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Thu Aug 08, 2013 at 02:34 PM PDT

New York City Education

by Michael Holzman

The results of the 2013 New York State tests of students in grades 3-8 have been greeted with consternation, as they should be, but it should be emphasized that they paint a picture of a system—especially that part administered by the New York City Department of Education—that is far gone in failure.  This is simply the most recent indication of that failure and the Department’s lack of attention to its responsibilities.

In 2006, long before anyone had heard of common cores, the one-third part of the enrollment of the New York City schools made up of White, non-Hispanic, and Asian students combined, were doing poorly.  At grade 8 nearly 40% were reading below grade level.  In that same year the two-thirds of the students entrusted to the system who were Black or Hispanic were being overwhelmingly failed by the system.  More than 60% were reading below grade level. The gap between the two groups amounted to over 30 percentage points. In other words, the New York schools were not preparing most of their students to graduate from high school or to be well-prepared for college or careers.  They were preparing most of them for poverty.

It is not a law of nature that Black and Hispanic students do not learn well in school.  They learn well enough in suburbs, without regard to the incomes of their own families.  They learn well enough in systems with needs-based funding.  They do not learn well—no students learn well—in places where resources are systematically diverted from where they are needed to places where wealthier families live and pay taxes.  This goes double in New York, where the suburban schools are more lavish than the nearby country clubs; the schools attended by the White, non-Hispanic, and Asian middle classes are among the finest in the country, and the schools attended by the majority of students look worse and are resourced at lower levels than minimum security prisons.

In 2009 test scores for all groups in New York mysteriously peaked, only to fall to earlier levels in 2010.  The gaps did not vary during this exercise.  The downward trend in scores on arguably more honest tests continued through the 2013 assessment.  The drop in scores this year was not very far off the trend line.  Now we find that the system cannot educate even half its White, non-Hispanic, and Asian students to grade level and that more than 80% of the two-thirds of its students who are Black or Hispanic read below grade level in middle school. The gaps have not varied.

The disparities are stark.  To take just one example, in the average school in Community School District 16, in central Brooklyn, only 6% of students perform at or above grade level in Mathematics at grade 8.  In Community School District 26, a middle-class district in Queens, 56% of students in an average school perform at or above grade level.  These disparate outcomes are on the face of it evidence of discrimination in resource allocation.  They are not—need one say it?—indicators of a post-racial society.

Standardized tests are a bad idea and even bad ideas can be administered badly.  On the other hand, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.


How To Do What Must Be Done:  A Suggestion

The interlocking factors of the Black Poverty Cycle are the education system, the criminal justice system and poverty itself.  The fundamental issue for the education system is the fact that schools enrolling large numbers of African-American children are underfunded in regard to the challenges facing them.  The reasons that those schools are underfunded are administrative and legal.  The administrative issues include the diversion of funds from schools serving large numbers of African-American students to other schools within the same district (in ways that are both blatant and subtle) and the push-out and lock-out of African-American students within schools.  The chief legal issues are the predominant use of local property tax to fund schools and the consequent lack of equity in the allocation of resources among districts within states.

The fundamental issues for the criminal justice system are the practices and polices of police departments in such matters as inequitable enforcement of the drug and trespassing laws; of district attorneys in deciding to prosecute such inequitable arrests and of judges allow such prosecutions to go to trial.

Black poverty is made acute and nearly permanent by the results of these dynamics of the education and criminal justice systems.

Challenge-based, in-district funding has been instituted in a few large school districts, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, with positive results.  On the other hand, more typically, actions by officials in districts such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., are enforcing inequities.  A few states are equalizing district funding, but there are none where per student funding, on average, is nearly adequate for the challenges facing Black children.  

Similarly, the dramatic disparities in the nature and application of the drug laws have begun to narrow, but remain explicable only on a racial basis.  And police authorities in large cities are extraordinarily resistant to efforts to lessen their arbitrary criminalization of young Black men.

Most of what is needed to dismantle the caste system in which most African-Americans live requires political activity. Political action can be effective in the first place in specific locations where African-Americans form a majority or a large plurality.  African-Americans are the majority of the population in Detroit (84%); Jackson, MS (80%); Birmingham (74%); Baltimore (65%); Memphis (64%); New Orleans (61%); Flint (59%); Montgomery, AL (57%); Savannah (57%).  There are also many metropolitan areas where, although not in the majority, there are large numbers of African-Americans.  These include:  New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington and Dallas.  African-American political organization on the local level in these places can overcome gerrymandering and lead to the necessary local political changes in the education and criminal justice systems.

If the African-American population, and those allied with them, are organized sufficiently to achieve the needed changes in these cities and metropolitan areas, great pressure could be brought to bear on the governments of their states to enforce equity in the education and criminal justice systems, including revisions in the funding basis for public education.

This is a minimal program.  It is something that the African-American community can initiate and perhaps accomplish by itself.  But it is likely that the African-American community will not be alone in this great effort.  As Dr. King saw, there are allies at hand: other minority communities; those living in poverty of every race; all those who love justice.

Simultaneously with political action, much can be, and in some cases is being done, through law suits by organizations like the ACLU and the NAACPLDF.  Additional appropriate situations for such legal action should be brought to the attention of these organizations by community-based organizations and others.  

Change will come when school system administrators find that because of political and legal pressure from the African-American community and its allies they must stop pushing-out and locking-out Black students and must fund, to the limit of their resources, schools in accordance with the challenges facing them (following the template of the Abbott decision, for example).  Change will come when state department of education administrators find that they must support equitable, challenge-based, funding of districts in their states.  Change will come when state governors and legislatures find that they must abolish the system of funding schools by means of local property taxes or otherwise provide for adequate, challenge-based funding of districts.

Change will come when police, prosecutors and judges find that they must abolish the policies and practices that have created a caste of criminalized African-Americans.

Most of those who currently enforce the inequities of the education and criminal justice systems will not change their policies and practices voluntarily.  They must be persuaded to do so and if they cannot be persuaded, they must be forced to do so by political and legal action.  


Chapter V

Ending Black Poverty (cont.)

At this point we can look at the effects of the mass incarceration of African-American men from another angle. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 47 million White, non-Hispanic, men and 35 million White, non-Hispanic women employed full time in the third quarter of 2012. In other words, 57% of the White, non-Hispanic, workforce was male. Similar gender ratios held for Hispanic and Asian workers. But there were 5.4 million male Black workers and 6.2 million Black female workers:  just 47% of the Black workforce was male. In all groups, despite the law and generations of effort, men were paid more than women. The median Black weekly wages were $633 for men and $590 for women. (As a matter of interest, median wages for White women were $712, for White men, $854.)  If we assume that the gender wage differential remains the same, the total weekly wage deficit for the Black community would be $500 million if equal percentages of Black men and women were employed and $895 million if the number of Black men employed were 110 percent of the number of Black women in full-time employment. Bearing in mind that there are nearly 900,000 African-American men in prison, the number of additional Black male workers at parity would be 793,000; at 110% it would be 1.4 million. If we assume a 48-week working year (two weeks of vacation and ten days of customary holidays), the annual income differential for the Black community as a whole would be between $24 and $43 billion.

It was noted earlier that Black men are incarcerated for violent crimes more often than for drug offenses. The potential for reducing the number of incarcerated Black men is, therefore, even greater than for those incarcerated for drug offenses if the size of this group can be reduced. While the disproportionate incarceration of Black men for drug offenses can be traced to the operations of law enforcement, that for violent crimes appears to be an artifact (as well as a cause) of poverty. There is a large scholarly literature exploring the link between poverty and violent crime and it is well-established that as poverty goes up (or down) rates of violent crime move nearly in parallel, at least to a “saturation point” of poverty, beyond which crime rates appear to level off.   It is not that there is a link between specifically Black poverty and violent crime (or between African-Americans per se and violent crime, as was held by segregationists), it is that reductions in neighborhood poverty appear to produce similar reductions in violent crime in both White and Black neighborhoods.

We can approximate the national violent crime rate for Black men with reference to the New York State data discussed earlier. New York State’s Black violent crime incarceration rate is ten times that of the White violent crime incarceration rate (0.06% of the White population is incarcerated for violent offenses vs. 0.6% of the Black population). Approximately two-thirds of Black prisoners were incarcerated for violent felonies. If we assume an association of 80% between changes in poverty rates and changes in violent offensive rates, then a decline of 4% in the poverty rate would bring a decline of 3.2% in the number of incarcerations of Black men for violent offenses in New York, or just under 19,000. Over five years that would be approximately 93,000 fewer incarcerated Black men in New York State. With over 800,000 incarcerated Black men,  nationally, a similar effect would reduce that number by 33,600 annually, increasing the income of the Black community by over $650 million each year:  168,000 fewer prisoners over five years, $3.25 billion in increased income for each 4% decline in the poverty rate.

                                                *    *    *

Again:  What is to be done?  And who is to do it?

The most straightforward beginning point for reducing Black poverty is the elimination of disparities in arrests and incarcerations for drug offences and other issues giving rise to inequities of a similar kind, such as trespass. This can be accomplished by relatively uncomplicated administrative measures:  agreements among the key decision makers in the local, state and federal criminal justice systems to end the policies and practices that cause those disparities. An example of such good practice is the decision by the district attorney in the Bronx, New York City, to stop prosecuting young men arrested for trespass while standing in front of their own apartment doors.  Police, with the cooperation of citizen’s groups, could devise equitable formulas for the allocation of effort and to test whether activities and arrests were racially disproportionate. District attorneys and prosecutors could devise similar procedures. Judges could be more sensitive to racial disparities in the cases brought before them and the sentences asked for by prosecutors as well as during jury selection processes.  All decision-makers in the criminal justice system should move immediately to halt the criminalization of school discipline matters.  

Improving educational attainment for male Black students can be accomplished.  It has been accomplished in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and other suburban school systems across the country and by the Abbott efforts in New Jersey, by investments in early childhood education, extended school time, equitable school discipline policies and the professional development of educators. In the long run, this would be facilitated most efficiently by changing the basis of school funding from neighborhood property tax to some wider basis, such as a state’s general revenue.  However, it is not necessary to wait for the outcome of what would no doubt be a complicated political process to accomplish this. Some states have already approximated a similar result by varying state aid in inverse proportion to local revenue.  In this way a state might, for example, determine the average per student expenditure of the wealthiest quintile of districts and distribute school aid so that all districts in the state are “averaged up” to that level. Intra-district funding disparities can be remedied administratively at the district level, as can intra-district programming disparities, such as the distribution of gifted and talented programs, course offerings and the like. Racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions are another issue that can be addressed at the school and district level.

It is important to level the playing field and shocking that in much of the country it is routine that educational resources are directed away from those most in need of them.  But as the research behind New Jersey’s Abbott school funding case showed, children whose families are not well-educated must have additional resources if they are to finish their schooling career and college ready. The resources must be there so that they arrive at first grade ready to learn to read. Resources for challenging elementary and secondary curricula must be in place as well as for the extended education time enjoyed by the children of wealthier families: more learning time each day; more learning days in each week and more learning time during the summer. This must be combined with continually professional development for their teachers, both in subject area knowledge and teaching skills.

Implementing the E.E.O.C. guidance to employers in regard to the hiring of formerly incarcerated African-American men and educational and training programs at community colleges can increase the income of African-American neighborhoods where there is currently concentrated poverty.  These can begin with GED classes, and continue through Associates degrees and employment skills training programs coordinated with local employers. (“Green training” is one example of a promising type of program offered by community colleges, such as LaGuardia Community College in New York City.)

Combining programs to improve educational attainment for Black male students and to eliminate of disparate rates of incarceration for matters such as drug offenses would cause the poverty rate for Black children to decline significantly and the income of the Black community to increase. As the Black community’s income increased, the rate of violent offenses and incarcerations for those would decrease, further increasing the community’s income and educational attainment. Disparate Black poverty would begin to come to an end.

Taken together these recommendations are a minimal agenda for the world’s dominant nation. Resources are not the issue. The issue is whether we have the will to challenge historic prejudices and a heritage of injustice.

Notes, references, tables and charts for this series can be found in the book from which it has been taken:  The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It, which is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other Internet distributors.


Chapter V

Ending Black Poverty

“White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living … This, in turn, gives support to prejudice…” Gunner Myrdal
To summarize this book’s argument to this point:

In 2011the poverty rate for Black families with children under the age of 18 was 33%, that for White, non-Hispanic, families was less than half the Black poverty rate: 15%.  The difference can be attributed to the concentration of Black children in poorly resourced neighborhood schools and the mass incarceration of young adult Black men. Concentrated poverty, under conventional school funding policies, results in many Black students attending inadequately performing schools, schools that do not have the resources needed by children growing up in poverty. Large numbers of those children leave school without a high school diploma and young Black men without high school diplomas go to jail in inordinate numbers. The inordinate rates of incarceration of African-American men lead to disproportionate levels of Black poverty and disproportionate concentrations of Black neighborhood poverty foster disproportionate rates of violence, leading to yet higher rates of incarcerations for African-American men.

There is a large and growing scholarly and popular literature on a “school to prison pipeline” for young Black men. The argument of that literature is that lack of educational achievement and attainment among young Black men — together with such practices as extraordinary rates of out-of-school suspensions — lead to mass incarcerations of young adult Black men. Becky Pettit, for example, observes that “The education system contributes to particularly high dropout rates for black men, who then face a high risk of incarceration. As a result, incarceration has become a normative life course event for low-skill black men.”  Pettit’s book, Invisible Men, makes the argument that matters in regard to the educational attainment levels of African-American men are even worse than usually thought, as they have been distorted by a systematic downward bias in estimates of the high school dropout rate of male Black students (and thus an overestimate of their high school graduation rates). The source of this distortion is the convention of excluding prison inmates from census estimates. (If the size of a population group as a whole is underestimated, but the number of those attaining higher education credentials remains the same, the higher education attainment rate will be overestimated.) If this distortion is corrected, Pettit argues, “Including inmates in estimates suggests a nationwide high school dropout rate among young black men more than 40 percent higher than conventional estimates using the CPS [U. S. Census Current Population Survey] would suggest, and no improvement in the black-white gap in high school graduation rates since the early 1990s.”  

