Black Data Traditions and the praxis of childhood preservation and anti-subordination in education in the USA and UK

Najarian R. Peters -


The right to data accuracy is fundamental to data integrity, data ethics and the protection of privacy rights. However, the history of racial and other types of social marginalisation in both the USA and UK reflects how equity-based data practices have often evaded policy and law. Many of the formal processes of subordination that disproportionately impact racially marginalised people begin with harmful datafication in childhood through contact with formal educational systems.

Much has been written about how data policy and legal regimes that interact with racially marginalised individuals maintain the racial subordination of broader communities. However, little has been said about the traditions of Black communities to preserve educational opportunity and childhood in direct opposition to those systems. Black Data Traditions provide rich examples of anti-subordination customs and practices for policy and lawmakers to follow – if they mean what they say when they claim they want to eliminate racial discrimination and inequity in educational environments.

We are not going to eliminate racial marginalisation in formal education with diversity and inclusion. In fact, as currently configured, research has shown that diversity and inclusion programmes exist across a variety of industries and sectors including education. Yet disparities and discrimination continue to exist, and in some instances are increasing. Some of the reasons for failure of these programmes include a lack of understanding and white resistance in implementation (Allen & Liou, 2019; Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Dobbin & Kalev, 2016; Emerick, 2021; Flores & Rosa, 2015; Herdman & McMillan-Capehart, 2009; Twine, 2018). Such initiatives, often half-hearted, poorly composed and positioned to reproduce marginality or, at best, maintain the status quo, have yet to prevent the kinds of patterned and practised harm that they purport to target – especially in the treatment of racialised or minoritised school children. Black parents (including caregivers) have increasingly relied on customs and informal practices to counteract and protect their children from distortionist incursions on childhood and educational opportunity.

This essay briefly highlights Black Data Traditions in the USA and UK because these countries provide rich examples of anti-subordination practices focused on shielding Black children from data collection practices that can reverberate throughout a child’s lifetime. This is not meant to be a typological examination or comprehensive analysis of the various kinds of dirty data that exist in school data systems about Black children. The impact of those data distortions that I argue should be understood as dirty data are illustrated in the statistics that are well known and referenced in a multitude of studies, some of which I reference here. 

This essay centres Black Data Traditions by comparing two of the common elements that I have identified thus far that exist in both Black America and Black Britain: the preservation of Black childhood and educational opportunity through home education, and the supplemental education and therefore alternative data creation practices as a way to circumvent subordinating policy and/or law.

Preservation of Black childhood and educational opportunity through home education

Opting out in the USA

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive retreat from in-person work, educational and social life across the globe. In the USA, K-12 schools held classes virtually in increasing numbers. A year and a half later, many parents began to complain that their children needed to return to school (Brenan, 2021; Demsas, 2021). They were concerned that their children’s education, psychological wellbeing and ability to socialise was suffering as a result of virtual learning. However, there was hardly a consensus among parents, as the disaggregated data showed that the vast majority who wanted their children to return to school in-person were white. Black, Asian, Latinx and other non-white parents were not as convinced that their children would be better off returning to school in-person (The Economist, 2021). Black parents in particular sought to preserve what they understood as an opportunity for their children to have a better educational experience away from the formal school settings in the privacy of their own homes. In 2020, Black families had the highest increase in home-schooling rates (Eggleston & Fields, 2021).

The early reports on the reasons Black families gave for continuing to home educate their children in 2021, documented in news reports, mirrored many of the reasons that white parents sought to have their children return to school. Black parents reported that their children were benefiting psychologically, were not being subjected to disproportionate discipline, and performed better in their virtual classes. They specifically expressed relief about keeping their children home where they could monitor how they were being treated and perceived in virtual classrooms. They also reported that their children’s anxiety and feelings of safety around school experiences were improved, along with their performance. Black children reported feeling safer (Fernando, 2021; Today, 2021) and able to concentrate more while attending virtual school. In sum, Black children and Black parents reported that they were better off outside of the formal educational systems that have historically and currently mistreat them (Anderson, 2021; Chao, 2021; Harris, 2020; Saavedra et al., 2021; Shapiro et al., 2021; St George, 2021).

