Racial Disparities Reflect Laws and Policies

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In her recently published book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander connects the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow to the mass incarceration of African-American males. “The American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history Åc a formally race-neutral criminal justice system (manages) to round up and arrest an extraordinary number of black and brown men, when people of color are actually no  more likely to be guilty of drug crimes and many other offenses than whites.”
This important book documents an overwhelming body of research and a relentless logic of systematic social injustice that attributes massive increases in imprisoned African-Americans over the past decades not to their behavior, but to the biased nature of the law and its enforcement: by police, courts, prisons, and the punitive society to which the criminalized return.
An equally convincing body of research documents that in parallel fashion, in the era of so-called “zero tolerance,” school disciplinary, suspension, and expulsion policies have arbitrarily but systematically targeted African-American males as part of what has come to be called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
At the most fundamental and ‘for most white people’ counterintuitive level, it is urgently important to recognize that the baseline behaviors of African-American children and youth are no better or worse than those of their white counterparts, in any setting. In some areas, including alcohol abuse, they are markedly better.
Social researchers have developed reliable methods for establishing accurate baseline data through self-report surveys; these have been administered and refined for decades, with standard sampling and analytical procedures. Neither in relation to school nor societal behavior have racial differences been documented that remotely explain the drastic disparities that have emerged in relation to school suspension, expulsion, arrest, and incarceration.
Thus, in June of this year, the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly” of the Centers for Disease Control reported that between white and black male students, grades 9-12, whites are more likely to binge drink, take prescription drugs without a prescription, smoke cigarettes or use smokeless tobacco on school property; white males are also more likely than black males to use cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogenic drugs, ecstasy, and methamphetamines. Meanwhile, blacks are more likely than whites to use heroin, marijuana, and steroids without a prescription; they are also more likely to inject illegal drugs, and drink alcohol or use marijuana on school property.
Regarding school behavior, Russ Skiba of the University of Indiana’s Equity Project has examined school disciplinary referrals by race. Of 32 infractions examined, there were eight significant differences. White students were referred more for smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language. Black Students were referred more for disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering.
Regardless of these baseline behavioral realities, the comparison regarding students who have ever been suspended from school by age 17, documented in the same OJJDP study: white, 28%, black 56%. As with incarceration, nothing in the “real world” of racial differences accounts for these disparities. Instead, they are explained by the racialized functioning of schools, police, and the courts, all facilitated by legislatures at various levels.
Paul J. Hirschfield of Rutgers writes: “A multilevel structural model of school criminalization is developed which posits that a troubled domestic economy, the mass unemployment and incarceration of disadvantaged minorities, and resulting fiscal crises in urban public education have shifted school disciplinary policies and practices and staff perceptions of poor students of color in a manner that promotes greater punishment and exclusion of students perceived to be on a criminal justice ‘track’.”
Individuals in authority are trained and conditioned to live in a culture of suspicion and fear that is created by this racist and often lethal system; this should be kept in mind as we look, for example, at the death of Kiwane Carrington. Similarly, those boys and men who endure the system are well aware of (white) society’s “expectations” regarding their behavior and potential. African-American males continue to struggle for their dignity, but there’s no reason for white people to think that they do so based on comforting fairy tales that white people tell themselves about colorblindness and equal opportunity.

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