Moving on to an estimate of how her corrections affect the distribution of the numbers of Black and White men incarcerated at each education level, Pettit calculates dramatic comparative “cumulative risks of imprisonment” for Black men in particular on the basis of her emended educational attainment rates:

Cumulative Risk of Imprisonment by Ages 30 to 34

All                       Less Than High School   High School/GED           Some College
White         Black          White       Black           White      Black     White      Black

5.4         28.0          28.0       68.0            6.2    21.4                1.2    6.6

We can look at this on an annual, rather than cumulative, basis. In 2008, for example, when of the approximately 4.2 million African-American men ages 20-34, approximately 1.6 million had not completed high school, thirty-seven percent of those men were incarcerated; by ages 35-40, 40% will have been incarcerated. Most by that point will have at least two children of their own, left to be raised in poverty by a “female householder” living in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods with few resources. Just over a quarter of White men who lack a high school diploma risk spending time in prison by age 34. The risk for Black men is more than two out of three. While the probability of imprisonment for African-American men with some college is approximately the same as that for White men with just a high school diploma or GED, that for White men with some college is insignificant. An African-American man who is able to complete some college reduces his risk of imprisonment by 90%.

However, this is only half the story. The pipelines flow in both directions and to a large extent “the prison to school pipeline” is the more important. Much of the reason for the lack of educational achievement by many Black children follows from the extraordinary rates at which their fathers are arrested by police and incarcerated with the complicity of prosecutors and judges. Imprisoned men can contribute little or nothing to save their children from lives spent in poverty. Even formerly imprisoned men all too often have little chance of finding work that can support their children above the poverty level, particularly given their own usual lack of effective educational attainment. As housing patterns are strongly associated with household income, the families of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated men, especially if they are African-American, are among the most likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

In addition, because of the increasing segregation of American cities, it is much more likely that a middle class Black family than a middle class White family will be forced to live in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty, simply by virtue of their race. (The oddity of the idea that a middle class White family would be unable to find a home outside an area of concentrated poverty points to the racist nature of American housing patterns.) Schools in segregated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are usually inadequate to their mission. A Black student in an integrated suburban school — without regard to that student’s family income — can be as much as six times more likely to graduate on-time and college-ready than a Black student in a segregated urban school. Similarly, a Black student in a segregated urban school, even a Black student from a middle class family, is unlikely to receive an education that will graduate him from high school on-time and college- or career-ready.

Concentrated neighborhood poverty, because of the peculiarities of the drug laws and matters at the level of detail of police officer reward systems and the political ambitions of district attorneys, leads to disproportionately intense police activity and prosecutions in predominately Black neighborhoods. Quite apart from this, or, more exactly, in addition to this, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in themselves foster high rates of violent felonies. High rates of incarceration of young Black men lead to high rates of concentrated poverty for their neighborhoods, where ineffective schools contribute to high rates of incarceration and poverty, which foster high rates of violent offensives, and so on and on. The combination of these factors put astonishing numbers of young adult Black men at risk of incarceration and give another turn to the wheel of disadvantage for their children.

Most people, particularly most African-Americans, are familiar with this situation. The question is, then, what is to be done to end disproportionate Black poverty?

The response to the question is frequently a resort to the American doctrine of individual responsibility. Issues of culture, community and psychology are, no doubt, important contributors to the achievement gap in education as well as to the disparities in incarceration rates. However, it is unclear whether they are causes or consequences. We are told that young Black men should pull up their socks (and their trousers) and simply do better in school and act better in the community. Examples of “beating the odds” and “resiliency” are featured by the media, foundations, community groups and inspirational speakers. These responses are simultaneously positive and negative ways of blaming the victims of racism and each in their own manner is a way of maintaining the system of racism. On the other hand, as we have seen, institutional policy decisions are clearly causal, definable and quantifiable and, possibly, given the public will, amenable to change. The goal, after all, is not for individuals to beat the odds. The goal is to change the odds, or, rather, to change the game.

How is that to be done?

As we have seen, there are many possible leverage points. One of the most obvious is that of disparate rates of incarceration for drug offenses, the contemporary equivalent of the vagrancy laws of the Jim Crow era. There are few who now defend laws prohibiting the private use of drugs like marijuana and the police practices associated with them. Why not change them? As we have seen, hundreds of thousands of young Black and Hispanic men are unlawfully arrested each year for purported marijuana offenses alone. To these may be added those incarcerated Black men who would not be incarcerated, or would not be incarcerated for such lengthy periods, if it were not due to the remaining disparate effects of arrests and sentencing for crack and powder cocaine and other drug offenses. Calculating a projected number of adult Black drug arrests (including both possession and sales) based on the drug arrest rate for White adults (given that the actual criminalized activity is roughly equivalent), we found that the difference between this projection and actual arrests, on average, is nearly 350,000 arrests of Black adults annually beyond the amount to be expected based on the actually equivalent drug use rates of Blacks and Whites. We can, then, work from a nominal figure of 100,000 excessive incarcerations of young adult Black men annually from inequitable drug abuse arrests. A reasonable estimate would be an annual loss to the Black community of $2 billion dollars in income. If 60,000 of those incarcerated Black men are fathers, ending disparities in drug abuse arrests could well lower the number of Black children living in poverty by something approaching that figure. Or, to put it another way, each year perhaps 60,000 Black children would not be condemned to living in poverty:  400,000 over five years, if laws like those recently adopted in the states of Washington and Colorado were applied nationally.

Or we could begin by ending disparities in school funding or, better yet, move to “challenge-based” funding formulae, such as that developed for the Abbott districts in New Jersey. This would raise male Black high school graduation rates nationally to approximately the level of male White rates. The national high school graduation rate for male White students is 78%, that for male Black students is 52%. But many suburban districts graduate male Black students at rates similar to the national graduation rates of male White students. Three large districts near Washington, D.C., do so. One, Fairfax County, Virginia, has achieved a graduation rate for male Black students of 80%. Nationally, with approximately 360,000 Black male students in ninth grade, closing the gap will produce 94,000 more male Black high school graduates each year. As incarceration rates vary with educational attainment, this will result in a lower incarceration rate for African-American men and higher incomes for both incarcerated and free Black men.

Here are some other, more detailed, if still “back of the envelope,” estimates:

The incarceration rate for Black men, ages twenty to thirty-four, without a high school diploma was 37.2% in 2008, according to Betty Pettit, while for those with a high school diploma was 9.1%. We will estimate the incarceration rate of those with some college at just over 2% and that of those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher slightly less. At a high school graduation rate of 52%, we would expect 64,300 of those not graduating to be incarcerated, 11,500 of those with a high school diploma and no further education and 1,300 of those with some college and 1,200 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher:  a total of 78,000 of the cohort of 360,000. At a high school graduation rate of 78%, we would expect 29,000 of those not graduating to be incarcerated, 12,800 of the larger number of those with a high school diploma and no further education, 2,900 of those with some college and 1,200 of those attaining a Bachelor’s degree or higher:  a total of 46,000:  nearly 32,000 fewer.

That is the education improvement incarceration subtotal. We can then estimate the economic effects of closing the high school graduation gap. Average incomes, like incarceration rates, vary with educational attainment. In 2006 The College Board calculated the following distributions:  Not a high school graduate -- $17,093; High school graduate (including GED) -- $25,418; Some College, no degree -- $31,455; Associates Degree -- $37,452; Bachelor's Degree -- $50,992; Master's Degree -- $64,456.  As, unfortunately, there has been little change in incomes over the past few years, these figures will do for our estimates. Averaging incomes for “Some College, no degree” and “Associates Degree” and those for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, we can arrive at estimates of total income figures for each level of educational attainment for our grade 9 cohort once they complete schooling, deducting the numbers incarcerated at each level of educational attainment for each graduation rate. At the current graduation rate of 52%, those not graduating and not incarcerated, as a group, would be expected to earn $4.5 billion per year; those with a high school diploma and no further qualifications $1.9 billion; those with some college (estimated by doubling the number of those with an Associate’s degree), $2.4 billion and those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher $4.7 billion, for a total of $13.5 billion. At a high school graduation rate of 78%, the corresponding figures would be $850 million, $6.7 billion, $3.7 billion and $7.1 billion, for a total of $18.4 billion:  an increase of $4.9 billion or 36%.

This difference in incarceration rates and incomes of young adult Black men would of course tend to alleviate overall Black childhood poverty. Forty-five percent of the 2.4 million Black children under the age of 18 living with their mother with no husband present now live in poverty. If we assume two children per family unit, we can estimate just under half a million women and just over a million children in this category. These are numbers approximating those that would be arrived at by basing an estimate on the number of incarcerated Black men. Given that over half of all prisoners have children under the age of 18,  the reduction in incarcerations resulting from closing the high school graduation gap would reduce the number of those households by 16,000 and the number of children living in poverty by 32,000 each year—about 3%.

We might, for the sake of this illustration, add the benefits of ending drug law disparate incarcerations to those of closing the high school graduation gap.  Our running total, then, would be approaching $7 billion annually in increased income for the Black community and 90,000 Black children removed from poverty, or $35 billion in increased income and 450,000 Black children removed from poverty over five years. This would have a compounding effect on the increase in the educational attainment level of Black children as many of their families would no longer forced to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.


Chapter IV

Incarceration, Poverty and the Educational Achievement of Male Black Students (cont.)

As we have seen, by and large, economically impoverished and middle class Black students attend the same schools. In a classic article, Russell Rumberger stated that: “not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to be poor, they are also more likely to attend schools with other poor children. In 2000, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which over 44% of students were poor, whereas the average white student attended a school in which 19% of the students were poor.”  The lack of sufficient educational attainment by male Black children living in poverty might be attributed to family effects, including that of poverty itself, but what is the explanation for the almost as severe lack of educational attainment for many higher income male Black children?  Part of the answer is that as the Black community is impoverished by the incarceration of large numbers of its young adult males, due to the segregated housing patterns of cities such as New York and Chicago, increasing percentages of the children in the Black community live in neighborhoods of, and attend schools with, concentrated poverty, without regard to their own family incomes.  More than 60% of Black students attend schools where more than half of the school population is identified as living in poverty, compared to 18% of White, non-Hispanic, students.  Recent studies of the “resegregation” of America indicate that many higher income Black families must live in these neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and their children to attend the same schools as those attended by the children of impoverished families. For example, while a third of the Black households in Brooklyn have incomes at or below the poverty level for a family of four, thirteen percent of the Black households in the borough have incomes at or above $100,000 per year, their children likely attending the same schools as those attended by the children of their impoverished neighbors.

A study by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council of characteristics of schools nearest to the homes of families at various income levels is suggestive in this regard.  While the median rank of the nearest school attended by children from all White households is 65% (and the percentage of children in those schools eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch is 31.9%), schools attended by children from poor White households are at a median proficiency percentile rank of 40 and a poverty rate of 51.6%. For all Black children the median percentile rank of the nearest school is 20, with a poverty rate of 76.5%, while for children from poor Black households, the median rank of the nearest school is 17, with a poverty rate of 83.3%. In other words, there is a 25 point difference in school quality rank for White children between that for all White children and that for poor White children, with a 20% difference in poverty levels, while for Black children the spread is just 3 points in quality and 7% in poverty.

It might not much matter that Black students, poor or not—although most are poor—attend schools where most of the other students are members of low-income families, if the quality of education provided by schools were not linked to average family income. But as we have seen, those schools, with exceptions of course, are under present conditions most likely to be less-well resourced than other schools, offering fewer opportunities to learn. The key indicator NAEP grade 8 Reading score illustrates this: it declines steeply as the percentage of students in a school who are from impoverished families increases. As the percentage of students in the school from low-income families increases, the percentages of students, from both low-income and higher income families, scoring at or above Proficient declines. At 76% to 99% low-income, the percentage of those from higher income families scoring at or above Proficient is lower than that for students from low-income families in schools less than 10% poor. And, similarly, the percentage of students from low-income families attending schools in which just 5% or fewer of the students are also from low-income families scoring at or above Proficient is nearly three times that of similar students attending schools at the opposite end of the income scale, where 90% or more of the students are poor. Black students at grade 8 in schools that have low percentages of students from low-income families, and are themselves students from middle class families, are twice as likely to score at Proficient as are similar students in schools with high percentages of students from low-income families (36% v. 14%), reaching levels close to the national averages for all students from higher income families (38% Proficient and Advanced v. 44%). Black students from low-income families also benefit (19% v. 9% Proficient). Thus, the determining economic factor for student achievement appears to be not the economic status of the student’s family alone, but also that of the school—that is, the average economic status of the school’s students.

In a word, schools serving high percentages of students from relatively impoverished families are not as good as schools serving low percentages of such students.

Why is that?

A study by Jonathan Rothwell for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program has demonstrated a strong connection among “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools.” Rothwell concludes that: “Nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams. This school test-score gap is even wider between black and Hispanic students and white students.”  According to Rothwell’s research, the average Asian or White and middle/high income student attends a school with a percentile ranking of 60 or better on state examinations, while the average Black student attends a school with a percentile ranking of 37, below that of the average student from a poor (below low-income) family.

Why are schools the students of which are predominately low-income inadequate to their purpose?  There are complex reasons and subtle arguments that can be deployed to answer this question. However, there is one cause for the condition of these schools that is obvious and readily apparent: American schools, virtually alone in the developed world, are funded by local property taxes. It is as if the motto of our public schools were “from each according to their wealth and to each according to their wealth (or lack thereof).” The consequences of this undemocratic distribution of resources are evident in nearly every aspect of American education.