The processes that render Black children consistently over-represented in metrics related to underachievement and exclusionary discipline and under-represented in metrics such as matriculation into gifted and talented programmes and graduation rates are connected to teacher perceptions calcified in data creation and usage. Historically, Black children have been viewed and treated as less innocent, older and more aggressive and violent by teachers and school officials in formal K-12 educational settings (Goff et al., 2014; Ingraham, 2015). Furthermore, the subsequent data created in schools about Black children based on how they are perceived is connected to, if not the cause of, their being over-represented in exclusionary discipline leading to the school to prison pipeline (Heitzeg, 2009; Shedd, 2015; Tyner, 2014) as well as being under-represented or excluded in gifted and talented programmes (Blake et al., 2011; Downey & Pribesh, 2004; Grissom & Redding, 2016; Grissom et al., 2015; Skiba & Williams, 2014; Morris, 2007; Payne, 2011).

Civil rights research released in 2016 showed that Black children are 3.6 times likely to be suspended in pre-school in comparison to white children and 3.8 times likely to be suspended in K-12 (US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2016). Furthermore, in terms of access to education opportunities, Black children are less likely to be recommended for gifted and talented programmes (Nicholson-Crotty et al., 2016). However, disaggregated data found that Black children were three times more likely to be recommended for these programmes if their teachers were Black instead of white. White teachers were found to be 12% less likely to predict that the same Black student would finish high school and 30% less likely to predict the student would graduate from college (Gershenson et al., 2016). 

Black parents who decide to home educate their children prevent their children from navigating biased teacher perceptions that are codified as data in the education record. Furthermore, these parents create the space for their children to access educational opportunity unencumbered by racialisation. The data created about Black children who are home educated reflects their experience as learners in childhood. Black children who are home educated are not documented based on racially biased perceptions that align with historical stigma and marginality. My forthcoming research will explore child perceptions of the learning opportunities they encounter in home education as a result of not having to navigate the barriers of racialisation that the research illustrates exists in formal school environments. These practices of preserving childhood, encouraging child curiosity in a supportive learning environment, free from racialisation, which also prevents the learning child from knowing themselves as targets of racialisation, are some of the essential elements of the Black Data Tradition.

Research indicates that a larger proportion of Black families chose to home educate their children compared to white families even as the pandemic seemed to recede with the disbursement of vaccinations and boosters. While the extra burden of home education undoubtedly created challenges for Black families, these were more than likely offset by not having to deal with the complaints, distortions and other incursions that Black families experienced when their children were enrolled in formal educational environments. Still, the notion that Black families must continue to create their own workarounds to ensure their children are not subjected to disparate treatment in school is a matter of inequity that is incongruent to the claimed values of public education.

The decision to opt out of formal educational settings to ensure the preservation of educational opportunity and childhood in 2022 is not new for African Americans. The benefit of removing children from harmful educational environments creates an opportunity for self-development in childhood, where intrusions of racial stigma are known to create psychological and emotional harm – which are both barriers to academic success. Additionally, data collection practices that align with racially motivated biases cause negative distortion and reputational harm, but those practices can either be mitigated or stopped, or are an impossibility in real time for children who are home educated or attending virtual school. For example, parents who intervene on their children’s behalf when being unfairly disciplined or reprimanded have the benefit of being present in the moment. This allows them to advocate on behalf of their children promptly by de-escalating a situation, and may also prevent further harm by preventing unnecessary documentation in the child’s education record.

I have written previously about how African American parents have opposed this treatment, data creation and collection practices dating back to 1787 in Massachusetts (Peters, 2019, 2022). Now, in 2022, notwithstanding the promise of Brown vs Board of Education, Black American parents find this tradition useful for the same reasons Black American parents espoused 235 years ago. While similar research has been difficult to find among Black British families, the rise of home education among Black families in the UK illustrates similar practices and motivations. Still, at the time of writing this essay, it was not clear that UK families engaged in home education at the same rates as American families.

