Zero tolerance, social control, and marginalized youth in U.S. schools: a critical reappraisal of neoliberalism’s theoretical foundations and epistemological assumptions

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Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

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Contemporary Justice Review: Issues in Criminal, Social, and Restorative Justice


This article critically examines the socio-historical currents and the political economic forces that shaped neoliberalism’s underlying theory and presumptive epistemology. One example of this theory and epistemology that coalesces in the form of neoliberal practice is the expansion of social controls in American public schools. One exemplar of this expansion is zero tolerance policy prescription. We first recount the socio-historical backdrop of neoliberal capitalism’s restructuring in the U.S., emphasizing the political economic fall-out of deindustrialization and mass incarceration. Next, we contextualize this history within the rhetoric of the child-saving movement. These observations explain why economic marginalization of the poor and class conflict among stratified segments of society are endemic to youth culture. We then explain how these currents and forces have been linked to several media-hyped causal meta-narratives regarding the need for school-based zero tolerance reforms. We conclude by explaining how the state’s neoliberal restructuring of public schools is legitimated by the court system in which full citizenship and equal opportunity for all are problematically forestalled or foreclosed.

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