Schools attended for the most part by students whose families are not in need of the National Lunch Program are usually in prosperous neighborhoods with relatively (or absolutely) expensive housing and relatively high property tax revenues.   These schools—or rather their students—on average do well on the standardized tests used to rate schools and sell houses. One could imagine a world in which a family’s financial poverty did not impoverish the educational opportunities of its children, but that imaginary world is nothing like the reality in this country today. American neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by income. Families living in poverty must in most places, send their children to underfinanced and therefore educationally impoverished schools. According to a recent U. S. Department of Education study by Ruth Heuer and Stephanie Stullich of Title I schools (i.e., those serving high percentages of students from impoverished families):  “42 percent to 46 percent of Title I schools (depending on school grade level) had per-pupil personnel expenditure levels that were below their district’s average for non–Title I schools at the same grade level, and from 19 percent to 24 percent were more than 10 percent below the non–Title I school average.”  In other words, nearly half the schools serving students from impoverished households received less funding from their district than those serving students from more prosperous households and nearly a quarter of those had per-student-expenditures significantly lower. “Similar patterns were found when comparing higher-poverty and lower-poverty schools within districts . . .

Other expenditure categories examined in this study showed an increase in the percentage of Title I schools with below-average expenditure levels, compared with total non-personnel expenditures. At the elementary level, for example, the percentage of Title I schools that had per-pupil expenditures below their district’s average for non–Title I schools at the same grade level was 46 percent for total personnel expenditures, 49 percent for instructional staff expenditures, 50 percent for teacher salary expenditures, and 54 percent for non-personnel expenditures.
Heuer and Stullich conclude with the observation that “It is worth noting that in some districts, a higher level of state and local resources were directed to Title I and higher-poverty schools relative to more advantaged schools in those districts. The example of these districts suggests that directing a higher level of state and local resources to high-need schools is an achievable goal.”  Or to put it another way, the decision to relatively underfund schools serving students living in poverty is discretionary: district administrations and boards of education choose to do so.

The Center for American Progress has recently published a paper by Ary Spatig-Amerikaner (Unequal Education:  Federal Loophole Enables Lower Spending on Students of Color), in which Spatig-Amerikaner has used the newly available database of actual state and local spending on school-level personnel and non-personnel resources analyzed by federal researchers Heuer and Stullich to show that “schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students … On average, the high-minority schools … would see an annual increase of $443,000 in state and local spending if [they] were brought up to the same per-pupil spending level as those schools with very few nonwhite students. This is enough to pay the average salary for 12 additional first-year teachers or nine veteran teachers.”    Spatig-Amerikaner attributes these differentials in per pupil instructional spending to “maldistribution of resources at the district level … Districts have teacher assignment practices that place the least-experienced teachers in high-minority, high-poverty schools. Because novice teachers earn so much less in salary, the total spending at these high-needs schools is likely to be lower than spending at schools in wealthier neighborhoods that employ veteran teachers” (p. 14).

Heuer and Stullich found that there is a relationship (inverse) between the percentage of Title I eligible schools and funding. Spatig-Amerikaner shows that there is a direct relationship between the racial composition of schools and instructional expenditures. This holds both between districts and within districts. The relationship, unsurprisingly, is that as Black student enrollment rises, instructional expenditures decline. As did the Schott Foundation's study of New York City schools (A Rotting Apple:  Education Redlining in New York City), Spatig-Amerikaner derives the decline in expenditures from an analysis of the experience and educations of teachers. Using Spatig-Amerikaner's national data we can chart average per-student-expenditure against the percentage of Black students in schools. As the percentage of Black students rises, the per-student expenditure decreases, as does the percentage of Black students scoring at or above Proficient on the NAEP grade 8 Reading test. The level of per-student-expenditures is a direct measure of the opportunity to learn from more highly experienced, better-educated teachers.

The findings of Heuer and Stullich, Spatig-Amerikaner, the Schott Foundation and others demonstrate that, by and large, school funding in the United States is radically unfair: higher for the children of higher income, especially White, non-Hispanic, families and lower for the children of lower income, especially Black, families. The households of most African-American children are poor. Because they are poor they are likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. High poverty neighborhood schools are likely to be disproportionately staffed by inexperienced, less-well-educated and younger, less-well-paid teachers. Student educational achievement in such schools is less that that of students in low-poverty schools, without regard to the income level of any given student’s family. It is against this background that New Jersey’s Education Law Center has established a set of core “fairness principles” for school funding. These include:

•    Varying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs.
•    The level of funding should increase relative to the level of concentrated student poverty. That is, state finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty …
•    Student poverty — especially concentrated student poverty — is the most critical variable affecting funding levels… State finance systems should deliver greater levels of funding to higher-poverty versus lower-poverty settings, while controlling for differences in other cost factors.
They rarely do.

The circuit of Black poverty passes through the mass incarceration of young adult Black men based on decisions of police, district attorneys, judges and legislators; the consequent impoverishment of Black families; the resegregation of metropolitan areas and therefore of schools; the underfunding of segregated schools resulting in a lack of educational opportunity for Black students; lower educational attainment for young Black adults, leading to poverty and incarceration. None of this is necessary; little of it is entirely within the power of the Black community to stop. But it can be ended any day by those who have made, who continue to make, the decisions that cause Black poverty: members of boards of education, chief state school officers, school district superintendents, legislators, police department administrators, district attorneys, judges.


Chapter IV

Incarceration, Poverty and the Educational Achievement of Male Black Students

“To make the society happy and people easy under the meanest circum-stances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor.” Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees.
We have looked at incarceration rates, poverty and educational attainment for African-Americans, especially male African-Americans. These factors are not independent of one another. Mass incarceration of young adult African-American men leads to poverty for themselves and their families and is to some extent caused by that poverty (although to a great extent it is also caused by governmental policies and practices). Family poverty, given current fiscal policies in regard to education, usually confines Black children to schools where there is a little of educational opportunity. This in turn, giving the wheel another push, leads in the following years to reduced incomes, higher crime rates, shorter lives.

It is taken for granted that more Black than White children grow up in poverty. But why are more Black than White children growing up in poverty? Stopping the causal wheel at this question points to one important factor:  a very large proportion of Black women raising children in poverty are doing so because the fathers of those children are imprisoned. Western and Pettit found that in 2009 over 11% of Black children had an incarcerated parent, as compared to fewer than 2% of White, non-Hispanic, and 3.5% of Hispanic children.  Pettit estimates that “one-quarter of black children will experience parental imprisonment before their eighteenth birthday.”  Black children, therefore, are between three and more than five times more likely than Hispanic or White, non-Hispanic, children to grow up without an adult male in or contributing to the household, simply because of the mass incarceration of Black men. The median family income of Black married couples with children was $70,000 in 2010. It was $21,500 for Black women raising children with no husband present—somewhat under the poverty line.   There are eleven million Black children under the age of 18. With 11% having an incarcerated parent, there are probably 1.2 million Black children, out of a total of the 3.9 million Black children living in poverty, who are living in poverty because their fathers are in prison. If the incarceration rate for African-American men were lowered to that for Hispanic men, for example, approximately 800,000 fewer Black children would grow up in poverty.

The intergenerational effects of the wheel of Black poverty are readily apparent at many points around its circumference. For example, the educational attainment—or lack thereof—of fathers is associated with that of their sons. We can consider the educational attainment of the fathers of male Black students, as reported by male Black students taking the NAEP Grade 8 Reading examination in 2011. Twelve percent of those students scoring “below Basic” reported that their fathers had not finished high school, a percentage that declines as performance improves, so that only 2% of those scoring at the Advanced level reported that their fathers had not finished high school. The opposite was the case for those reporting that their fathers had completed college: 23% of those students scoring at the “below Basic” level report that their fathers had completed college, while 61% of those students scoring at the Advanced level reported that their fathers had completed college.  College educated fathers are relatively unlikely to have been incarcerated. They are likely to have higher incomes than those fathers who did not finish high school. Their sons will have the advantage of a parental model of commitment to education as well as the advantage of an upper middle class family income.

On average, just over half of African-American children from impoverished families, whose fathers did not finish high school score below grade level on the Grade 8 NAEP Reading assessment. Fifty-six percent of all male African-American students whose fathers did not finish high school score below grade level by grade 8. It can be assumed, then, from the relationship of income and incarceration, that more than half of those male Black children with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated fathers will themselves not graduate from high school.

The combination of poverty and parental incarceration inhibits educational attainment. U. C. Berkeley’s Rucker C. Johnson has observed that “There are a myriad of ways in which parental incarceration may compound disadvantage.

It may 1) increase the probabilities of growing up poor and/or with a single parent; or 2) elevate the risk of criminal involvement and incarceration later in life for children of the incarcerated  … There are a variety of potential mechanisms through which parental incarceration may affect child outcomes including economic instability, living-arrangement instability, parental attachment issues, role model effects, to name a few.
Another way in which “parental incarceration may compound disadvantage,” according to Johnson, is “neighborhood quality,” which “is a significant gatekeeper of the intergenerational transmission of deviant behavior and incarceration risks among males.”   In other words, children whose parents are in prison are likely to live in neighborhoods with deficient housing, inferior schools, high crime rates and an unusual degree of attention from the police. Part of the reason that these neighborhoods are of low quality is precisely because many of the men who might otherwise live in them are instead living in prison. Another reason is that many of the men who do live in them have been in prison and consequently have diminished economic prospects, among other disadvantages, such as an increased likelihood to have a place on a police list of usual suspects: to be arrested when arrests are needed to fill quotas, justify budgets, and the like.

In addition to the economic effects, the incarceration of a father can contribute to the prison to school to prison circuit by affecting the behavior of his children:

One study found that 23 percent of children with a father who has served time in a jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school, compared with just 4 percent of children whose fathers have not been incarcerated. Research that controls for other variables suggests that paternal incarceration, in itself, is associated with more aggressive behavior among boys and an increased likelihood of being expelled or suspended from school.
Given eight million Black students enrolled k-12, and 25% with parents who have been  incarcerated during their school years, then half a million Black children, overwhelmingly male, can be expected to be suspended or expelled from school simply from the effects of parental incarceration. These effects become apparent early in the school careers of Black children. Research by Christopher Wildeman “demonstrates that recent and prior paternal incarceration is associated with significantly higher levels of physically aggressive behaviors in boys at age five.”  The immense number of arrests and incarcerations of Black men in contexts where White men would not be arrested or incarcerated may reduce the tolerance of Black children, especially male Black children, for the exercise of adult authority characteristic of schooling. Then the likelihood of a male Black student acting in such a way as to invoke school disciplinary procedures may be increased. On the other hand, as we have seen, other things being equal, just as Black males are disproportionately incarcerated, so Black male school children are disproportionately selected for school discipline actions. It is not necessarily the student’s psychology that is primary in school discipline matters; it is often the psychology of the adult school authorities.

Incarceration of large numbers of young adult Black males affects the educational attainment of the mothers of their children as well. Four times the percentage Black students from lower income families as those from higher income families have mothers who were reported by their children as not having finished high school. Nearly three times the percentage of Black grade 8 students from higher income families than those from lower income families had mothers who graduated from college. Just 11% of Black students from low-income families report that their mothers graduated from college, while 28% of Black students from higher income families had college educated mothers. Fourteen times as many students from higher income families reported that their mothers graduated from college than that their mothers did not finish high school.

Looking at statistics such as these, Pamela Oliver and her colleagues note that “States with higher Black male imprisonment exhibit a rise in the prevalence of Black mothers — especially single mothers — who have not completed high school, despite an overall trend toward rising education among Black women …

It seems likely that there are two mechanisms contributing to this result. One is the reduced legitimacy of mainstream institutions caused by perceptions of injustice and the rise in connections to criminal culture. The second is the rising competition for increasingly scarce men. On the first side, mass incarceration is associated with higher levels of community connections with prisoners and criminal lifestyles. Moreover, as the proportion of young men in a community incarcerated rises, the criminal justice system is seen increasingly as illegitimate by its targets, and this contributes to a general decline in the perceived legitimacy of the dominant culture. Young people of both sexes are pulled out of school by the disruptions in family life from having incarcerated relatives and by their own involvement in illegitimate or illegal activities. For a young woman, the paths to dropping out of high school and having a child are intertwined, as detachment from school and increasing sexual activity tend to reinforce each other. This leads to the second mechanism. While a steep reduction in the pool of available young men may lead some young women to defer sexual involvement and obtain more education, it can also lead others to be more willing to be sexually involved in the competition for increasingly scarce partners.

This directly affects the educational achievement of male Black students, as the educational achievement of male Black students strongly tracks the reported educational attainment of their mothers as well as that of their fathers.The percentage of male Black students scoring at or above Proficient on the NAEP Grade 8 Reading Assessment more than doubles as their mothers’ reported educational attainment increases. (As with the reported educational attainment of fathers, the percentages of male Black students reporting “I don’t know” for mothers declines as scores rise.)

In the United States, as in many other countries, the dire effects of poverty on student learning begin well before children go to school. For example, in Australia, all children, without regard to race or ethnicity, “at four to five years of age from low-income families showed lower school readiness over all domains, but particularly in the area of language development. Two years later, at six to seven years of age, more children from low-income families were experiencing literacy and numeracy difficulties than children from middle income families.”  Experience in the United States is similar. It is likely that due to the cumulative effects of family poverty, parental incarceration and multi-generational education deficiencies, as many as three-quarters of male Black children arrive at kindergarten unready for easy adaption to school routines and unready to begin learning basic literacy. In Maryland, in the 2001-2 school year (before the institution of the state’s path-breaking school readiness program), approximately half of all kindergarten students were school-ready, but only 32% of all low-income students were judged to be school-ready. It is not surprising, then, that at that time only 35% of African-American students in Maryland, where a quarter of all Black children under five years of age lived in low-income families, were school-ready when they reached kindergarten.

Of course family poverty continues to affect student learning once children are enrolled in school. This can be illustrated with scores on the 2011 NAEP assessment of fourth grade Reading, comparing all students eligible for the National Lunch Program and all those ineligible, as determined by family income. At the point in a student’s school career that it is vital that their reading skills are at least at grade level, nearly half of those living in low-income households are reading far below grade level and an additional one-third have only Basic reading skills. Just one-sixth the proportion of students from low-income families as students from higher income families reach the Advanced level in grade 4 Reading.

Results from the grade 8 Reading assessment show that four more years of schooling decrease the percentage of students at the below Basic level who are low-income families, but only by increasing the percentage of those at the Basic level. The percentage of those reading at grade level (Proficient and above) is unchanged. These poverty effects common to all American students are intensified among African-American students, particularly Black males. Young Black male students whose families have incomes sufficiently low to make them eligible for the National Lunch Program (nearly half of all Black children) rarely read at grade level by grade 4. Only 10% have skills that are Proficient or Advanced. On the other hand, three times that proportion, 29%, of male Black children from less impoverished households, read at grade level in grade 4.

