I was puttering around yesterday, making a little to-do list, checking in with my tweeps, thinking I’d take it easy and recharge my batteries a little for the week ahead. Unfortunately, I picked up this news story on twitter. It’s about a 15 year-old student at Olive Branch (just south of Memphis) being suspended because he flashed his football jersey number in a photo and administrators interpreted it as a gang sign. I’m not going to summarize all the details – it’s a long article and it’s worth a read.
Now, before I write one more word about this, let me just say: I don’t make a habit of bashing my home state for the fun of it, nor do I go in for using negativity just to attract internet traffic. I’m writing this because the situation deserves a closer look, and because the hour I’ve spent digging into school discipline in Mississippi raises some questions that I believe it is fair to ask.
Without direct personal knowledge of this situation, here is what I think:
1. I believe the student’s side of the story. His story is plausible. The photo in question was taken by a teacher because he’d done a good job with a science project. What kind of gangster makes a double-helix out of Legos?
2. I know that strictly speaking, due process and other constitutional protections don’t apply to minors on public school property. But minors do have civil rights. The plausibility of the student’s explanation and the fact that he has no history of disciplinary problems should have carried a lot more weight than they did.
3. Given the fact that this school district has already been sued by the ACLU once for civil rights violations, and that at least one other district in Mississippi has been sued by the Department of Justice over discipline policies, I think it might be a good idea to review both the policies themselves and available statistics on suspensions, expulsions, etc. Because it’s not at all clear to me that a white kid would have received the same treatment for the same behavior, and I am interested to know just how often black and latino students are disciplined compared to whites.
4. This situation is not confined to Mississippi. The NBC article makes it clear that there’s a debate going on about school discipline policies, and that’s a good thing. But just because it’s happening in other places doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it in Mississippi.
Now. Here is something to think about. Mississippi is poor. We have a long and well-documented history of racial discrimination. And I’m not just talking about social discrimination. I’m talking about institutional discrimination as well. Black-white race relations have aggravated the poverty and stood in the way of progress on it in a lot of ways. Poor white people and poor black people historically have not gotten along very well, and that means it’s been difficult to even have a rational conversation about working together to address the poverty, much less organize and pressure our leaders to make better policies.
So I wonder where we are right this second with the race relations. I think if we compare Mississippi in 2014 to Mississippi in 1990, we can probably find evidence that we’ve made progress. But I am not so sure about what we’d find if we compared 2014 to 2004. I don’t have enough information to make a strong argument one way or another, but my intuition tells me that over the past decade, a lot of us have been fooling ourselves into believing racism is a thing of the past. If that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years, it’s unfortunate, because racism absolutely is not a thing of the past.
So, here we are in a very poor state with a history of racial animosity and institutionalized discrimination. We have civil rights issues with our public education system that are serious enough for the ACLU and the Justice Department to get involved. There is yet another piece to this puzzle, and that is our criminal justice system. Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and our corrections system costs us $339 million a year, 93% of which is spent on prisons. So let’s look at some demographic information and see if we can draw any reasonable conclusions from it.
According to the census bureau, Mississippi has a population of 2.9 million. Here’s the racial breakdown, with apologies for the poor quality of the graphic:
If our criminal justice and education systems were truly “colorblind,” I’d expect about 60% of students who receive discipline and about 60% of the prison population to be white. It would fluctuate from year to year, of course – I could probably come up with 100 variables that might have some effect on it in any given year. But I would expect it to be within, say, 10 points most of the time, and I wouldn’t expect the fluctuations in the racial breakdown to follow any particular pattern over long periods of time.
That’s not the way it works. This is from a thoroughly documented report published in January by the Mississippi ACLU and the Mississippi Conference of the NAACP.
Black students are disproportionately affected by harsh discipline policies and practices in Mississippi. According to data gathered on 115 Mississippi school districts by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in its Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2009-2010 school year, Black students, who made up half the student population in these districts, received almost 75% of the out-of-school suspensions in these districts, making them over three times more likely than White students to receive an out-of-school suspension.
Since black students make up half the sample population, I’d expect them to receive about half the discipline. The fact that they received 75% makes me curious to know why. No social scientist could look at that statistic and not wonder why half the population is receiving three quarters of the sanctions. Asking questions like that is what we do.
I can’t say, with 100% certainty, that race is the only factor, but it would be silly to deny that it must have some influence, especially given Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination. It’s the first thing I would look at, because it makes the most sense, and because I’d want to figure out just how big a factor race was before I moved on to other variables. (Once I established the weight of race to my satisfaction, the next variable I would look at is household income. The State of Mississippi is almost as hard on poor people as it is on people of color, so if you’re both black and poor, you’re really screwed. The race-poverty relationship is complex, and I pulled my hair out for months after Hurricane Katrina trying to separate the two in an attempt to evaluate the criminally-inadequate disaster response.)
These are the best numbers I could come up with on the fly. They don’t really help us in a definitive way with with the question of whether or not this is a persistent pattern, but they give us more than enough to begin a discussion. I’m sure that if we dug around and found ten years’ worth of data on this, the results would be similar. I’d wager a $100 bill on it.
So what about the incarceration rate and the prison system that’s going to soon be costing our poverty-stricken state half a billion dollars in public money every year?
According to Mississippi Department of Corrections, we have 21,504 people in prison. I’m having a hard time finding current numbers on the racial breakdown. As best I can tell, the department of corrections hasn’t published its annual report online since 2005, and no one’s done a big expose lately, so the best I can do is this infographic from Reuters. I’m not making any statement about Haley Barbour or the pardons here (though I have strong opinions about both, and you can read the story if you wish). I’m using this because the research is from 2012, and I trust Reuters to get the numbers right.
As you can see from the left side of this infographic, about 65 percent of Mississippi’s prison population was black in 2012 when the story was published.
So, now we have three pieces of data that we need to try and make sense of.
- We have a black student suspended in 2014 under questionable circumstances by a school district with a history of civil rights problems.
- The Department of Education tells us that in 2010, black students received 75% of the out-of-school suspensions in 115 of our school districts, even though they only comprise 50% of the student population.
- Reuters tells us that in 2012, almost two-thirds of the people we were holding in prison were black, even though only about 40% of the general population is black.
So what do you think? Is there some racism at work here? And might there be a relationship between the way we do school discipline in Mississippi and the way we do criminal justice? The ACLU, the DOJ, and the NAACP think so. And look. Litigation is expensive. However you feel ideologically about these organizations, you really must admit, none of them are known for wasting their resources. They don’t file lawsuits, write reports, or launch investigations just because they get off on harassing the ignorant Mississippians. They’re trying to help us clean up our act. We should thank them.
Note – Here’s an NAACP report from 2011 which argues that overspending on incarceration undermines educational opportunity. I find it persuasive, but didn’t find it in time to incorporate it into the article. Thanks to Heather from Wanderingbarkhumanities for sending me the link. Heather used it for a piece of her own about Neil Gaiman and humanities education awhile back.