Essays on Racism and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Essays on Racism and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Race, Arrest and Incarceration in New York City
Every summer I teach a history class at Hofstra University for teachers called “Race and
Class in the United States: Past and Present.” I start the class with a little-known quote from a
nineteenth century book by Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited the country in the
mid-1830s. I think the essence of De Tocqueville’s observation about American society, one that
I agree with, is that democracy and prosperity for White people in the United States is purchased
at the expense of social inequality and the denial of equal rights and opportunities for Blacks. De
Tocqueville wrote:
I do not believe that the White and Black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the
difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere. . . . A despot who should subject the Americans and
their former slaves to the same yoke might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as the American
democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it may be foreseen that the
freer the White population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain. (Democracy in America, v.
1, chapter 18)
Among other topics we discuss in class is whether racism persists in American society today.
Generally, the debate among the teachers breaks down along racial lines. Overwhelmingly,
although not universally, White teachers acknowledge racism in the past, but see it as
significantly diminished in the present and no longer a major factor to be concerned about. Their
evidence tends to be the prominence of wealthy Black celebrities such as Kobe, Oprah, Denzel,
and Snoop Dogg, the acceptance of Black culture by mainstream society, especially by young
people, and in recent years, the Barack Obama phenomenon.
Inevitably, Black teachers in the class and some Whites respond that changes for a few have
not transformed life for the many. As evidence they commonly cite economic inequality, higher
unemployment in Black communities, poorer school performance, as well as arrest and
incarceration rates.
A recently released study found that by age twenty-three almost a third of Americans have
been arrested for a crime. While this study did not examine racial differentials, other studies
document racial imbalance in arrests and incarceration.
According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic Blacks accounted
for 39.4 percent of the prison and jail population in 2009, although they made up only about 12
percent of the country’s population. The United States Census Bureau reports that about a third
of the people arrested in 2009 were Black.
According to a 2009 report by the human rights group Human Rights Watch, “Blacks have
been arrested nationwide on drug charges at higher rates than Whites for nearly three decades,
even though they engage in drug offenses at comparable rates.” According to FBI reports, adult
African Americans were arrested on drug charges between 2.8 to 5.5 times more than White
adults every year from 1980 through 2007.
The New York Civil Liberties Union claims that “about 3 million innocent New Yorkers
were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2010, and that Black
and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out
of ten stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the
NYPD’s own reports.” In 2010, 601,055 New Yorkers were stopped by the police, of which
517,458 were totally innocent of any crime (86%). Among this group, 51 percent were reported
as Black, 33 percent as Latino, and less than 10 percent as White. In response, local political
leaders including the Manhattan borough president and a prominent state senator from Brooklyn
are calling for a federal civil rights probe of the New York City Police Department.
Just examining economic and crime statistics is not enough to convince anyone about racism.
People who argue that race is no longer a significant factor in the United States are willing to
blame poverty. Many Whites and even some Blacks place the blame for poverty and crime on
Black people themselves.
Sometimes, some of the Black students in the class offer personal testimony, either about
their own experience with the police or the experience of a close friend or relative. In forty years
of teaching in the New York metropolitan area I have never had a Black student who did not
have a story to tell. While White students have been sympathetic to the unfortunate experience of
a classmate, they generally dismiss this as evidence of a more pervasive problem.
However, a recent op-ed piece in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times may
make it harder to ignore the impact of discriminatory police action on young Black men in innercity communities. In the title of the essay, Nicholas Peart, a twenty-year-old student at the
Borough of Manhattan Community College, asked “Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?” Peart
reported that between the age of eighteen and twenty-three he was stopped, frisked, held at
gunpoint, and handcuffed on four separate occasions by New York City police officers and each
time released without so much as an apology. He is now part of a class-action lawsuit, Floyd, et
al. v. City of New York, et al., being brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights against the
New York City Police Department that “challenges the NYPD’s practices of racial profiling and
unconstitutional stop-and frisks. These NYPD practices have led to a dramatic increase in the
number of suspicion-less stop-and-frisks per year in the city, with the majority of stops in
communities of color.”
As a teacher, I find that Mr. Peart’s story rings true. In 1990 I was teaching high school in
Brooklyn when one of my students, a sixteen-year-old African American male, was arrested on
his way to school in a drug sweep on his block. It was before seven in the morning and the police
figured anyone out at that time was suspicious. I discussed this story and the Peart essay with an
African American man who is a cooperating teacher and part of the doctoral program at Hofstra
University. He replied by relating his own tale of being held at gunpoint by the NYPD street
crimes unit when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor. He referred me to a book by Michelle Alexander
(2010), The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
I plan to use the Peart essay in my class on “Race and Class in the United States” this
summer and invite this teacher to participate in the discussion. Hopefully Peart’s experience will
make it difficult for White teachers to so easily dismiss what continues to be such an
overwhelming aspect of the Black experience in the United States.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
Rethinking Schools is a magazine written for teachers by teachers. It is based in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, and covers local issues, but really its concerns are national in scope. Its Winter 2011–
2012 issue was a special on what they call “the school-to-prison pipeline.” An opening editorial
made clear their point of view. Too often schools where student populations are overwhelming
Black, Latino, and poor are becoming “pathways to incarceration rather than opportunity.” As
teachers, they are outraged because “we cannot build safe, creative, nurturing schools and
criminalize our children at the same time.”
According to Rethinking Schools, “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies in schools are
responsible for transforming minor transgressions of school rules that could be handled as
educational opportunities into disciplinary matters where students are subject to suspension and
often even drawn into legal issues involving the police and courts. The editors of Rethinking
Schools blame federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs that focus what takes
place in schools on control and test scores rather than meeting student needs. They believe this
accelerates the trend toward increasingly severe punishment.