The deficient reading skills of low-income Black male students in primary school is of obvious importance. According to one researcher, Donald Hernandez, risk factors for failure to graduate from high school by age 19 include lack of reading proficiency in early elementary grades. (The other risk factors are the overlapping categories of poverty and “Black or Hispanic racial/ethnic status.”)  Among White, non-Hispanic, children, 26% of those from low-income families and 51% of those from higher income families score at or above Proficient in Reading at grade 4, and virtually the same proportions, 25% and 47% do so at grade 8. On the other hand, 10% of those Black males from low-income families and 18% of those from higher income families score at or above Proficient at grade 4, while at grade 8 there has been no improvement: just 9% of those from low-income families and 19% of those from higher income families. The racial gap remains virtually the same. Ninety-one percent of male Black students in middle school from low-income families do not read at grade level. The same is true of 81% of middle class male Black middle school students. An argument can be made that reading achievement in the primary grades is predominately influenced by home factors. This argument is much less persuasive for middle school students. Their schools have had at least eight years to level the playing field. If they have not, the fault is most likely in the schools, not the families.


Chapter III

Educational Achievement of Male Black Students (cont.)

One answer, as we have seen, is that Black students do not attend the same schools as White students. Dual racial and economic segregation confine many of Connecticut’s Black students to the failing schools of Hartford and Bridgeport, while White students—those Connecticut White students who do attend public schools—are educated in the excellent schools of the Connecticut suburbs. Black students who move a few hundred yards across a district boundary from Hartford dramatically increase their chances of graduating from high school. This is such a well-known state of affairs that a kind of educational vigilantism has arisen:  White residents patrolling school parking lots to ensure that no undeserving Black or low-income children are smuggled into their schools.

Why are the schools attended by students living in poverty less adequate than those attended by students from financially better-off families?  According to Berliner,

The schools that [students living in poverty] attend are … funded differently than the schools attended by students of wealthier parents. The political power of a neighborhood and local property tax rates have allowed for apartheid-lite systems of schooling to develop in our country. For example, 48% of high poverty schools receive less money in their local school districts than do low poverty schools  … Logic would suggest that the needs in the high poverty schools were greater, but the extant data show that almost half of the high poverty schools were receiving less money than schools in the same district enrolling families exhibiting less family poverty.  
Schools serving low-income families have fewer resources, and therefore less favorable outcomes, than those serving higher-income families. This intensifies the barriers to educational opportunity presented by the lack of discretionary income to spend on out-of-school education (including tutoring) and comparatively low levels of parental educational attainment. Good schools can overcome those barriers; inadequate schools are inadequate for all students, without regard to parental income and educational attainment.

Beyond these fiscal-structural issues, Dr. John H. Jackson, President of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, has focused attention on the way that Black students, especially male Black students, are “locked out” of extra resources available to White, non-Hispanic, students and “pushed out” of school itself. They are, for example, “locked out” of the extra resources of Gifted and Talented programs. The U. S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) district-level data shows that the ratio of male Black to male White, non-Hispanic, students in Gifted and Talented programs ranges from 1-to-9 in Memphis and Nashville down to 1-to-1 in Montgomery County (MD) and Milwaukee.* That is, while Black students in Montgomery County and Milwaukee have an equal chance of receiving the increased resources characteristic of Gifted and Talented programs as White, non-Hispanic, students, they have barely more than one-tenth that opportunity in Memphis and Nashville. Are Black students nine times smarter in Milwaukee than in Nashville? Are White students one-ninth as talented in high-achieving Montgomery County as in Memphis? In some places access to Gifted and Talented Programs varies from one neighborhood to the next. In New York City, for example, the testing of students for those programs (performed around age 4!) is intensive in the city’s middle and upper class neighborhoods, and virtually non-existent in the city’s poorest — and Blackest — neighborhoods. It can therefore be pointed out that participation in the city’s Gifted and Talented programs is much lower for Black students than others — with the implication that this may have to do with innate ability rather than with the lack of opportunity to participate in the programs.

Another set of additional resources is associated with Advanced Placement classes. Male Black students are assigned to Advanced Placement Mathematics at less than a tenth the rate as male White, non-Hispanic students in two Louisiana districts, while they are assigned to Advanced Placement Mathematics at approximately the same rate as male White, non-Hispanic, students in the predominately Black districts of Newark, Atlanta and Cleveland. Disparities in access to Advanced Placement courses are traceable to district policy decisions, as the College Board has repeatedly advocated an “open admissions” policy for its Advanced Placement program. This policy of locking out Black students from educational opportunities — Advanced Placement and Gifted and Talented programs, among others — can be changed any afternoon. The key is in the hands of district administrators. They just have to use it.

Black students are “pushed out” by means of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions. In elementary and secondary school, out-of-school suspensions are a sensitive predicator of a student’s future failure to complete high school with a regular diploma. One authoritative study found that students punished with out-of-school suspensions were three times as likely not to finish high school as those students who were not suspended.  According to the most recently available national survey by the U.S. Department of Education (2006), an extraordinary 19% of all male Black students were suspended from school that year, as compared with the closely aligned Hispanic and non-Hispanic White male rates of much less than half that. Out-of-school suspension ratios at the district level vary from approximately 8-to-1 in Newark and Atlanta (and 6-to-1 in two other Atlanta metropolitan area districts) down to less than twice the percentage of male Black as compared to male White, non-Hispanic, students given these punishments in districts like Boston. Are male Black students four times as well-behaved in Boston as in Atlanta?

These racial disparities in the application of school discipline policies are visible early on. Walter Gilliam of Yale University has established that in many cases prekindergarten suspension and expulsion rates for male Black children are extremely high and not wholly attributable to the behavior of those children. They are, in large part, he finds, an artifact of the attitudes and expectations of the teachers of those three- and four-year-old children, a finding confirmed by the fact that professional development for these teachers significantly lowers suspension and expulsion rates for their male Black students.  

At this point we can refer to a set of data similar to that for drug abuse arrests and incarcerations and even more definitively pointing to public policy and practices as the driver for these effects. The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute have published a study entitled “Breaking School Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.”  The state in question is Texas and the study traces school careers for all public school students in that state who were in seventh-grade in 2000, 2001, and 2002. It was found that 83% percent of male Black students had at least one discretionary violation during their secondary school career (compared to 59% for non-Hispanic White students), but mandatory disciplinary actions were invoked at similar rates for Black and White students. The difference between discretionary and mandatory actions, in the study’s vocabulary, is that the latter are based on regulated procedures and policies, set by the state, while the former are based on locally determined procedures and policies which, in general, have few if any safeguards against arbitrariness. In other words, the Texas study documented a natural experiment similar to that of drug abuse arrests: given more or less equal propensities to come afoul of objective rules (“mandatory actions”), public secondary school teachers and administrators use their discretion at the school level to punish Black students nearly a third more often than both Hispanic and White, non-Hispanic, students, and male Black students much more often yet.

The consequences for the educations of Black students in Texas are severe. According to the study: “A student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was twice as likely to repeat his or her grade compared to a student with the same characteristics, attending a similar school, who had not been suspended or expelled” (p. xi). Further, “a student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year,” and so into the criminal justice system later.  (Note that these are the consequences, in the main, of “discretionary,” that is, unregulated, actions by local school personnel.)  Of Texas male Black students suspended on the basis of these decisions by local school personnel, more than one-third of the cohort came into contact with the state’s juvenile justice system, only a slightly lower number than the number of male Black adults incarcerated in Texas. Being “known to the police” increases the chances that a person will be arrested. It is always easier to round up the usual suspects. That is why they are the usual suspects.

Given the Texas data indicating that Black students in that state are punished at the school level with discretionary out-of-school suspensions more often than other students, we can estimate the number of male Black students punished with out-of-school suspensions in the country as a whole, who most likely would not have been if they had been Hispanic or White, non-Hispanic, and had engaged in the same behaviors. The national percentages for out-of-school suspensions were 19% for Black males, 7% for White, non-Hispanic, males and 9% for Hispanic males. Projecting on the basis of the national Hispanic numbers (because of the similarity of family economic status) would give us a figure of 400,000 excess Black male suspensions each year in the United States. Working from the Texas data, there is an excess of 250,000. Between the two, a conservative estimate would be 300,000 Black male students punished with out-of-school suspensions each year, who would not have been removed from the classroom if they had been from any racial or ethnic background other than Black. Assuming that most suspensions are in secondary school, and counting six years of secondary school with a 7% chance of being suspended each year, it is likely that on a national basis Black male students have more than a 40% chance of out-of-school suspension for racial reasons during their secondary school careers. This happens to be approximately the percentage of young adult Black males without high school diplomas who might expect to experience incarceration as young adults.

This push-out of Black students could be ended by school district administrators any afternoon they chose to do so. Doing so might well increase the number of Black men with high school diplomas by a quarter of a million or more each year.

There is a high school graduation rate gender gap across all racial and ethnic groups. That for White, non-Hispanic, students is 3%. However, that for Black students is 12%:  four times as great. No doubt many factors contribute to this startling difference. One is likely to be racially motivated out-of-school suspensions, which primarily affect male Black students. As with mass incarceration, debt peonage, lynching and the daily cruelty of slavery itself, Black males, in particular, are made to suffer from school discipline inequities. It is not, everywhere, as it is in Meriden, Mississippi, part of an overt system of preparing male Black students for incarceration. In many places, such as in Connecticut’s preschools, it is simply a reflex: Black males, even three or four year old Black males, are seen by those with authority over them as requiring disciplinary action more frequently than other males or any females. Another factor is the effect of parental incarceration, in particular the incarceration of fathers, which is especially devastating to young Black males. For the cohort due to graduate from high school in June 2010, average Black male k-8 enrollment was 300,000, but by grade 12, in the 2009-2010 school year, it had declined to approximately 250,000. Approximately 65,000 Black male students in this cohort did not graduate from high school in June, 2010. If present trends continue, 24,000 of those will be incarcerated as young men. Much of this is attributable to the effects of parental incarceration, family poverty and the quality – or lack of it – of schools in communities of concentrated poverty.

The national public high school graduation rate (grade 9 to diploma) for male Black students is 52%.  This is a significant increase in a decade from the rate of 41% for the 2001/2 school-year (but far lower than the 75% rate to be inferred from the Census). The graduation rate for male White, non-Hispanic, students, on the same basis, has also increased, from 70% to 78% over that period (versus the implied 85% Census rate). The gap between these Black and White, non-Hispanic, graduation rates has therefore narrowed from 29 percentage points to 26. At this pace, if nothing is done, it will take the better part of a century to close the gap between male Black and White, non-Hispanic, high school graduation rates.

Three states have achieved higher male Black than male White, non-Hispanic, graduation rates: Maine, Arizona and Vermont. Four more (Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska) currently have higher male Black graduation rates than the national male White, non-Hispanic, graduation rate in the 2001/2 school year. None of these states include districts with 10,000 or more male Black students, most (except Arizona) have very few Black students. This relationship between relatively high male Black graduation rates and relatively low concentrations of Black students is supportive of the idea that integrated school systems better serve Black students than segregated systems, perhaps, as has been argued here, because schools oriented toward the education of White, non-Hispanic, students are likely to provide teachers and facilities superior to those to which majorities of Black students are consigned.

If we look at the states having at least one school district enrolling 10,000 or more male Black students, that with the highest graduation rate for male Black students is New Jersey, with a graduation rate for male Black students of 63% (as compared to 90% for its male, White, non-Hispanic students). New Jersey’s graduation rates for students from all racial/ethnic groups are among the best and many of the state’s Black students attend integrated schools in this highly suburbanized state. These positive effects were reinforced by the “Abbott” case, which directed enhanced resources to Newark and other districts with concentrated Black and impoverished populations.  Of the seven states enrolling more that 200,000 male Black students, four (Georgia, Florida, New York and Illinois) have lower than average male Black graduation rates. Among districts enrolling 10,000 or more male Black students, ten have higher male Black graduation rates than the national average. Two — Montgomery County (MD) and Newark—exceed the 2001/2 national male White, non-Hispanic, graduation rate. Philadelphia, Clark County, Detroit and Rochester, on the other hand, graduate less that a quarter of their male Black students. Six more districts graduate less than one-third. These wide variations in outcomes, against a nearly uniform background of family poverty, point again to educational opportunity — the quality of schools available—as the key to the educational challenges facing Black students.

These patterns continue at the postsecondary level. Twelve percent of male Black high school graduates enroll in two-year colleges and 31% in four-year colleges. In comparison, 23% of male White students enroll in two-year colleges and 41% in 4-year colleges.   If we look at these numbers more carefully, we see that most male Black high school graduates (57%) do not enroll in college at all, while two-thirds of male White students do so. These figures become even more dramatic when combined with high school graduation rates. Only half of male Black high school students graduate; approximately three-quarters of male White, non-Hispanic, students graduate. It would seem, then, that just six percent of college age male Black students enroll in two-year colleges and 16% enroll in four-year colleges, compared to 18% and 30% of male White students. In other words, a male White high school student is twice as likely as a male Black student to enroll in college following the year in which their cohort was in grade 12.

A degree-seeking, full-time, male Black student in a four-year college is half as likely to graduate in four years as a male White student (15% compared to 33%). However, by six years from enrollment, 36% of male Black students and 57% of male White students graduate. The gap is similar but the disproportionality has narrowed. An obvious interpretation of this data would point to a relative lack of adequate preparation for college coursework among those male Black students who have managed to obtain a high school diploma.

According to the Census Bureau’s Community Population Survey (CPS), in terms of educational attainment, the largest group of White, non-Hispanic, men is that of those who have received a Bachelor’s degree, while the largest group of Black men are those reporting just a high school diploma: four years less of education. While the percentages of those with some college or an Associate degree, combined, are identical (29%), just over one-third the percentage of African-American as White, non-Hispanic, men report receiving Bachelor’s degrees and less than half the percentage of African-American as White, non-Hispanic, men report that they have been awarded graduate degrees. While twelve percent of White, non-Hispanic, men receive graduate degrees, only five percent of Black men do so.

