Right now, our country is having a conversation about race. Everywhere you turn, white people are letting their ignorant flags fly, are ignoring their privilege, and are shouting to drown out the authentic voices of youth of color.
Those young people of color are begging everyone to hear them, to listen to their voices. But we don’t. And our choice, as a society, not to listen turns out to be an institutional one. It’s not accidental; it’s a deliberate choice. Our country punishes children for the color of their skin. Full stop.
Our bias is evident in our police stops, our arrest rates, and prison populations. But no where is our inequality more depressing than in the way we treat our youngest citizens. As early as pre-kindergarten, our schools are punishing Black and Latino kids far more harshly than their white peers.
In case that didn’t register the first time: we are suspending four-year-old babies from school for offenses that earn their white classmates far lesser punishments. As our kids get older, the trend only grows.
Back in the recently integrated world of 1975, the first time this racial disparity in educational punishment was studied, Black youths were 2-3 times more likely than white students to receive punishment. Today, in North Carolina, a Black ninth grader is 8 times more likely to be suspended for cell phone use than a white kid. Other crimes have similarly unequal rates. Black kids are 10 times more likely to get suspended for public displays of affection and six times more likely to get the boot for dress code violations.
Is there any possibility these kids deserve more punishment? In a word, no. But a culture of institutional racism creates teachers and administrators who see crime when they look at Black students, and who see blameless kids when they view white students behaving in exactly the same way. As these kids age, multiple punishments and suspensions mean they end up labeled troublemakers, with some losing their academic career to expulsion.
And what’s next, for a 17-year-old, suspended from high school for a crime that earned his white friend a slap on the wrist? He might end up in the juvenile justice system, or even worse, prison. Kids kicked out of school are three times more likely to end up in jail within a year. Not surprising, considering we do an incomplete job of educating them, punish them for their race, then expect them to figure out adulthood on their own.
The ACLU named this phenomenon the school-to-prison pipeline, and it has got to stop. Being Black in America is an unbalanced proposition from the start. It’s completely outrageous that our public school system can’t even come close to taking care of all children equally.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I know it begins with awareness. Look at your local school system and don’t be afraid to ask them how they ensure Black and Latino kids get the same shot white children do. Look at your schools’ rates of suspension, and ask why they are imbalanced. Even if you don’t find an answer, you’ve got to start a conversation.