Opting out in the UK

Cheryl Phoenix founded The Black Child Agenda (BCA) in 2011 after she experienced the ‘systematic and psychological abuse her and other Black children faced within the UK education system’ – to focus on the disproportionate exclusionary discipline of Black children in the British school system and address the school to prison pipeline. In June 2014, Phoenix participated in the Black Homeschool Fair Teaching Our Own, founded by Leah Salmon. Other community-based organisations have since set up platforms and partnerships to develop ways to help remove their children from the harms experienced in the British school system. Many of the same concerns, including disciplinary practices and exposure to the police while in school, form the bases for concern of Black British children (Crozier, 2005; Dodd & Quinn, 2022; Matiluko, 2020). While there is a growing consciousness and movement around home education in the UK, more research is available on the indirect approaches of supplemental practices of education, data creation and data collection as a response to the official policy of miscategorising West Indian and other Black children.

Miscategorisation of student capabilities is another example of calcified teacher perception. When teacher perceptions are inaccurate but treated as accurate this disadvantages targeted individual children. When biased perceptions are baked into educational policy as was/is the case in the UK where Black children are disproportionately categorised as subnormal, social subordination is likely to be correlated to, if not a result of, that policy. Inaccurate data is another form of dirty data that also includes incomplete and/or misleading data.

Supplemental education and data creation practices as a way to circumvent subordinating law and policy. 

During his recent presentation with Dave Neita on 11 November 2021, posted on YouTube, Bernard Coard highlighted that a child’s educational structure of opportunities are determined by both their parents and their teachers’ expectations. Coard’s sobering observation about the British educational system reflects scepticism that the system will in fact change for the betterment of Black British children. Instead, he stressed the importance of supplementary education in Black British communities for school age-children, drawing on his work from over 50 years ago, when Coard documented how the children of the Windrush Generation in the UK were disproportionately forced into educationally subnormal (ESN) schools. His book made five main arguments (1971, p.5):

  1. “There are very large numbers of our West Indian children in schools for the Educationally Sub-Normal – which is what ESN means.
  2. “These children have been wrongly placed there.
  3. “Once placed in these schools, the vast majority never get out and return to normal schools.
  4. “They suffer academically and in their job prospects for life because of being put in these schools.
  5. “The authorities are doing very little to stop this scandal.”

Closely held beliefs of British political officials (such as Enoch Powell) aligned with the development of the British school system’s discriminatory educational policies described by Coard. Coard’s work catalysed the rise in consciousness and movement within Black communities in the UK that resulted in the rise and development of the supplemental schools that exist today. His work excavates how data creation and collection were weaponised against West Indian children in the British school system. The policy of categorising West Indian school children as ‘subnormal’ was based on the presumption of inferiority of people of African descent. That presumption was built into the British government’s decision to aim its policy of subnormality at West Indian school children specifically. The implementation of the policy and therefore the base assumption rendered the self-fulfilling data prophecy that shows West Indian children were, in fact, over-represented in ESN schools.

On closer examination, the results were made and not found – the ESN policy of categorising West Indian children was based on dirty data (Richardson et al., 2019), or data that is misleading, inaccurate and/or incomplete. What are race-based assumptions of inferiority, enacted in policies and laws, if not examples of dirty data? The broad discretion to create, collect and otherwise process dirty data in the British and American school systems are deeply connected to the motivations of Black parents in both nations who continue to place their children in alternative educational environments in place of or to supplement formal education. To counter the impact of being exposed to the environment created within British and American schools, supplemental education centres Black history and culture by teaching students about Black people’s contributions, innovations and achievements.