The percentage of African-American men receiving Bachelor’s degrees, at 11%, according to the Census, is twice that which can be derived from the progression data described above. What accounts for this discrepancy? Professor Pettit has recently argued that because it does not include people in prison or jail, the Current Population Survey (CPS) seriously over-estimates the educational attainment of the Black population. Another factor in this over-estimation is the equation of the quality and timing of the GED with the high school diploma. There is some debate about the GED as literally equivalent to a high school diploma and, further, many male African-Americans receive their GED while incarcerated, which is quite a different matter than taking the examination as an alternative to sitting out the final semester of high school. Assuming that Pettit is correct, the actual percentage of college educated African-American men is much lower than usually thought; the number of college educated African-American men, as compared to White, non-Hispanic, men, is barely noticeable; that of African-American men with graduate degrees hardly more than a rounding error for the combined total.

Half of those male Black students enrolled in grade 9 graduate from high school four years later. Less than a third of those then enroll in a four-year college. Slightly more than a third of those have graduated after six years. Approximately five percent, then, of a given cohort of male Black students go straight through to a Bachelor’s degree, allowing for six years to complete the degree after matriculation. If the economic status of African-Americans is to approach the level of that for other Americans, it is essential that the percentage of African-Americans with college degrees doubles and for that it is essential that African-American children attend dramatically better schools than those most of them attend today.    

Du Bois ended his account of the establishment of schooling for African-Americans during and immediately after Reconstruction with a paean to what we would today call African-American agency during Jim Crow:

Had it not been for the Negro school and college, the Negro would, to all intents and purposes, have been driven back to slavery. His economic foothold in land and capital was too slight in ten years of turmoil to effect any defense or stability … But already, through establishing public schools and private colleges, and by organizing the Negro church, the Negro had acquired enough leadership and knowledge to thwart the worst designs of the new slave drivers. They avoided the mistake of trying to meet force by force. They bent to the storm of beating, lynching and murder, and kept their souls in spite of pubic and private insult of every description; they built an inner culture which the world recognizes in spite of the fact that it is still half-strangled and inarticulate.
The achievement Du Bois memorializes was indeed admirable, and, as he said, admired. But today more is needed. The closed gate to education opportunity for Black students is not controlled by the Black community. Dr. John H. Jackson has spoken of “the willful neglect” of educational opportunities for African-Americans. It is widely believed that it is the duty of the oppressed to struggle against oppression. Hence the admiration for Spartacus and his successors. But there is no moral law that the struggle against oppression, in whatever realm, must be carried on only by the oppressed, nor any historical analysis that holds that the struggling oppressed, on their own, must succeed in ending their oppression. The direct route to the end of oppression is for the oppressors themselves to work with the oppressed to end it. It is also the moral responsibility of those keeping the gate of educational opportunity closed to join hands with those behind it, to work together to remove that barrier to the fulfillment of the promise of Emancipation.

Chapter III
Educational Achievement of Male Black Students

The building presents a pitted and discolored concrete wall to the street. There is a fence of vertical steel bars on top of the concrete wall and coils of concertina wire atop that. Ragged black wind-blown plastic trash bags have caught in the wire. If you are allowed through the gates blocking the stairs leading up from the street, you can go around the side of the building, where there is a steel door with a lock, but no handle. There is a metal detector just inside that door. Three-quarters of the fifteen hundred students attending this school are Black. The rest are Hispanic, except for 14 White and 17 Asian children. The playing fields, such as they are, are asphalt. The corridor walls were once, perhaps, beige. They are undecorated except for the occasional memorandum of warnings and prohibitions. The district does not supply funds for science laboratories or art supplies. A third of the teachers leave each year. And so forth. A few miles away, in a White, upper middle class suburb, the school … but you know what that school looks like, how well-equipped it is, how well-educated and dedicated its teachers are; its wide lawns and friendly trees.

Our contemporary inequities in education can be traced back to the very beginnings of public education in this country, particularly in the South. W. E. B. Du Bois found that before the Civil War, “In all Southern states (except a few of the Border states and the District of Columbia) it was forbidden to teach slaves how to read and write, and several states extended the prohibition to free Negroes.”  He estimated that at the time of emancipation “illiteracy among the colored population was well over 95% … which meant that less than 150,000 of the four million slaves emancipated could read and write.”  During Reconstruction there was a great flowering of education for African-Americans. Abolitionists, victorious, moved south, building and running schools. Former slaves who had become literate became literacy teachers. In the absence of public schools of any kind, “Between 1865 (June 1st) and September 1, 1870, the [Freedmen’s] Bureau spent on education a sum which represented about one-half of the expenses of the schools. The rest was met by benevolent associations and the freedmen themselves. For some years after 1865, the education of the Negro was well-nigh monopolized by the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the missions sustained by the Northern churches and organizations allied with tem. Schools of all grades, from kindergarten to the college, were established in each state.”

Curiously enough, for White children as well, the “public school systems, in most Southern states, began with the enfranchisement of the Negro.” In South Carolina, for example, the Reconstruction constitution of 1868 for the first time obligated the state government to establish a system of universal education.  Similar provisions were incorporated into the Reconstruction-era constitutions of the other former Confederate states. For both White and Black students, “It is fair to say that the Negro carpetbag governments established the public schools of the South …”  The history of education for African-Americans in the South after the Civil War went from individual schools under military or missionary sponsorship, to state systems put in place under the new constitutions, to — unfortunately, as it turned out — districts under local control. For Du Bois, “Local control meant the control of property and racial particularism. It stood for reaction and prejudice; and wherever there was retrogression, particularly in Negro schools, it can be traced to the increased power of the [White] county and district administrators.”  

During the period of Jim Crow, paralleling the imposition of debt peonage, there was a systematic limitation of educational opportunities for African-Americans in the South. Once African-Americans were disenfranchised, laws were passed so as to ensure that schooling in the South for Black students was funded at much lower levels than that for White students, when not discouraged altogether. (Today, as we will see, similar inequities in funding are maintained in practice if not in law.) Myrdal commented on this point that “The interest of educating the Negroes to become faithful helots has been obvious, but the Southern whites have not even attempted to make it effective in practice. Instead, they have merely kept Negro education poor and bad.”   (This is, perhaps, one of the few examples of irony in Myrdal’s massive report.) Myrdal shows that the control of education can be, has been, and by extension now is, maintained by White politicians, even when the operations of the system appear to be in the hands of African-American professionals:

In the main … the control over Negro education has been preserved by other whites representing the political power of the region. [Although the] salaried officers of the movement — the college presidents, the school principals, the professors, and the teachers — are now practically all Negroes … With this set-up, it is natural and, indeed, necessary that the Negro school adhere rather closely to the accommodating pattern … Negro teachers on all levels are dependent on the white community leaders . . .
Or as Du Bois put it: “The schools were separate but the colored schools were controlled by white officials who decided how much or rather how little should be spent upon them; who decided what could be taught and what textbooks used and the sort of subservient teachers they wanted.”  He quotes a White official advising that when choosing between two teachers for a Black school, those (White officials) responsible should choose the less effective.

This is the background against which the lack of educational achievement by male Black students since the end of legal segregation must be considered. That comparative lack of achievement has often been attributed to the structure of the Black family. This theory is, in itself, a way to maintain the status quo. If Black students do not do well in school and they live in a family at the head of which is what the Census calls a “female householder without husband present,” particularly if this “householder” has an income below the poverty level, as they often do, why inquire further?  But if we do inquire further, we can rule out the family structure argument easily enough, for example by a comparison of educational outcomes for Black and Hispanic students. Most of the socio-cultural variables, except poverty itself, have different values in the Black and Hispanic communities. The Moynihan Black family consists of a woman supporting one or two children without a husband. The “typical” Hispanic household consists of a married couple with two or three children. On the other hand, Black and Hispanic families have incomes at similar points in the economic distribution and, crucially, often live in the same or neighboring communities. Their children attend the same or similar schools. It is instructive, then, to look at high school graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students, by state. The trends are remarkably similar. States with relatively high graduation rates for Hispanic students, such as New Jersey, also tend to have relatively high graduation rates for Black students; those with relatively low graduation rates for Hispanic students, such as New York, also have relatively low graduation rates for Black students. The structures of the Black and Hispanic families are unlikely to differ from one side of the Hudson River to the other, from Harlem to Newark. The similar educational outcomes for Black and Hispanic students point to something other than cultural factors in the Black family and community as the primary engine for the failure of schools to properly educate many male Black students. They point to the schools.

Three-quarters of a century ago Oliver C. Cox pointed out that after Reconstruction “… the training advocated for … the children of the poor, was intended to keep them within the occupational level of their parents; and intellectual pursuits were ruled out.”   The schools Black children are allowed to attend today are similarly limited and, by and large, similarly segregated, which facilitates inequities in resource allocation. You only need walk through a school, such as that described at the beginning of this chapter to realize that its intellectual and cultural poverty parallels the economic poverty of the neighborhood: no student art on the walls, no laboratory benches in the science rooms, few books in the library, few — if any — computers anywhere; no music, no challenging classes. No opportunity to learn.

Researchers at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA have documented that most Black children attend schools segregated both by race/ethnicity and income.  While the degree of segregation declined from the 1960s (the end of de jure segregation in the South) to the 1980s, it has increased since then. In the 1980s, 63% of Black students attended schools with enrollments that were half or more minority, in the 2009-10 school year that percentage had risen to 74%. By 2009-10 there were six million Black students in schools that were half or more minority; three million in schools 90% to 100% minority and 1.2 million in schools that were 99-100% minority. If the last of these groupings were a single school district, it would edge out New York City’s as the largest in the country.

As a matter of fact, much of New York City’s public school district already looks as if it were that segregated system. The Civil Right Project has disaggregated segregation data for each state by the intensity of segregation in each. It is striking that across all such measures, the states of New York and Illinois are among the most segregated: ranking first and second, for example, among states where the typical Black student is least likely to be in a school with White students and also for schools with more than 90% minority enrollments. These data reflect the intensity of segregation in New York City and Chicago, the nation’s two largest school districts. It is not an accident or happenstance that New York produces the smallest percentage of male Black high school graduates of any state. What other result could be expected from the way in which its school systems are structured? Not only are they segregated both by race and income, but their schools are funded inequitably: those schools serving low poverty neighborhoods are given more resources than those serving high poverty neighborhoods. This is the well-known Reverse Robin Hood policy of many districts and states.

The segregation of Black students would not necessarily lead to a lack of educational achievement. Many middle class African Americans of a certain age can point to elite segregated high schools that emphasized and produced high achieving students: the Talented Tenth. But today segregation is strongly linked to the lack of student achievement. Reading is the essential skill for education and by grade 8 schools and school systems have had time to provide that basic skill to their students. Grade 8 reading proficiency is, therefore, a good indicator of school and school system quality. Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP — “The Nation’s Report Card”) shows that as the percentage of White students in a school falls, the percentage of male Black students scoring at or above Proficient on the indicator Grade 8 Reading test falls as well: from 17% for male Black students in schools with few Black students to less than half that — 8% — for male Black students in schools that are 49% or less White. We can estimate that in 2009-2010 three-quarters of the nation’s eight million Black students were in those school districts where just 8% of the Black male students scored at or above Proficient (that is, at grade level) in Grade 8 Reading. Given that the achievement levels of White students in these schools runs in parallel with that for Black students, it seems that the variable driving these effects is not the race or the home life of the students, but the quality of segregated schools:  the more segregated (i.e., the fewer White students), the more inadequate, the more inadequately resourced, the school.  

At the time of Myrdal’s study, in both the South and the North, segregation was a crucial factor in determining the quality of education on offer to African-American children. According to Myrdal: “In the North the official opinion among whites is that segregation is not compatible with equality, but … much segregation is actually in effect as a consequence of residential segregation and of gerrymandering districts and granting permits to transfer … In the South … [s]egregation is usually not motivated by financial reasons but as a precaution against social equality.”  Interestingly, according to Du Bois, during Reconstruction and immediately after:

In nearly every state, the question of mixed and separate schools was a matter of much debate and strong feeling. There was no doubt that the Negroes in general wanted mixed schools. They wanted the advantages of contact with white children, and they wanted to have this evidence and proof of their equality.
They wanted, they want, equal educational opportunity and the most direct route to this goal appears to be through integrated schools, as the prospects for schools attended exclusively by Black students receiving the resources necessary for an equal opportunity to learn seemed — seem — slight.  

The national reluctance to achieve racially integrated schools has focused attention on the alternative of the economic integration of schools. However, income segregation, like racial segregation, affects basic skills proficiency. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) and its successors direct supplementary federal funding to schools and school districts in which at least 40% of the students are from low-income families. The Civil Rights Project calculates that while 64% of Black students are in schools with students from low-income families—usually themselves or other Black students, only about one-third of White, non-Hispanic, students are in schools with low-income students. The results are predictable: As the percentage of students from families with low-incomes in these schools increases, the percentage of Black students scoring below grade level also increases. Less than a quarter of the Black students in low poverty schools score below Basic; half those in high poverty schools score below Basic on the Grade 8 Reading assessment.

Is this primarily a matter of neighborhood incomes or of individual family incomes? It is increasingly argued that we must first overcome poverty before improving educational outcomes: an argument sometimes meant to present the situation as insolvable. Others making that argument, as, for example, David Berliner, do so out of a sincere desire to change the situation.  Surely it is better for children if their family income is above the poverty level:  better for their health, emotional well-being, nutrition and educational opportunities. But the association of the last of these, educational opportunity, with family income, is not independent of other factors. Indeed, perhaps counter-intuitively, it often has little to do directly with family income.

