America Flunks At Teaching Black Males

Here’s an alarming statistic for “post-racial” America: Only 47 percent of African-American men graduated from high school in the 2007-2008 school year. In fact, African-American men are far more likely to do time in the criminal justice system than graduate from college.

According to a new report, Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010, American public schools are failing a majority of black males. New York City, the district with the nation’s highest enrollment of Black students, only graduates 28 percent of its Black male students with Regents diplomas on time. This is a national education crisis but it also presents a crisis for the criminal justice system.

During my visit to the District of Columbia county jail last week as part of the George Washington Law public interest program, I discovered that the correctional facility was intricately linked to the  public high schools in Southeast DC, which comprises mostly African-Americans. A significant number of indigent African-American students who attend the school district are likely to drop out of school and end up in the district jail at one time or another. Indeed, reports indicate that crime and poverty are linked in the District of Columbia.

“Taken together, the numbers in the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s report form a nightmarish picture ? one that is all the more frightening for being both true and long-standing,” said Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who provided the foreword in the report. “These boys are failing, but I believe that it is the responsibility of the adults around them to turn these trajectories around. All of us must ensure that we level the playing field for the hundreds of thousands of children who are at risk of continuing the cycle of generational poverty. The key to success is education.”

High school graduation is a key indicator to success but that is unlikely without financial resources, consistent parental involvement, discipline and stability in family life. Combined with the high incarceration rates of African-American males due to mostly non-violent drug offenses, the criminal justice system is doing no favors to younger African-American minds. Visiting parents in prison sends the wrong message to young people: that they are likely to end up in prison just like their parents. Without the necessary financial and familial support, students are more likely to lack discipline, drop-out of high school, commit crimes and end up in a correctional facility much like their parents, thereby continuing the cycle of poverty and violence.

Other conditions for failure include watered-down curricula, inadequate and over-crowded facilities and lack of quality instruction, all of which could be fixed by increased investment in education.

The report does give us various policy recommendations with respect to a state like New Jersey, which has a high percentage of African-American graduation rates at 65 percent. What makes New Jersey special? According to Diverse the higher graduation rate is likely due to greater per pupil spending and instructional time that was a result of the 1981 Abbot v. Burke lawsuit, which enforced reforms to address inadequate education to students in poor urban communities across New Jersey.

Statistics play a powerful role in shaping perceptions and defining policies. Instead of dismissing the low graduation rates of black males and playing into the hands of those who buy into stereotypes on the inherent criminality of African-American men, we have to use the data to make corrective systemic changes. Following the lead of New Jersey, investing in quality education is one of the fixes that states can take to improve African-American graduation rates, which should in turn reduce their incarceration rates. Reforming the criminal justice system to reduce sentencing disparities and treat drug abuse as a medical rather than criminal problem is another way to make a positive impact.

The grim rates of high school graduation tell us that there is still substantial progress to be made in order to correct systemic racial disparities in an America that is nowhere near post-racial.

Here’s the good news: there’s currently more black men in college than in our criminal justice system.

Photo Credit: rappaportcenter

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