Part II: Black Males and The Prison-to-Schools Pipeline

I was born a black male, raised in a single parent household in an impoverished, crime-plagued, neighborhood on the lower-eastside of Detroit.

The odds were stacked against me.

I’ve been asked more times than I can remember: “How did you make it out?” I’ve asked myself that question more times than I have been asked it.

My ticket out of poverty and the door to a better future was getting an education. Amazingly, I was just shy of my 29 birthday when I received my Ph.D. in political science from Ohio State University.

Unfortunately, for black men born under similar conditions in America, I am the exception, rather than the rule.

In June 2006, the Washington Post produced an intriguing series on being a black man in America. In the first article, “At the Corner of Progress and Peril,” the Post laid out some mind-numbing data (a book that is worth buying was produced from the series as well as an interactive website that is worth visiting). According to the author of the article, “Being a black man in America can mean inhabiting a border area between possibility and peril”

On the one hand, there is flat-out peril:

  • Black men are six times more likely than white men to be murdered. The trend is most stark among black men 14 to 24 years old: They were implicated in a quarter of the nation's homicides and accounted for 15 percent of the homicide victims in 2002, although they were just 1.2 percent of the population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Black men die from AIDS at a rate that is six times that of white men, and life expectancy for black men is 69.2 years – more than six years shorter than that of white men.
  • The number of black men committing suicide has doubled since 1980.

On the other hand, there is possibility, but it is mixed with flat-out peril:

  • Black two-parented households have a median income nearly equivalent to that of white families, yet more than one-out-of-two black boys live in female headed, single-parent household, nearly half of which are impoverished.
  • The percentage of black men graduating from college has nearly quadrupled since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and yet more black men earn their high school equivalency diplomas in prison each year than graduate from college.
  • The number of professional black has grown dramatically over the last four decades – there were 78,000 black male engineers in 2004, a 33 percent increase in 10 years. At the same time, 840,000 black men are incarcerated, and a quarter of black men have not worked for at least a year.

As my personal journey demonstrates and these data make clear, there is a strong relationship between academic success (high school diploma, college, and graduate or professional degrees) and social and economic mobility.

By comparison, dropping out of high school increases the likelihood of being out of work or ending up in jail or prison. According to a March 2006 New York Times article, the absence of an education often relegates black men to the margins of society:

“The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.”

Astonishingly, in many urban areas, more than half of all black males are high school dropouts.

One reason why so many black men are slipping into social and economic obsolescence is the school-to-prison pipeline. At critical junctures throughout their educational experience, young black males are being lead away from education and graduation and toward prisons and jails.

According to the Times article, “incarceration rates climbed in the 1990s and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their twenties who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-thirties, six in ten black men who had dropped out of high school had spent time in prison.”

How does the pipeline work?

In a very insightful article in the Spring 2008, Child Welfare League of America, Juvenile Justice Division newsletter, Marsha Weissman, contends that the pipeline works in two ways, one directly and the other indirectly. “The direct link,” she writes, “is the increased presence of police in schools because student misconduct and noncompliance once previously addressed by teachers or school administrators are now the purview of juvenile and criminal justice system.” Fights are now labeled assaults, while pushes, shoves, slaps, punches, scratches and kicks in school yard fighting are now defined as personal weapons.

According to Weissman, “The indirect link appears to be school suspensions and expulsions have greatly increased over the past 25 years.” Many non-violent behaviors that once would have gotten you sent to the principle's office or detention – truancy, tardiness, forging out-school excuses, smoking, drinking, disruptive behavior, uncooperative behavior – now may result in school suspension.

Students who are suspended from school are much more likely to drop out of school. Overall, a disproportionate number of students arrested in school and a disproportionate number of students suspended from school are black males.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll talk about ways to save the brothas: I Am My Brotha’s Keeper.

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