The predominate influence of neighborhood economic status, as opposed to an individual family’s economic status, can be shown by calculating the percentage of students below Basic on NAEP's Grade 8 Reading assessment by whether or not they are eligible for the National Lunch Program themselves, on the one hand, and on the other hand by the percentage of such students enrolled in the school. The first measures the effect of family economic status; the second that of neighborhood economic status and hence, all too often, the resources provided to the school. As the percentage of students living in poverty attending a school increases from 1-5% to 100%, so the percentage of students both eligible (i.e., poor) and ineligible (higher income) who score below Basic also increases. It is telling that the percentages for low-income and higher income students converge: beginning at 18% and 6%, respectively in very low poverty schools and ending at 47% and 39% in very high poverty schools. The percentage of children living in poverty attending very low poverty schools scoring below Basic is the same as or higher than that of children from higher income families attending high poverty schools, schools where a majority of the children in the school are eligible for the National Lunch Program. The average economic status of students in a school is more important than the economic status of a particular student’s family. Schools in which most of the students are from families with low-incomes, and especially those in which most of the students are Black and are also from families with low-incomes, do not educate any children well. And most Black children, being from families with low-incomes, are consigned to such schools.

As a consequence of dual racial and economic segregation and the effect of these for educational opportunities, just ten percent of male Black students score at or above “proficient” (that is, at or above grade level) on the NAEP Grade 8 Reading assessment. In other words, 90% of male Black students are not proficient readers by grade 8. But that is a national average. It is significant that Black educational achievement varies by state. When analyzed on a state-by-state basis, in general, the percentage of male Black students reaching proficiency in the states parallels that for male White, non-Hispanic, students. That is, the higher the proficiency rate for male White, non-Hispanic students, the higher that for male Black students (or, perhaps, visa versa). It could be inferred from this, again, that a key variable is the overall quality of a state’s school systems (not, to reiterate, some mysterious function of “the” Black family). For male Black students the range among states is from 4% Proficient or Above in California with its barely functioning urban and rural school systems to 19% in Connecticut; that is, from less than half the national average to nearly twice the national average. If all the Black students in the country attended schools where they did as well as all Black students do in Connecticut, the national achievement level for Black students would be five times what it is at present.

On the other hand, the range for male White, non-Hispanic, students is from 19% in West Virginia to 48% in Connecticut. In other words, male White, non-Hispanic, students in the lowest scoring state are taught to read as well as male Black students in the highest scoring state. Connecticut can educate its male Black students as well as West Virginia can educate its male White, non-Hispanic, students, but educates less than half the proportion of its male Black students as well as it educates its male White, non-Hispanic, students.



Chapter II:  Black Poverty (cont.)

Lance Hannon’s and Robert DeFina’s study, “The Impact of Mass Incarceration on Poverty” (2009) determines that, for the nation as a whole, “had mass incarceration not occurred [during the period 1980 to 2004], poverty would have decreased by more than 20%, or about 2.8 percentage points. At the national scale, this translates into several million fewer people in poverty had mass incarceration not occurred …” They go on to note that “it is likely that the effects of mass incarceration on poverty are even greater than those presented in this analysis.”  Given the disproportionate number and percentage of African-American men among the incarcerated, the effect on Black poverty of mass incarceration is obviously substantial.  How substantial?

The overwhelming proportion of those incarcerated are men. This obvious gender disparity has implications that are perhaps less obvious, but nonetheless crucial in impoverished Black neighborhoods. Professor Western has observed that “… the main effect of the prison boom on gender relations is due precisely to the approximate fact that men go to prison, and women are left in free society to raise families and contend with ex-prisoners returning home after release.”  Moreover, before most young men who go to prison do so, they were contributing significantly to their households’ income. This contribution of future prisoners may have been enough to keep those families out of poverty.  Once they are incarcerated, that contribution comes to an end and in many, if not most, cases their families fall into poverty. While a man is in jail, his partner (or former partner) and her children are deprived of his income and after he is released, given the employment difficulties of ex-prisoners, they are deprived of his full potential as a worker and thus the income he can provide to his children’s household is severely limited. In most cases, from the moment of arrest (if not before ), his children live in a household with an income below the poverty line. Hannon and DeFina find that this effect, unsurprisingly, is “especially pronounced in areas with a high proportion of non-White residents,”  that is, ghettoes, where most Black men of an age to have young children are likely to be incarcerated, on parole or probation.  Joseph Stiglitz in his book The Price of Inequality cites a study by Devah Pager showing that “a white man with a criminal record is slightly more likely to be considered for a job than a black man with no criminal past.  Thus, on average, being black reduces employment opportunities substantially, and more so with ex-offenders.”

In Alabama, for example, there are 23,600 African-Americans who are incarcerated and 107,500 school age children with incomes below the poverty level.  The ratio between those numbers is 22%. The incarceration rate for African-Americans in Alabama is 1,916 per 100,000. States with higher incarceration rates for African-Americans show a higher ratio of incarcerated African-Americans to school-age African-American children living in poverty. Or to put it as simply as possible, other things being equal, the more African-Americans a state incarcerates, the more of its African-American children live in poverty, generation after generation. Extraordinary incarceration rates of African-American men are—at a minimum—associated with extraordinary poverty rates for African-American children. This should seem obvious to policy makers and, for example, district attorneys.

Over half of the Black men in prison have children and nearly as many were living with those children when they were sent to prison.  As there are over 800,000 Black men who are incarcerated, it is reasonable to estimate that as many as one-third of the Black families living in poverty are the families of incarcerated men and many more are the families of formerly incarcerated men. According to Professor Pamela Oliver and her associates at the University of Wisconsin, “High rates of Black male imprisonment are associated … with reduced family income, especially in less educated families … Thus, one clear path of effect from imprisonment to child poverty is through the reduction in male incomes due to imprisonment.”  This reduction in incomes takes place not only during the years while the father is in prison, but continues for years after his release from prison.  Western and Pettit calculate that incarceration reduces earnings for Black men through age 48 by 44%.  As the median income for Black males is approximately $40,000, a 44% reduction brings that income to the poverty level. Looked at in another way, from the point of view of the children themselves, Professor Pettit concludes that “… one-quarter of recent cohorts of black children can expect to have a parent imprisoned during their childhood … Among recent cohorts of children of high school dropouts … 62 percent of black children had a parent who went to prison before they reached age seventeen.”

The term “mass incarceration” does not only refer to the total number of incarcerated Black men; it also points to the concentration of incarcerations in high poverty neighborhoods. That concentration results in profoundly negative effects for those neighborhoods as well as impoverishment for the individual families of prisoners. The incarceration of young adult Black males has significant economic consequences not only for the partners (or former partners) of prisoners and ex-prisoners, not only for their own children, but also for the neighborhood and for the wider community. There is, for example, a 9% reduction in average incomes for all Black men, incarcerated or not, attributable to mass incarceration.  Hannon and DeFina find that concentrated mass incarceration “disrupts a neighborhood’s informal mechanisms of social control and social support by, for instance, breaking up families, removing purchasing power from the neighborhood, increasing reliance on government support programs, and generally erecting even higher barriers to legitimate development and financial well-being than are currently faced. The detrimental effects of mass incarceration on a community’s collective efficacy may ultimately lead to a type of ‘durable inequality’ where residents cannot escape what might otherwise be only episodic poverty.”   This is a marginal effect in the White, non-Hispanic, community, more important in certain Hispanic communities, disastrous in Black communities.

Surveying this situation, Professor Western believes that if “prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less.

But, after thirty years of penal population growth, the impact of America’s prisons extends far beyond their walls. By zealously punishing law-breakers — including a large new class of nonviolent drug offenders — the criminal justice system at the end of the 1990s drew into its orbit families and whole communities. These most fragile families and neighborhoods were the least equipped to counter any shocks or additional deprivations.”  
Specifically, “… the penal system has become so large that it is now an important part of a uniquely American system of social stratification.”  The operations of the drug laws, policing and court sentencing practices criminalize a large part of the Black community — criminalize in the sense that they are designated as and treated as criminals by the representatives of the criminal justice system. We have already calculated that this results in the incarceration of approximately 100,000 young adult Black males annually for drug offenses, men who would not have been incarcerated if they had been White. We have seen that in addition, the poorer the community, of any race or ethnicity, the more violent crimes occur there. The more violent crimes, the more long-term incarcerations and as a result the poorer the community. This is not to say that violent crimes do not deserve punishment, but just that for our purposes here we can observe that the increasing impoverishment of American families in the lower tenth or lower fifth income levels accelerates this increasing rate of violent felonies, perhaps as much as do the operations of the drug laws.  

Mass incarceration, rooted in a history of African-American slavery and debt peonage, impoverishes Black households, concentrating the Black population in segregated communities with few employment opportunities and extensive opportunities for violence. As a result, the poverty rate for African-Americans is close to triple that for White, non-Hispanics. This extraordinary poverty rate has direct effects on the educational opportunities and achievements of male Black children, which, in turn, affect incarceration rates and income.


Chapter II:  Black Poverty

But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life … I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day … I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children … I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address.

These are exactly the conditions, 75 years after Roosevelt’s great speech, in which African-Americans live today: one-third in poverty. What is even more distressing is that nearly half of African-American children grow up in households with incomes below the poverty level.  This is in part the effect of the historical rigidity of American income and wealth class boundaries. For example, in 1860 the wealthiest 1% of the residents of the nation’s largest cities held 45% of the wealth of those cities. For much of the nineteenth century all families below the second percentile possessed less than ten dollars in assets and  “there were forces at work in the American economy during the nineteenth century that tended to produce greater inequality in the distribution of wealth over time. “  These “forces” included those giving rise to the great concentrations of wealth seized by the men who controlled the Trusts, chiefly, the ruthless exercise of monopoly and police power. It was only during “The Great Compression” of the mid-twentieth century that inequality declined and economic mobility increased. This temporary situation was reified as “the American Dream,” when that term was not limited to the aspiration of working people to own a house, a car, a refrigerator or their supposed longing for a wide choice of breakfast foods. Contrary to this Madison Avenue ideology, for much of the nation’s history the America of equal opportunity and upward mobility has rarely been anything more than a dream.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s 2012 report Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations documents what now appears to be the end of the Great Compression and with it the end of the tattered remnants of American exceptionalism. According to the report, there is now, once again, little inter-generational mobility in this country and what there is, is decreasing. The report finds that “Americans raised at the bottom and top of the family income ladder are likely to remain there as adults”  and an astonishing two-thirds of those raised at the top and bottom of the wealth distribution also remain in those positions as adults. America is not supposed to have these rigid multi-generational class boundaries and it is this part of the report that received the most media attention.

Less—hardly any—media attention was paid to the part of the report concerned with the issue of race. The report’s authors found that “Over half of blacks (53 percent) raised in the bottom of the family income ladder remain stuck in the bottom as adults … Half of blacks (56 percent) raised in the middle of the family income ladder fall to the bottom …” As a result, more than half of Black families are at the bottom of the income ladder—half of those because they were born there, the rest because they fell down to there. The report shows that this situation is exacerbated by the fact that while 65% of Black families have incomes in the bottom fifth of the distribution, a full 83% of Black families are in the bottom two-fifths of the national income distribution. (On the other hand only 11% of White families have incomes in that bottom fifth of the distribution, and just 32% of White families can be found in the bottom two fifths.)

Few Black families can be classified as solidly middle class or higher. Only 2% of Black families make it into the highest fifth of the income scale, as compared to 23% of White families.

Analyzing income and wealth together, the Pew Charitable Trusts again found little mobility for Black Americans: “More than half of black adults (53 percent for family income and 50 percent for family wealth) raised at the bottom remain stuck there as adults, but only a third of whites (33 percent for both) do.” In a technical note, the report’s authors observe that there are too few Black families in the highest income and wealth quintiles to provide a basis for estimates. That is, in the income and wealth quintiles, which include nearly half of White families, the number of Black families is statistically insignificant. The bottom population quintile includes approximately equal numbers of Black and White Americans, while, as already observed, there are few Black Americans in the higher quintiles (7 million in the second, 3 million in the middle, 2.7 million in the fourth, 800,000 in the fifth).

Of the approximately 53 million people in the top 20% of the income distribution, at least 50 million are White and this disproportionality increases as we approach closer to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. High income Black families are “too few to report estimates.” In other words, we can safely assume, as we all in fact do, that if a family has a top income, it is White, not Black. The exceptions – a few names will come to mind – simply make the case more clearly evident.  No one bothers to name the White families in the 1%. We can as readily assume that if a family is Black, it is most likely poor. Moreover, perhaps two-thirds of the poorest 20% of Americans are either Black or Hispanic, groups which represent less than half that proportion of the general population.

The picture is much the same if we look at wealth rather than income. According to the Pew report: “Only 23 percent of blacks raised in the middle exceed their parents’ wealth compared with 56 percent of whites. Only in the bottom quintile do a majority of blacks surpass their parents’ wealth, but a black-white gap of 8 percentage points still exists.”  (There are virtually no African-Americans born into the top two wealth quintiles, which include more than half of White, non-Hispanics.)

The Pew report tells us that class lines in America are not only becoming more marked, as is now widely recognized, but that they are becoming more rigid, with what intergenerational mobility there is increasingly dependent on educational attainment. A further analysis of the data shows that America’s class divides are also increasingly race-based and that the correlation between family income and educational opportunity (or the lack thereof) is increasingly locking Black families in multi-generational poverty. An implicit message of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ report is that this system of what is in effect a race-based class — or caste — structure appears to becoming permanent in the United States.

One-third of Americans living in poverty are Black — more than twice their share in the general population. However, the percentage of people living in poverty who are Black varies enormously among the states, from 4% in Utah and Maine to 62% in Mississippi (and 83% in the District of Columbia). Some of this variation, of course, has to do with the Black percentage of the population in each state. The states where few of the poor are Black are the states where there are few African-Americans. The racial disproportionality of poverty is most acute in New Jersey and Illinois (the District of Columbia is obviously a special case), but after that come eight former Jim Crow states. States where the lowest percentage of those living in poverty are Black tend to be those with few Black residents or where the White (or in New Mexico, Hispanic) population is particularly impoverished, such as West Virginia and Kentucky.

