The most industrialized nation in the world, the United States, does not have the highest literacy rate in the world. However, it does have the distinction of claiming the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens. Young African-American males, and in increasing numbers females, are being incarcerated significantly out of proportion to their numbers in the population.
In the last 20 years spending for primary education rose 33.4 percent. In the same time period spending for incarceration rose 571.4 percent. The number of people in prison rose more than 400 percent while the number of students graduating high school fell 2.7 percent.
For decades African-American youth have been demonized and criminalized by the media, politicians, the schools and their neighbors. More than eight out of 10 African-American males will be arrested at some time in their lifetime.
African-American males are often characterized as laggards, street corner hoodlums, thieves and generally untrustworthy; African-American females are considered baby-makers, money-grubbers and manipulative.
Too often both sexes are stereotyped as faddish and wanting to live the easy life without making any effort to earn their way or participate in their school or community activities.
The adult community often falls prey to the media’s negative propaganda and the criminal justice system’s portrayal that nurtures negative attitudes towards the young.
Large segments of the community look askance at young people, youth of color, whom they pass on the street. Affirmative action in school admissions and hiring has become an ideal of the past. The disrespect toward African Americans permeates every fabric of American life.
The term “criminal justice system” is a misnomer. More accurately it is the criminal injustice system. It has been documented that much harsher sentences are meted out to African-American and other youth of color than to white youth for the same crime or infraction. This disparity applies to the high expulsion rates in high schools, exorbitant sentences and death penalties.
Once sentenced, rather than educate and train those who are incarcerated, the penal institutions serve as training grounds to hone criminal skills to start new, or renew, antisocial careers.
Despite this history, since the 1990s violent juvenile crime has been on the decline. This has not been reflected in the way we perceive or treat our youth.
Increasingly, states are introducing legislation to prosecute children as young as 10 as adults. One of too many examples is the Philadelphia criminal justice system’s desire to try a mentally retarded 11-year-old child, Miriam White, as an adult after she stabbed to death a stranger on the street. She was placed in isolation at an adult facility, without any medical treatment.
It took tremendous community protests over a couple of years to get a court ruling to consider her a disturbed child and have her committed to a facility where she would be properly treated. However, if she is ever certified capable to stand trial she will be tried as an adult.
Our schools have adopted the bankrupt philosophy of zero tolerance. Draconian rules have been initiated and common sense has been abandoned. Under these rules and regulations students have been suspended for having prescribed medication or a plastic knife and a first-grader was arrested for kissing a female classmate.
Students have been strip-searched and removed from school in handcuffs for bringing what was thought to be controlled substances to school; in one case it was a birth control pill.
In many urban school districts, police are being stationed in the schools. Students must enter the school through airport-type metal detectors or are subject to wand-style metal detector searches. This unpleasant atmosphere can only have a deleterious effect on the school climate and learning environment.
We need to ask the question why are the urban schools in such disarray? Why are large numbers of youth of color not being educated? It is not because of the lack of intellectual capacity. It is not because the home is antagonistic towards education. Miseducaton is a national phenomenon. It is not an accident, but a strategy to undermine, denigrate and to under fund public education.
School districts in urban communities are begging for teachers, specifically in the sciences, math and foreign language disciplines. “At least 30,000 Philadelphia public school students have teachers with emergency certifications, meaning they are not fully qualified to teach their specialties,” according to a recent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Courses essential to a quality comprehensive education have been eliminated: music, art, physical education and in many schools advance placement courses are becoming a thing of the past. Other services such as libraries, nurses and counselors have been eliminated or severely cut.
In an era where a quality education is essential, schools are eliminating the possibility for large numbers of African-American students to garner the skills and knowledge to successfully compete or have equal access in the job market. There are a number of questions to be asked as to why and how this occurs.
Let’s start with the question of violence. We cannot say that crime does not exist in the African-American community, as it exists in every community. We need to ask the question why so many African-American youth are criminalized and entrapped in the criminal justice system? The drug/guns economy that has been introduced into the African-American community has been offered as an alternative for young people, since legitimate jobs with benefits that can sustain a family are scarce. The African-American community was preyed upon by huge drug trafficking concerns, hooking scores of young people so that the predators, often government related, could reap big bucks from the community. Anesthetizing oneself in illicit drugs became a way to ease the pain of not being able to work and contribute to society.
We must remember during the 1960s government dismembering of the African-American family, when they legally chased the males from all homes of women who received welfare. Under the Clinton administration welfare reform laws were passed setting a five-year lifetime limit on eligibility for benefits. This will place tens of thousands of women, children and disabled onto the streets this year. We have African-American children growing up in an era where there are few jobs, no training and no welfare, or other safety nets.
There has been a great deal written about the profiling of African-American youth, particularly males. There have been endless accounts of the following: People abruptly crossing the street to avoid passing a group of Black youth, cabs avoid picking up Black passengers, police arresting Blacks while walking in white neighborhoods and the police enforcing the crime of driving while Black. Colleges and universities dramatically changed their admission policies to adhere to court rulings that white males were being victimized by policies that promoted diversity in admission. The Alan Baake decision began the anti-affirmative action process.
School districts with a majority of African-American and Latino students have very large class size, large numbers of uncertified teachers and they are poorly funded. The current political and corporate answer to all of the problems that face public education is to privatize the schools – give the money to the corporations and sell the children to the highest bidder. These schemes prevail in urban school districts that are predominantly Black.
We live in a society that boldly touts its democratic origins, but at the same time, legal mandates are continuing to marginalize African Americans and other racial groupings. Except for a few individuals, this includes economic, political and educational isolation.
The education system is one of the main avenues to achieve equality, parity and justice. Alienation is the antithesis to achieving a true democracy. Our heritage deems that we cannot criminalize a segment of our community while we profess to fully and competently educate another part of the community. Every inhabitant of our country must have access to the wealth (educational, political and financial) of the society as well as to the justice of the society in order for them to become productive members of our multiracial, multicultural country.
Debbie Bell is the chair of the Communist Party USA’s African-American Equality Commission.