CityViews: NYC Public School Uniform Policies are a Symptom of Segregation

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Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Pre-K class at P.S. 239 – Police Officer Ramon Suarez School in Queens in 2014.

Attention has recently been given to the fact that New York City is racially and economically segregated, which affects everything from housing to gerrymandering to our public schools. Even in neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse, NYC schools tend to be more racially and economically segregated than their surrounding neighborhood populations. Looking at School District 30 elementary schools in Queens shows a snapshot of what we already know to be true anecdotally–that in New York City, kids of color and/or of low income are disproportionally affected by uniform policies, which end up being both a symptom and instrument of segregation and, ultimately, inequality.

During the 2016-2017 school year, of the twenty-nine elementary schools in District 30, which covers areas in Astoria, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Woodside, twenty-two had uniform policies and seven did not. Looking at the elementary public school population in this district as a whole, 67 percent of Asian, 84 percent of Black, 80 percent of Hispanic, and 60 percent of mixed race children were subjected to uniform policies, as compared to only 43 percent of White students. The largest discrepancy is between Black and White students. Since there were more White students than Black in this district, a total number of 1,899 White children were unaffected by school uniform policies as compared to only 193 Black students. Notably, 75 percent of children living in poverty were subjected to uniform policies.

What these numbers do not show, however, is the effect uniforms or lack thereof may have on these children. Yet, we do know that segregation in education almost always affects Black and Latino children negatively, whereas White children perform well whether they attend segregated or integrated schools. Much of the discussions surrounding disparities in public schools center around the “school to prison pipeline” where Black and Latino children are systematically pushed out of school by receiving harsher punishments, including expulsion, and at higher rates than their White counterparts starting as early as Kindergarten. The school to prison pipeline feeds our prison industrial complex, which has thehighest rate of incarceration in the world. In this context, uniform policies are problematic in at least two ways. First, policing brown bodies and requiring young children to wear uniforms restricting their choices and imaginations mimics and prepares them for prison life. School uniforms are based on European, male clothing and were imposed in much of the world as a result of colonialism. They do not celebrate diversity but instead impose a very European dominated standard of dress, which is essentially a White standard, depriving many of self-expression based on culture and/or identity. Second, it gives educators one more way to punish children by enforcing infractions of the uniform policies.

Despite ongoing debates, there is no evidence that uniforms help students learn, level the “playing field,” reduce pressures to wear name brands, or decrease costs for parents. Both Finland, where there are no uniform policies, and Korea, which has strict uniform policies, have globally recognized education systems with very high literacy rates and their successes cannot be attributed to the wearing or not of uniforms. The reality is that whether someone is for or against school uniforms is usually based on personal/cultural experiences and subjective observances, particularly from the parent perspective. Parents who wore uniforms growing up often say they like uniforms and want their children wearing them for seemingly nostalgic reasons. Personal or cultural preference should not be discounted, but what is best for a child and what parents “like” or “dislike” about uniforms should be considered in the context in which the child attends school.

As a White mother raising bi-racial children, it is not my place to tell parents of color what to think about uniform policies generally or in New York City. However, I urge all parents to ask why parents of White children do not put White kids in uniforms at the same rate as parents raising children of color and to evaluate the effect of that. Why do White students as a whole have more access to self-expression? If uniforms were good for kids, wouldn’t the White parents be clamoring to have them? Is civility presumed for White children regardless of what they wear but not so for children of color? Do uniforms help enforce White as the norm against which all other identities and experiences are pitted? Does it threaten the White norm to allow children of color self-expression? Even if some White students wear uniforms, is the effect of uniform policies the same for students of color as their White counterparts? Thus, do uniform policies in New York City public schools end up being another tool of oppression, discrimination, and inequality?

Regardless of how one feels about uniforms personally, given that they affect kids in New York City disproportionally by race, these uniform policies are arguably unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution based on their disparate impact and families should think about what, if anything, that means for them. The good news is that pursuant to Chancellor’s Regulation A-665, parents may legally opt-out of any public school uniform policy without a lengthy legal battle because students may not be denied an education merely based on their choice of clothing. In New York City, each school is required to inform all parents annually that they have the legal right to opt-out of a given uniform policy within 30 days of being notified of the policy. Opting out may be a good choice even for parents who want their kids in uniforms because they can still wear them without being subject to any punishment for failure to strictly adhere to a given uniform code.

As we head back to school in a few weeks and as news about Charlottesville, fades into the next shocking story coming out of the administration, it is incumbent on all of us to keep fighting racism every day. Let us keep uniforms in conversations that are, hopefully, based on more than personal experience and that recognize their problematic implications in NYC public schools.

Kamilla Sjödin is an attorney

6 thoughts on “CityViews: NYC Public School Uniform Policies are a Symptom of Segregation

  1. I disagree with your stance. I am a Black attorney born and raised in Brooklyn, New York whose parent was a NYC Public School Educator for over 30 years. I volunteer with many students who attend public schools. I do not think uniforms are bad. I think in many ways uniforms take away the competition for name brand clothing that is prevalent in my NYC schools. Competitions that can lead to bullying in some cases, and which also put unduly burdens on some parents to have their students have expensive clothing that does not make their students the subject of bullying. I think there are many other more important things to concentrate on in the fight against racism other than having a war on uniforms. How about look at the inequity in funding that was raised in the case Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York.