Remarkably, there is very little correlation between Black and White poverty rates within states. The White poverty rate in Maine is only one point above the national average; the Black poverty rates in West Virginia and Kentucky are below the national average. Only in Maryland are the poverty rates for both Black and White Americans correspondingly low in respect to those in all other states.The states with the most White, non-Hispanic, people living in poverty are California, Florida, Ohio, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania. These are the six most populous states and they are evenly spread across the country’s regions. Those states with the most Black people living in poverty are Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York, North Carolina and Illinois: four Southern states and two northern states with large urban populations. More Black than White people in Georgia live in poverty, despite the fact that the state has twice as many White as Black residents. This is also true of Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Maryland. All these were slave states. All had Jim Crow laws. That heritage remains.

Sorting the states by the number of Black persons living in poverty, we find that there is a great concentration in the South and certain northern, formerly industrial states: New York, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, as well as California. The concentration of African-Americans living in poverty who are in the core former-slave-states is an artifact of the influence of history and the continuation of the heritage of the subordinate status of African-Americans in those states. It is notable that this subordinate status, manifesting as economic immobility, now extends to the nation as a whole.

Economic inequality in the United States, today as throughout its history, is racialized. To use the Disraelian cliché, we are truly two nations, one Black and poor, kept poor, the other White, showing an income distribution much like that of a developed country. Between these is a shifting immigrant population — first German and Irish, then eastern and southern European (especially Italian), now Hispanic (overwhelmingly Mexican) — which traditionally comes into American life level with or just above the Black population and then is gradually assimilated to the White group. The great immigration from Italy (especially Southern Italy and Sicily) in the early twentieth century was an immigration of farm workers with low literacy rates in any language. They settled in cities and factory towns, in or near Black neighborhoods. Today the median family income of Italian-Americans is $78,480, considerably above the median income for all American families ($61,455) and higher still than that of Black families ($40,140). It is highly probable that this will be the path followed by the more recent immigrations from Latin America. This comparative, occasional, income mobility of immigrants often conceals, is used to conceal, the economic immobility of African-Americans.

What are the ways in which Black poverty and Black intergenerational economic immobility are maintained? One is educational inequities, to which we will turn in the next chapter. Another is the mass incarceration discussed in the previous chapter, the economic implications of which we will now consider.

It is well-known (at least since the Moynihan Report) that family structures vary by race. In 2010 nearly 80% of White, non-Hispanic, households were traditional “Husband-wife” families. Thirty percent of those traditional White families included their “own children under 18 years.” Fourteen percent of White, non-Hispanic, households were those of unmarried women and 7% were “Female householder, no husband present” with “own children under 18 years.” Among Black households, less than half, 44%, were traditional “Husband-wife” families. Families of that type including their “own children under 18 years” were just 20% of all Black families. On the other hand, 46% (4.3 million), of all Black families were listed by the 2010 Census as “Female householder, no husband present” and 27% (2.5 million) were “Female householder, no husband present” with their “own children under 18 years.” In other words, nearly half of Black women are at the head of their own household — three times the White rate — and it is four times more likely that a Black child will live with his mother alone than live with both parents. Of those 2.4 million African-American families, “Female householder, no husband present” with their “own children under 18 years,” 1.3 million (54%) had incomes below the poverty level in 2010.  (The number of such White, non-Hispanic, households is similar, 1.5 million female household families with children under 18 years and incomes below poverty, but the percentage is much lower: 33% of such families.)

It is approximately equally likely that a Hispanic or White, non-Hispanic, child living in poverty will be living with both parents or with a mother alone. For the 3.5 million Black children living in poverty, it is overwhelmingly more likely that they will be the children of a woman raising her children without a husband, or any of his income, to help. Those 1.3 million African-American households with children being raised by their mothers alone with incomes below the poverty line are a crucial group for public policy. Moving those families, or a substantial number of them, out of poverty will increase education achievement and decrease mass incarceration. Or, to look at it in another way, increasing educational achievement and decreasing mass incarceration would move a substantial number of those 1.3 million families out of poverty.


Chapter I

Mass Incarceration (concluded).

Why is it that the chances of incarceration at some time between the ages of 18 and 34 for a young adult Black man are six times those of a young, non-Hispanic, White man? Why is it that this is seemingly taken for granted by (White) society at large? Hispanics in the United States occupy a socio-economic position similar to that of African-Americans:  many live in poverty; many suffer from prejudice; many Hispanic children attend low-performing schools. And yet the incarceration rate for young adult Hispanic men, while twice as high as that of White, non-Hispanic, men, is only one-third that of Black men.  The relationship between White and Hispanic young adult male incarceration rates does not seem extreme when we take into account educational achievement, which, as we have seen, is a well-established factor affecting incarceration rates, and poverty. However, the disparity between the incarceration rates for young adult Black males and their Hispanic and other White peers cannot be explained in this way.

One interpretation of these statistics is that Black men have an extraordinary propensity to commit crimes. This is the interpretation given by representatives of the criminal justice system when explaining the concentration of police activity in Black communities. They “make Negroes into thieves, monsters and idiots,” as Du Bois put it. Another interpretation is that the police have an extraordinary propensity to arrest Black men and the courts have an extraordinary propensity to incarcerate them. The latter interpretation is now sufficiently well-known in federal government circles that the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued “enforcement guidance” in April, 2012, on the consideration of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions.  The EEOC implicitly attributes these disparities in arrest and incarceration rates to disparities in enforcement of drug laws: “African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely than Whites to be arrested, convicted, or sentenced for drug offenses even though their rate of drug use is similar to the rate of drug use for Whites.”   (As a matter of fact, the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count (2012) study finds that “Among racial and ethnic groups, African-American and Asian teens were least likely (4 percent) to abuse or be dependent on alcohol or drugs” (p. 35).) If drug use rates are similar among Black, White and Hispanic Americans, and if Black and Hispanic drug users are more likely than Whites to be arrested, convicted or sentenced for drug offences, the variable, in the view of the EEOC, is not “criminality,” but the operations of the police and courts.  The EEOC guidance document makes it clear that the Commission does not believe that most African-American men are habitual criminals in the common sense of the term. The tone and argument of the document indicate that the Commission believes, rather, that the operations of the “criminal justice system” involve systematic racially disparate effects. In effect, the federal government is stating, as if as a matter of course, that the criminal justice system often penalizes African-Americans simply for being Black.

This seems indeed to be the case. As an example, we can point to New York City’s “stop and frisk” activities. According to a 2007 analysis of those activities in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, African-Americans represented 51% of the stops while making up only 26% of the New York City population. “Blacks were stopped 23% more often than whites … The differences in stop rates among ethnic groups are real, substantial, and not explained by previous arrest rates or precincts.”  (Emphasis added). If they cannot be explained by arrest rates or precincts (i.e., “to protect the residents of high crime neighborhoods”), the residual category is to explain them by the policies and practices of the police themselves. In 2010, according to The New York Times, when over 50,000 people in New York City were arrested on charges of marijuana possession, more than during the entire 19-year period from 1978 to 1996, “Seventy percent of those arrested are younger than 30, and 86 percent are black or Hispanic, even though, according to the Drug Policy Group, “young whites use marijuana at higher rates.”  

Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana has been a violation, not a jailable crime, in New York since 1977. But having the drug “open to public view” is a crime, and advocates say that many people who simply have marijuana in their pockets are charged with having it in the open after officers order them to empty their pockets.
As we have learned, the pockets of young White people are more likely than the pockets of young Black people to contain marijuana, but New York City police are more likely to unlawfully order young Black people to empty their pockets, and then arrest them for doing so. A 2012 study of cases in the Bronx borough of New York City by the Bronx Defenders legal assistance agency found that 40% of arrests for low-level possession in 2011 were unlawful.    

The total number of marijuana arrests in the United States in 2010 was 854,000.  Most of those were arrests of African-American and Hispanic young men. If the findings of the Bronx Defenders study are nationally applicable, and there is no reason to think that they are not, 341,000 of those were unlawful arrests. In other words, hundreds of thousands of young Black and Hispanic men are unlawfully arrested each year for purported marijuana offenses alone. To these may be added those incarcerated Black men who would not be incarcerated, or would not be incarcerated for such lengthy periods, if it were not due to the disparate effects of arrests and sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. We can calculate this disproportionality in another way as a check on at least the order of magnitude of our estimates. Between 1980 and 2009, the rate of arrests of Black adults for drug possession averaged three times that of White adults. If we calculate a projected number of adult Black drug arrests (including both possession and sales) based on the drug arrest rate for White adults (given that the actual criminalized activity is roughly equivalent), we find that the difference between this projection and actual arrests, on average, is over 300,000 arrests of Black adults annually beyond the amount to be expected based on the actually equivalent drug use rates of Blacks and Whites. This corresponds well with the estimate of 314,000 unlawful arrests projected from the Bronx Defenders study. As the ratio between drug arrests and incarcerations is approximately three to one, there may be something on the order of 100,000 more Black adults incarcerated every year as the result of unlawful drug arrests than would be the case if the criminal justice system operated equitably. Given that the average sentence for drug offenses is about five years, at any one time it may be that hundreds of thousands of Black adults (overwhelmingly male) are in prison, away from their communities, leaving their families in poverty, because of the disproportionate number of drug arrests alone.

Andrew Hacker has pointed out a flaw in the emphasis on drug offenses as the single cause of the disproportionality of incarcerations: many more Black men with felony convictions are incarcerated for violent crimes than for drug offenses.  Let us turn then to an analysis of the racial distributions of violent crimes. Half those in custody as the result of felony convictions in New York State prisons are Black and approximately equal numbers are White, non-Hispanic, and Hispanic. The distribution in the general population in the state is 58% White, non-Hispanic, 16% Black and 18% Hispanic. Thus the Black prison population is far greater than proportionate to either the Hispanic or White, non-Hispanic, prison populations. The offenses of White, non-Hispanic, prisoners (24% of the total) are predominately crimes against property (48% of all White incarcerations) and “Other Violent Offenses” (34%): for the most part “other sexual offenses” and robbery. The offenses of Black prisoners are Violent Felonies (murder, robbery and weapons violations) and Drug Offenses.

Why are this large number of Black men in prison for violent offenses? Is there something special in Black life that causes men to murder and rob one another (as it is indeed other African-Americans who are most often the victims)? The answer seems to be “yes,” and that factor is disproportionate poverty. Professor Lance Hannon, usually in collaboration with Professor Robert DeFina, both now at Villanova, has published a series of studies establishing a causal chain connecting incarceration for criminal behavior to poverty. In an article asking whether poverty’s effects on violent crime varies with race, they find that in fact, this is not the case. They conclude: “Reductions in neighborhood poverty appear to produce similar reductions in violent crime in white and black neighborhoods.”  And, one deduces, the reverse. Their research indicates that the higher rates of violent crime in Black neighborhoods is an effect of poverty, not race.

Jeffrey Fagan, Valerie West and Jan Holland of Columbia University found from a review of the research that the “risks of going to jail or prison grow over time for persons living in poor neighborhoods, contributing to the accumulation of social and economic adversity for people living in these areas, as well as to the [lack of] overall well-being of the neighborhood itself.”  Fagan and his colleagues conclude from this and other analyses that “incarceration is not simply a consequence of neighborhood crime, but instead may … actually elevate crime within neighborhoods.”   The neighborhoods in question are those housing people, for the most part African-American people, living in poverty:  “[T]he overall excess of incarceration rates over crime rates seems to be concentrated among non-white males living in the City's poorest neighborhoods … neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration invite closer and more punitive police enforcement and parole surveillance, contributing to the growing number of repeat admissions and the resilience of incarceration, even as crime rates fall. Incarceration begets more incarceration, and incarceration also begets more crime, which in turn invites more aggressive enforcement, which then re-supplies incarceration.   [Emphasis added.] Fagan and his colleagues conclude that “incarceration provides a steady supply of offenders for more incarceration.

We show that over a relatively long time period, and across very different levels of crime citywide and within neighborhoods, incarceration trends first unfold as closely tied to crime, and then over the interval, become somewhat independent of crime. As this cycle spirals forward, incarceration threatens to become endogenous in these neighborhoods, or “grown from within,” seeping into and permanently staining the social and psychological fabric of neighborhood life in poor neighborhoods of New York and many other cities. Incarceration thus is part of the ecological backdrop of childhood socialization, whose effects are multiplied by grinding poverty, and an everyday contingency, particularly for young men, as they navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As the risks of going to jail or prison grow over time for persons living in these areas, their prospects for marriage or earning a living and family sustaining wage diminish as the incarceration rates around them rise, closing off social exits into productive social roles. Overtime, incarceration creates more incarceration in a spiraling dynamic.  
It is important to emphasize here that Fagan and his colleagues are not saying that crime is rising in these areas, but that the criminal justice system is incarcerating increasing numbers of young men “independent of crime.” This is distinguishable from Blackmon’s “slavery by another name” only in that the process does not end in slave labor but in incarceration, which is an expense, not a source of income. In other words, it is a tax levied by themselves on those who control the criminal justice system. There are those who rationalize this by pointing to the rising profits of private prisons, but most prisons are governmental: their costs greatly outweigh the corporate profits of private prisons. Mass incarceration of African-American men is not dependent on the existence of corporate prisons. It is a price, an accepted cost, of an ideology of racial inferiority.

In these early decades of the twenty-first century, disparate poverty rates and rates of contacts with police, as exemplified by “stop and frisk” and other police actions, lead to (rather than from) disparate rates of arrests and these, in turn to disparate rates of incarceration. Just as vagrancy laws were used in the Jim Crow era to maintain structures of inequality and debt peonage in the South, so today drug laws and police practices not necessarily connected with those laws, remove large numbers of Black men from their communities and not incidentally, the electoral rolls. For in many, if not most cases, those convicted of a felony are literally disenfranchised. As with Jim Crow debt-peonage, today, “Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits.”  This variety of civic death is one consequence of mass incarceration. There are others. The more felons in a group, the more families living in poverty, the fewer voters. The fewer voters, the less influence over decisions about such matters as police practices and  school funding.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander asserts that “mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”  She sees the operations of the criminal justice system as formative for the structure of contemporary society: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”  Although it could be pedantically argued that caste is a specifically Hindu social structure, “caste” is a convenient term for any group of people with highly restricted social mobility. Many societies have pariah castes. Indian Untouchables “were” those who made their living as butchers, hunters, fishermen, leather workers and those engaged in sanitation. Japanese pariahs, the burakumin or kawata, were leather workers and undertakers.  In Europe the pariah groups have included Gypsies and Jews (and for some, the Irish). The class identification of an individual can change—a middle class person can become impoverished or, on the other hand, can marry into an aristocracy—however, caste is maintained without reference with economic status. In India, Kocheril Raman Narayanan, was an Untouchable, a Dalit, a member of a Scheduled Caste, for all that he was President of India. In the United States, it is the association between the former status of enslavement and the racial identity of Africans and their descendents that has led to the perpetuation of the status of African-Americans as something close enough to a caste to allow the use of the term. As Du Bois has taught us, an outward sign of that caste is the imputation, the imposition, of criminality: the vagrancy criminality of debt peonage under Jim Crow, the drug-offense criminality of the late-twentieth and early-twenty first centuries.