Facing the similar onslaught of racial discrimination while pursuing educational opportunity, Black Americans also developed supplemental education in their communities. They developed a host of educational alternatives that would allow children to learn without the intrusion of anti-Black racialisation. In the 1960s and 1970s Black communities continued the tradition of home education through supplemental education with the focus of enhancing ‘institutional autonomy and an Afrocentric perspective’ (Kifano, 1996, p. 209). These educational centres also provided resources to formal K-12 schools in an attempt to raise the level of educational attainment and understanding of American history where its Black citizens were concerned.


Recent attacks on teaching American history have resulted in responses that range from violent outbreaks in school board meetings (Greenberg, 2022), legislation to protect the teaching of Black history and the firing of teachers (Li, 2020; Steinberg, 2022). As was the case in the rhetoric of Enoch Powell in the UK, the rampant disinformation and misinformation around teaching American history continues to shape policy and law to the detriment of its educational system. The combination of silencing or erasure and dirty data at work in the attack on teaching American history means that remedial movements continue to be required to counteract the degradation of the American education system.

Like the data distortions weaponised as per the foregoing discussion, the integrity of our educational system must be critically analysed to understand what continues to happen to create disparities along with the overreaction to policies and actors who are trying to eliminate those disparities. The first step towards correcting the hardwired dirty data practices is to recognise that dirty data exists. While new encroachments threaten this approach, there are other policy and legal possibilities that we might consider.

The right to personal data accuracy in education records was recognised as key to the passage of the Family Education Rights Act (FERPA) in 1974 following the Watergate scandal. (FERPA is known as the federal student privacy law in the USA.) I recently argued that FERPA should be enhanced by adding a requirement of content validation during the data collection phase, along with a right to a reasonable inference and a disclosure of law enforcement access to the education record (Peters, 2022). Unlike in the UK, the principle of accuracy is not as clear in the text of FERPA, where Article 5(1)(d) of the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) states that personal data shall be: ‘(d) accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date, every reasonable step must be taken to ensure that personal data that are inaccurate, having regard to the purposes for which they are processed, are erased or rectified without delay’.

While the UK GDPR does not define the term ‘accurate’, the Data Protection Act 2018 states that ‘inaccurate’ means ‘incorrect or misleading as to any matter of fact’. Further, in the discussion of accuracy of opinions impacting personal data, the guidance states that ‘in order to be accurate … records must make clear that it is an opinion, and, where appropriate, whose opinion it is. If it becomes clear that an opinion was based on inaccurate data, you should also record this fact in order to ensure your records are not misleading’. And the following steps should be taken to ensure accuracy: ‘accurately record information provided; accurately record the source of the information; take reasonable steps in the circumstances to ensure the accuracy of the information; and carefully consider any challenges to the accuracy of the information’.

The USA and UK have passed laws recognising data and data privacy rights that seemingly protect the right to accurate data or personal data integrity. However, the will to enforce the laws and policies is where we see the USA and UK once again sharing the same fate, for the same problematic reasons in regard to its historically racially marginalised communities. The fate of disproportionate discrimination and access to educational opportunity will continue to be of great concern as long as systems continue to allow dirty data to be introduced into the education record without recourse or accountability. Cognitive dissonance about the afterlife of historical marginalisation creates patterns of anti-enforcement of laws that readily align to create subordination and subjugation. This is exactly why Black communities in both the USA and UK developed and continue to develop their own data traditions to preserve the very rights that are often de-prioritised and circumscribed elsewhere.

Najarian R. Peters teaches torts, Privacy Law and The Practice of Privacy Law at University of Kansas School of Law. Peters’ scholarship focuses on privacy policy, law, governance, and emerging technology. Peters is a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. In 2020, Peters created PrivacyPraxis, an annual conference that brings together scholars, practitioners, and advocates to discuss privacy law and policy. Peters’ book is forthcoming with the University of California Press titled Marronage and Modernity: Privacy, Technology, and Black Liberation. Peters earned her J.D. at Notre Dame Law School.

University of Kansas, School of Law