  2. Parochial schools, private schools, charter schools, and magnet schools require uniforms. Uniforms are fantastic! Uniforms make getting dressed simple and efficient in the morning, and can help parents save a lot of money, provided the school funds the uniforms or the prices are affordable. This is not a racist issue. A school either requires uniforms, or it does not, and it does not hand out uniforms in order to set students up for failure-that’s utterly ridiculous. Uniforms demonstrate solidarity and allow for real learning to take place in educational settings, corporate settings, and others. I was a kid who grew up with a limited wardrobe, and uniforms would have made my school experience higher quality, as there would have been less nonsense to focus on. Self-expression can be demonstrated in many ways, and individualized clothing isn’t a necessity when the priority is learning-It’s also not the priority of many careers and jobs in the real world, as they (mostly) implement a dress code of some type, for everyone. If you are lucky, maybe your job will allow jeans on Fridays. Uniforms help to resolve a number of issues, actually…less distractions = more motivation. No, green hair doesn’t belong in school. Low cut shirts don’t belong in school. Expensive clothing that is a target for theft, doesn’t belong in school…no one cares what brand anyone is wearing because, well, you’re wearing a uniform. I guess kids will have to develop personalities and like other students for aspects other than “looking cool”…see where I’m going with this? When a uniform is humiliating, like dressing up as a box of French fries outside of a diner for advertisement, then it’s called a costume.

  3. neo-colonialism is dead on accurate. Forcing brown bodies to conform and another means of unnecessarily enforcing discipline. The common polo/khaki combo resembles Best Buy employee uniforms – nothing wrong with gainful employment but hardly aspirational for young minds. You’d be pressed to find anyone voluntarily conforming to the typical uniform dress code in even the most casual business casual work environment. Uniforms also don’t equal dress code which allows for some reasonable trade off between appropriate and stifling.

  4. I completely agree. Uniforms do not make you smarter, nor do they stop fights. The fights get more personal, cause now they will fight about skin, hair, teeth, ect. Yup. My kids opted out.

  5. Taking a better view of the uniform situation..because it has bothered me for sometime. I agree with the writer. We are so focused on what someone tells us is good for us..get a education so you can get a better job..look at the unemployment statistics. So someone came up with “put the children in uniforms” basically the lie was..stop bullying..lie..save money for the parents..lie..better control of the children because they will feel unified.. lie. My grandchildren hate the uniforms.. my daughter and I also. No way are they stopping bullying, cheaper..hmm maybe for the uniform companies..who are cleaning up and not a dm go s back to the community..every school I have gone to the children that are disruptive because that’s who we are. I wonder if we required the teachers and staff to wear the same type of uniform..how long would the policy last. Oh and for those of you who wish you could have had one when you were in school..guess what the bullies weren’t focusing on your clothes, because bullies don’t need a reason, they just need to bully. Walk through a school requiring unforms, then walk through one that isn’t. See the creativity thru out the school. The writer was so one point of alot of issues. But the fact no one ask me what I wanted. That is upsetting. I am 62..no uniforms..my daughter 31 no uniforms..teach the children..not the uniform. I have observed elementary school age children in detention or threatened with it because they have one the wrong type of shirt..or better a middle school age child locked because he didn’t have it on..was caught sneaking in because he had a science test in 3rd period. Was suspended for three days. Because of uniforms. I am against uniforms..because the only jobs that require uniforms are low wages, no benefits and corporate informed part time. Like McDonald’s, Target, Wal-Mart, the list goes on. Visually we are telling our children this is where you will end up. No music,art, or creativity. Talk about slavery. We listen to the same people.. selling us the same thing. It sounds so good we vote them in again. Don’t protect your children.. especially the ones not yours. The uniform companies are making millions..make them put the money in the community..not the state..not the politicians. Just a note: Virginia: No state funds may be used to purchase school uniforms. Umm well that says uniforms required but don’t ask for help buying them. Really !! If you care fight this..I will. F you don’t find something to fight for that helps the children in your community. I want to opt out..but haven’t been given that option.

  6. Uniforms don’t have to be expensive, they can simply be white shirts and dark pants. We need to think about what is happening in our schools today. There are drugs, gangs, and intruders. Our children are not safe. Let’s teach them now what it is like to be a responsible leader in this world. Why not train them now to have work ethic, and pride in how they look and feel. Yes, many do face hardships and have little or no income-in these cases, I think the schools should have white shirts that can be given to students who cannot afford them. Perhaps, business in these communities can be asked to donate money. Our kids are what matters-it’s not a black or white issue. I believe in uniforms. It is much cheaper to wear one shirt and one colored pair of pants then to have your child buy many different outfits for the year. Let’s work together to make sure our kids are safe. Today’s world is not the same as yesterday when we went to school.

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