Michelle Alexander goes so far as to claim that in relation to African-Americans, “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed,”  with the designation and enforcement of caste. Blackmon would argue that, especially in the South, no change was needed. It could also be pointed out that criminal justice systems are always concerned with both crime and the management and control of members of subordinate groups. What Alexander has brought to wide attention is that in twenty-first-century America, in both the North and the South, increasingly the latter role—control of members of subordinate groups—predominates, in stark contrast to what Myrdal hoped from democracy, which he idealistically called “the American Creed.” Alexander argues that this co-option of policing, courts and prisons has as its primary purpose the maintenance of the American caste system. “Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America:  black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black …”  Perhaps what has changed is exactly this penetration of traditional Southern ideas of the purpose of the criminal justice system throughout the country as a whole. Never were the Fugitive Slave Laws embraced so warmly outside the South as is the agenda of “law and order” today.

Alexander’s argument moves from the unusual nature of the crimes which are the focus of the “war on drugs,” to the disproportionate and extraordinary scale of incarceration in this country, and then to the resultant construction, reconstruction, of caste. “The process of marking black youth as black criminals is essential to the function of mass incarceration as [constitutive of] a racial caste system.”  More than three-quarters of a century ago Du Bois wrote that “The normal amount of crime which an ignorant working population would have evolved has been tremendously increased [by the Southern criminal justice system]. Young criminals and vagrants were deliberately multiplied and this in turn made an excuse for mob law and lynching.”  As researchers Bruce Western and Becky Pettit have pointed out, these disparate rates of incarceration are a matter of implicit public policy: “The United States’ prison population did not balloon by accident, nor was its expansion driven principally by surging crime rates or demographic dynamics beyond the control of state leaders. Rather, the growth flowed primarily from changes in sentencing laws, inmate release decisions, community supervision practices and other correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and for how long.”  [Emphasis added.]

What is to be done?  The answer is still that with which Myrdal concluded his discussion of the criminal justice system in the South, circa 1940:  “White people must be taught to understand the damaging effects upon the whole society of a system of justice which is not equitable.”  Mass incarceration could be brought to an end in an afternoon. Local district attorneys and police chiefs could make the decision to stop inequitable arrests and prosecutions any day over lunch. They could issue the requisite orders when they returned to their offices and announce them to the press later in the afternoon.

We can put down a marker here: 100,000 young adult Black men imprisoned each year under the drug laws who most probably would not have been imprisoned if they were White. Many times that number imprisoned for violent offenses arising from the sheer poverty endemic in Black neighborhoods. These point us toward a more detailed discussion of African-American poverty and then to public education and Black male students. They point also to a way out of the circuit of mass incarceration, poverty and inadequate education.


Chapter I

Mass Incarceration (cont.)

As in the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, when the reach of the “drivers of Negroes” legally extended across the entire country, under Jim Crow the condition of Black people in the South, and the attitudes of White Southerners, infected much of the rest of the country ideologically. In order to gain the acceptance of the North for ending Reconstruction “the South had to make Negroes into thieves, monsters and idiots” as Du Bois put it.  If it occurred to White observers in the North to think about Black debt peonage, the chain gangs, lynchings and other aspects of the Southern criminal justice system, they soon were provided with the explanation that there was a very high rate of criminal behavior among former slaves and their descendents and that “a firm hand”—strict enforcement of strict laws—was needed if there were not to be an epidemic of Black crime. This explanation was deemed sufficient. There was no more need for the average White American, North or South, to think about such things. They could simply watch The Birth of a Nation.

As it was posited that African-Americans were peculiarly likely to be violent criminals, the violent behavior of the police toward African-Americans followed—follows—as a matter of course. Myrdal observed that in the South under Jim Crow, it was “part of the policeman’s philosophy that Negro criminals or suspects, or any Negro who shows signs of insubordination, should be punished bodily … When once the beating habit has developed in a police department, it is … difficult to stop … Police brutality is greatest in the regions where murders are most numerous and death sentences are most frequent, which speaks against its having crime-preventing effects.”  Myrdal found that the situation was not much different in the North: “In most Northern communities Negroes are more likely than whites to be arrested under any suspicious circumstances. They are more likely to be accorded discourteous or brutal treatment at the hands of the police than are whites. The rate of killing of Negroes by the police is high in many Northern cities …”  And so forth. These matters have not changed. According to the late conservative scholar William J. Stuntz, “Today, black crime is mostly governed by white judges and white politicians, and by the white voters who elect them.”  In New York City, for example, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a young adult African-American man expects to be stopped and publicly searched by police at least once a year and is not surprised to be arrested for trespass at his own front door. Similar, more egregious, police practices, often mortal, take place there and in every part of the country. In the South they often take place in the schools.

The effect of such patterns of police behavior on African-Americans has not been such as to win their approval.

The Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression … The laws are made by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration … the accused law-breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let on guilty one escape.
The quotation is again from Du Bois, this time from The Souls of Black Folk, which, although published in 1903, seems familiar today, as it seemed to Myrdal a reasonable depiction of the situation in his day. A century after Du Bois’s book, more than half a century after that of Myrdal, we are told that there are more arrests of African-Americans than others because African-Americans (still depicted as “thieves, monsters and idiots”) live in high crime neighborhoods, which indeed they do. And, as crime statistics do not count the activities of criminals, but those of the police, the proof of this becomes the indisputable fact that there are many more arrests, stops and searches in African-American neighborhoods than elsewhere.  Round and around we go: there are in fact large numbers of violent crimes in poor White and poor Black neighborhoods, but police are concentrated in poor Black neighborhoods; the concentration of police produces a high number of arrests; a high number of arrests is interpreted as a higher crime rate, which justifies concentrating yet more police in poor Black neighborhoods. Which, by removing extraordinary numbers of working age Black men, is one of the factors that makes them both poor and the foci of violent crime.

We have seen that the subordination of African-Americans, their status as a subordinate caste, has its origin in slavery, as an economic phenomenon, and the association of slavery with African-Americans, as an ideological phenomenon. And we have seen that the economic importance of the subordinate caste status of African-Americans to the dominant structure of the White South was such as to lead to the rebirth of slavery as debt peonage. Even after the mid-twentieth-century abolition of this type of slavery, the ideological force of the subordinate caste status of African-Americans has been maintained not only in the South, but throughout the country. A strong theme in this ideological construction, in Du Bois’s time and our own, is the association of African-Americans, especially African-American men, with criminality and therefore the acceptance of the extraordinary incarceration rate of Black men as something to be expected.

Bruce Western is perhaps the country’s leading expert on the sociology of the criminal justice system. His Punishment and Inequality in America documents the enormous increase in incarcerations in the United States that began in the last quarter of the twentieth century, perhaps coincidentally, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In the course of doing so he focuses on two aspects of that increase: that it is to a significant extent an artifact of arrests for drug offenses and that most of those arrested are young adult male African-Americans. Western does not belabor the obvious: the drug laws are manifestly irrational, designating this substance as dangerous, that as a near social necessity. The behaviors criminalized differ little, if at all from behaviors—such as the consumption of alcohol and prescription drugs—that are not similarly criminalized. (It is widely acknowledged that the harms associated with the behaviors in question are generally the consequence of the laws, rather than the result of those behaviors.) The laws create artificial scarcities, impoverish addicts and enrich gangs and foreign criminal cartels. The enforcement of those laws, and their consequences in terms of incarcerations, are not applied evenly across society. They are enforced in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, not in those of concentrated wealth; they are enforced for unemployed young Black men in the streets of central Brooklyn and not for, say, older White women working at fashion magazines.

Western has found that the consequences of the late-twentieth-century changes in the practices of the criminal justice system for their target group—Black men—were severe. By the year 2000 12% of Black men age twenty to forty, 17% of those without a college degree and 32% of those without high school diplomas were incarcerated.  About the same number were on parole or probation. In some urban areas the statistics are even more dramatic. In Chicago, for example, it is said that the number of those with a felony record is equal to fifty-five percent of the black adult male population and 80 percent of the adult black male workforce.  While for most White, non-Hispanic, Americans, the police and courts they are most aware of are those depicted on television, in video games and in the movies, for most Black men the streets of America are those of a police state. Most White Americans may not know any White men who are (or have been) incarcerated. Nearly every Black American knows a man from their community who is or has been incarcerated. Often enough, that will be a neighbor or family member. For Black men, that incarcerated or formerly incarcerated person is as often as not himself. Western and his colleague Becky Pettit have observed that “incarceration is so disproportionately concentrated among low-skill black men that it has become a routine life event.”

If this seems melodramatic, consider these statistics. On June 30, 2010, the most recent date for which this data is available, 4.3% of Black American adult males were inmates held in custody in state or federal prisons or in local jails. One in ten Black men in their early thirties were incarcerated. (By way of comparison, less than one percent of White, non-Hispanic, males and less than two percent of those in their early thirties were imprisoned.)  An additional 814,000 adult male Black Americans were on probation and 320,000 on parole.   At that moment, then, just under 10% of all Black males were under the control of the criminal justice system, rising, in some age groups, to one out of five. If we deduct boys 17 years of age and below and men over 55, we can estimate that of the ten million working age Black men in the general population remaining, 16% were either incarcerated, on probation or on parole in June 2010.  It is commonly estimated that twice that percentage will be imprisoned at some time during their lives and it is projected that up to two-thirds of all Black men born in 2001 and the years following can expect to spend time in jail, state or federal prisons.

There are more incarcerated Black males than incarcerated White males in the vast majority of the states imprisoning 20,000 or more men of either race. The excess of Black over White male incarcerations in Georgia, New York state and Louisiana is particularly striking. In none of those states does the total Black population exceed one-third of the White population. The picture is quite different for incarcerated women, of whom there are 58,000 who are Black and 126,000 who are White, non-Hispanic. The incarceration rate for Black women as compared to that for White women is three times what would be expected from their respective shares in the general population, but half the degree of disproportionality of the male incarceration figures. There are only a handful of states with more incarcerated Black than White women, none of which are the mass incarceration states of Georgia, Florida, California and Texas. In other words, the comparative incarceration rates for Black and White women are inequitable, but not as egregiously so as those of Black and White men. If the incarceration proportions by race were the same for men as for women, half a million fewer Black men would have been incarcerated in 2010.

Why is that? Racism in the United States has always been gendered:  few women were lynched. It was believed by slave owners that control of Black men would control the Black population. So it is still believed today. The White fear of African-American men, particularly of young adults, is a projection of that belief, operationalizing it in, among other ways, stop-and-frisk policing, trespass laws, mass incarceration, vigilante shootings.

It is well-established that incarceration rates vary with education:  the more education, the less chance of incarceration. The education (or lack of education) effect is particularly strong for those who have not obtained a high school diploma. Three times the percentage of young adult Black men as White men who had not completed high school were incarcerated in 2008; four-and-a-half times the percentage of Black as White men who had completed high school were in prison; seven times the percentage of Black as White men who had some college were incarcerated.

The chances that a man will be incarcerated at some point while a young adult similarly vary with education and race. The chances of a White man without a high school diploma being incarcerated as a young adult are nearly one in three; those for a Black man without a high school diploma are more than two in three. A diploma brings that down sharply for White men, to 6%, less sharply for Black men, to one in five. Some college brings the odds for incarceration down close to one in a hundred for White men, but, again, down only to the level for White men with a high school diploma for Black men. There seems to be a variable at work—call it Blackness—that to some extent counterbalances educational attainment as a factor in vulnerability to incarceration.

The interpretation of these statistics is complicated by two related factors. One is the common definition of the group with a high school diploma, which almost always includes those with a GED. However, the GED is not actually the equivalent of a high school diploma. The requirements are not as great and its completion, by a test or through a waiver, is not at all evidence of equivalent effort. Second, Black men, who form a disproportionate number of those receiving a GED, characteristically do so while in prison. According to De los Santos and Heckman: “GEDs earned while incarcerated account for as many as 20 percent of GED credentials issued to men in the US … 68 percent of GED credentials issued to black men are likely to have been obtained while incarcerated, compared with 35 percent for Hispanic and 9 percent for white men.”  Thus the counts of high school completion/GED among those incarcerated are doubly inflated. We should, therefore, move the GED data in regard to incarcerated Black men with high school diplomas or GEDs to the “less than high school” category, bringing the incarceration rate for the latter to perhaps 40% and that for the former to, say, 6%. The statistics for White men form a close-to-normal distribution: there are approximately equal numbers of men with a GED or no diploma as with graduate degrees. The statistics for Black men are more strongly skewed to the left:  it is only one-fifth as likely that a Black man will have a graduate degree as it is that he will have a GED or no diploma. We can then compare these numbers with cumulative risk of imprisonment percentages given by Pettit.

For six million of the ten and a half million young adult Black men the odds are more than two in three that they will spend time in prison. For another three million the chances are more than one in five. For only 1.6 million young adult Black men are the chances of incarceration the same as they are for young adult White men. Pettit concludes that “Spending time in prison has become more common than completing a four-year college degree or military service among young black men. And young, black, male high school dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than they are to get married. In short, among low-skill black men, spending time in prison [furthers] … their segregation from mainstream society.”   Furthers, in fact, the segregation of impoverished Black communities as a whole from “mainstream society.” Of course “impoverished Black communities” is nearly a tautology: as we will see, the vast majority of Black communities are impoverished.

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