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Just like when the bus shows up as soon as you make it to the stop, Abbott Elementary came into my life right on time. Last fall, in addition to navigating the general crisis-laden state of the world, I had also been binge watching and tuning in to so many heavy and brooding dramas (think Succession, Scenes from a Marriage, Squid Game) that I desperately needed a change in pace. With Abbott Elementary, what I got was not only a cheerful single-camera mockumentary, but also an unexpectedly abolitionist storyline.
Abbott is easily among the best shows that premiered in this current TV season, and the Emmys are rewarding it with seven nominations. The show boasts a predominantly Black cast, with Quinta Brunson at the helm as the show's creator, executive producer, writer, and lead actress. Brunson builds a universe set in her hometown of Philly, offering a window into the low-resourced settings Black children often find themselves in.
For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.
Schools in the greater Philadelphia area are among the most segregated in the country. Although Black students comprise 56 percent of the study body attending public schools in Philadelphia, they receive 74 percent of in-school suspensions and 72 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Black schools are also heavily policed. According to data from the 2017-2018 school year, in 46 states, the rate at which Black students were referred to law enforcement was higher than the rate for all students. Last year, A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that nationally, 4.5 students are referred to law enforcement for every 1,000 students enrolled in school.
According to the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Human Rights, from 2015 to 2016, Pennsylvania ranked second in the nation in arrest rates for both Latinx and Black students. In Pennsylvania, Black students are three times as likely to be arrested as their white classmates with Black girls being five times as likely to be arrested as white girls.
But instead of giving cops a role in this storyline, Brunson bakes in abolitionist-aligned themes, like offering care, grace, and protection to the most marginalized members of a community (i.e. the Black children who attend Abbott Elementary); relying on community to improve and increase material resources in the school; and keeping school resource officers and cops out of the schoolhouse entirely. The latter is a significant choice by the writers, considering that poor, Black schools are mired by extensive police presence.
While we see numerous examples of how the school district fails Abbott, we never actually see any cops or school resource officers depicted in the series. In real life, cops in schools are the front line enforcers of the punitive structures that usher Black children through the school to prison pipeline. To say I'm elated by the show's choice to exclude them is an understatement. It would have been very easy to insert a "lovable" cop to perpetuate the false narrative that Black people and police must deepen their relationship to one another in order to end police violence.
However, the show still briefly falls into the easy trap of copaganda: A police-like interrogation takes place in Episode 11, Desking, when the faculty—Principal Ava (Janelle James), Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), Janine (Brunson) and Jacob (Chris Perfetti)—interrogate two students. They're hoping to get more information about "desking," a new viral trend students are participating in, in which the students film themselves racing across desktops in classrooms and post the videos to social media. The teachers split, self-assigning as "good cops" and "bad cops." At the start of the scene, Jacob's comment about "broken policing" proves to be an attempt to acknowledge the state of policing in the U.S, particularly in the aftermath of the 2020 uprisings.
However, framing the system as being broken perpetuates the notion that "good" policing is possible and a necessity. Unfortunately, the freshman show falls short here. Our ability to recognize and disrupt copaganda requires us to pay attention to even what may feel like the small details since the phenomenon is so ingrained in every inch of popular, mainstream media.
Still, without cops or school resource officers roaming the hallway, Abbott invites us into a world that's possibility-laden and imaginative. It asks us both: What does it actually feel like to be a Black student? And: What should it feel like? Simultaneously grappling with how to move through an antiblack world designed to oppress Black peoples globally while imagining, organizing, and building a new world that ushers in Black liberation is one of the many central challenges of abolitionist organizing.
But our imaginations have been so flattened by media mimicking our reality that we find ourselves asking entertainers to reflect back our violence instead of offering a portrait of a better world. For instance, following the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, people began tagging and mentioning Brunson and Abbott Elementary across social media, making requests for the show to include a shooting in a future episode—as if the show bears responsibility in addressing gun violence in this country. The requests in of themselves, which Brunson outright rejected, were vile and off-base to say the least. Copaganda's ubiquitous nature and schools as sites of mass violence are contributing factors to the level of discomfort people feel when navigating a show that deviates from disturbing realities.
There's a great thirst and desire to witness Black children endure violence. The irony is that anyone who watches Abbott is already witnessing Black children endure violence as they navigate an underfunded school system—but the normalcy around this setting isn't considered the antiblack violence that it is.
We also get a window into considering what it looks like when one layer of the criminal legal system is removed. In what ways do Black children breathe easier with an inch more autonomy? Perhaps they are more inclined to engage with their teachers' examples, like when kids asked whether Farmer Hank's turkeys are pregnant during a lesson on counting. Perhaps they are more inclined to dance atop desks (as kids would) as part of a viral social media challenge.
The teachers on the show go above and beyond for their students. It's the central grounding tenant that the eternally optimistic Janine always comes back to, especially as we watch and laugh along to her hilarious antics and nontraditional ways she and her peers offer care to their students.
Patience, grace, humanity and care are often not afforded to Black children in real life, nor are they depicted on our screens. The care Black children may receive is often transactional and comes with endless conditions. It always must be earned and can be easily revoked at a moment's notice. Standard emotions and behaviors most kids exhibit such as curiosity, agitation and anger are criminalized for Black students.
In Episode 5, Student Transfer, Courtney—an intelligent and influential, yet disruptive, student—is met with patience as second-grade teachers Janine and Melissa uncover that her behavior is because she is not being academically challenged. In Episode 8, Work Family, substitute teacher Gregory abandons his strict teaching style to incorporate dance and playfulness in his math classroom in an effort to meet his students' desire for creativity and fun while honing their critical thinking skills.
Throughout the season, we witness the Abbott staff take risks and challenge the status quo for the love of their Black students. From the season premiere when Janine and her fellow teachers come together to get rugs back into their classrooms to Episode 12, Ava vs. the Superintendent, to the otherwise aloof Principal Ava ensuring an after school step program is about bonding as much as commitment. The show's consistent critique of the school district and higher ups is sharp and salient. The teachers recognize that they cannot rely on the "system," nor any sort of state intervention, in order to mobilize the material resources they need.
Moving from a place of deep understanding that the system has been intricately designed to punish and criminalize is a direct parallel to organizers coming into the realization of the true function of police and prisons in our society. Like the teachers of Abbott, we are the ones we have been waiting for and being in deep community with one another has proven to be the only way to fully ensure all of our needs are met.