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