnormal, socially inept, or human waste, and carted off to the nearest mental asylum, a few short years ago, she railed.

My refrain, of "But those must be a minority of cases," only caused her to wince in my direction. She pointed to recent news stories of police being summoned to schools to break up fights between parents or parents and administrators. She added a side order of commentary from a closed meeting between teachers about the increased need for SEL (Social Emotional Learning) a track that swapped instruction in math, English, and science for lessons on manners, personal hygiene, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

How easily we forget the stream of eugenic theories that tout a direct genetic correlation between parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and the children we see today. Eugenics posited that in the same way hair texture, eye color, and height are transmitted through DNA, so too, were social and intellectual characteristics like laziness, I.Q., violence, criminality, immorality, and poverty. The latter made the inability to pull oneself up by their bootstraps or overcome stagnant (or derelict) communities, a genetic determinant. Dr. X knew such theories to be not only antiquated but also false. Still, the frustration of dealing with overwhelmed, inexperienced, and sometimes, immature parents allowed her to lasso those long-held theories to her students. That frustration deepened when coupled with anxieties about her students failing to meet educational goals and how those missed marks impacted her overall success rate as a teacher.

#EugenicallySpeaking, I scolded her that she was careening towards a belief that some of the parents were unfit and should be restricted from having additional children because they were breeding "wrong uns."

As she spoke, all I could imagine were the millions of Americans classified under crude and arbitrary eugenics testing as idiots, morons, low-grade imbeciles, high-grade imbeciles, and feebleminded. Most were simply being teenagers. Still, with such labeling, their educational capacity was judged remedial and their opportunities fitted for lives as laborers. I recalled the hundreds of archival photos I'd come across from the 1920s and 1930s of young adults stuffing mattresses, harvesting vegetables, and sewing fabric because they represented social waste.

I believe all people have the capacity to learn. Some at a rapid pace using traditional methods, others, at a more liberal pace using innovative techniques. I do not believe there is a genetic predisposition (or racial/cultural deficit) that lends itself to a person gravitating to either learning style more readily. I say this as a kid who was placed in Talented & Gifted programs at least three times and then expelled from them because I felt like a lab rabbit constantly being charted. I resisted. It didn't make me weak-minded, only willful. I did not see the issue with my elementary school defiance until 11th grade when I was placed in an English class for those just learning how to write contractions. It did not matter that I had performed with straight A's or had that same year been awarded by the Links for a book of poetry I'd authored.

Well, Sugar, Honey, Ice Tea!

I closed my conversation with Dr. X by reminding her that she was in the same 11th-grade class taking lessons in writing flipping contractions instead of reading great literature and taking the SAT prep. Though no one officially stamped our foreheads "moron" or moved us to the room over the cafeteria, (the modern-day asylum), we had been classified as the very waste of which she spoke so vilely. It has been an uphill battle with Dr. X since. Using The Blackboard Jungle and other films that highlight the eugenic rubric used to define young people and their capacity to learn, Dr. X found she had binned many would-be scholars.

[Excerpts of this piece come from the book Pop-Eu: Popular Eugenics in Television & Film]

[1] Anna E. Blount. “Large Families and Human Waste,” The Birth Control Review, Vol. II, No. 8, September 1918, p. 4.

[2] Walker, Anders, “Blackboard Jungle: Delinquency, Desegregation, and the Cultural Politics of Brown” (December 22, 2009). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 110, p. 19.


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