Punishment in school and in American society often has a racial dimension. The United
States imprisons a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of
Apartheid. In Washington, D.C., three-fourths of the young African American men are arrested
at some point in their lives. Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has grown from about
300,000 people to over two million, even while crime rates have dropped. More than seven
million children have a family member who has passed through the prison system.
The connection between prisons and schools dates to the Reagan and Clinton
administrations. The term “zero tolerance” came into popular usage during the Reagan
presidency, when Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. During the
Clinton years, the Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act mandated expulsion for any student, no matter
how young, who brought a gun to school. Public fear of school violence was ignited by the
Columbine shootings in 1999. Although the perpetrators were White and the incident had
nothing to do with race, Black and Latino students in inner-city schools increasingly became the
target of the anticrime, antiviolence programs.
State policies, not the students, are often the actual criminals. According to a 2011 study,
“Breaking Schools’ Rules,” in Texas, with a school population of 4.7 million students, there
were 1.6 million student suspensions during the 2009–2010 school year. Fifty-four percent of the
students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once while in secondary school.
Overwhelmingly, 97 percent of the suspensions were for minor infractions that could have been
treated as educational rather than disciplinary problems.
A major focus of the Rethinking Schools theme issue was discussion of a book by Michelle
Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. In an
interview with a Rethinking Schools editor, Alexander, a legal scholar and civil rights activist
who is also African American, explained that the explosion in the prison population and
increasingly harsh punishment in schools has had a devastating impact on Black children and the
Black community. Families are separated, lives are uncertain, older siblings are stopped and
frisked by police, and children experience harassment starting at a young age and become
resentful of authority figures, whether they are teachers or police officers.
Alexander believes school discipline policies were shaped by the war on drugs and the “get
tough” movement. She charges that zero-tolerance language in school disciplinary codes was
taken from a Drug Enforcement Administration manual. She feels that students, parents, and
teachers need to resist these policies and promote programs that will actually improve the quality
of education and community life. “We're foolish if we think we’re going to end mass
incarceration unless we are willing to deal with the reality that huge percentages of poor people
are going to remain jobless, locked out of the mainstream economy, unless and until they have a
quality education that prepares them well for the new economy.”
Courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have ruled on student rights on a number
of occasions. The best-known case is Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). In this case, the United
States Supreme Court decided that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of
speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” However, in Ginsberg v. New York (1968) the
Supreme Court recognized that states must exercise greater authority over children than over
adults, partly because they are responsible for ensuring an environment that is safe and
conducive to learning.
In Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009), Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
For nearly 25 years this Court has understood that maintaining order in the classroom has never been easy, but in
more recent years, school disorder has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the
schools have become major social problems. . . . For this reason, school officials retain broad authority to protect
students and preserve order and a proper educational environment under the Fourth Amendment. This authority
requires that school officials be able to engage in the close supervision of school children, as well as enforce rules
against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult.
Unfortunately, if Thomas’s views become the law of the land, and they well might in a
country that has already suspended Fourth Amendment due process rights for people accused of
ties to terrorism, students may effectively lose all legal protection against abusive authority.
Schools will become more like prisons and young people will be one step closer to incarceration.
New York City and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Unfortunately, the “school-to-prison pipeline” is alive and well in New York City where I
live and teach. According to a New York Civil Liberties Report, Criminalizing the Classroom,
The Over-Policing of New York City Schools (2007), in 1996 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
transferred control over the school safety program away from school officials to the police
department. The NYPD school safety division, with over five thousand officers, became the fifth
largest police force in the country. Semiskilled low-paid school safety officers now decide when
student behavior is criminal and warrants police intervention rather than that of teachers,
guidance counselors, or school administrators. Principals or teachers who question these
decisions and intervene are themselves subject to arrest.
Metal detectors at school entrances make many New York City schools feel more like
prisons than places where young people want to be and contribute to the sense that these are not
a place where people are respected or treated with dignity and fairness. Approximately 100,000
New York City school children pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors every day. Their bags
are searched and they are subject to pat downs, as if going to school is suspected criminal
behavior. Although we live an era of severe financial restraints, since 2002 the city’s budget for
police and security equipment in schools has increased by 65 percent to more than $221 million.
In September 2011, the New York Post reported that metal detector scanning was being done
at eighty-eight Department of Education buildings housing more than 150 schools. This does not
include mobile scanning units that circulate among other schools, where they arrive
unannounced for inspections. At an unannounced scanning at Murray Bergtraum High School in
Manhattan in December 2010, police confiscated a reported 500 cell phones, but no dangerous
Students in schools with large Black and Latino populations are subject to the most searches.
The Post reporters observed that at the Martin Luther King Jr. complex near Lincoln Center,
where the student population of the High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice is
93 percent Black and Latino, students had to remove belts and jewelry and wait on a twentyminute-long line to enter the building. During this operation, their cell phones and open drink
containers were confiscated. Meanwhile, students next door at the selective Fiorello H.
LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, a school with a much more
middle-class and a larger White (48%) and Asian (20%) student population, students were
allowed to simply a swipe an ID card to enter the building.
In testimony before the New York City Council Committees on Education and Civil Rights
regarding the impact of suspensions on students’ education rights, Donna Lieberman of the New
York Civil Liberties Union argued that as part of their “zero tolerance” policy toward student
“misbehavior,” “school and police personnel meted out harsh punishment in situations that
should have been resolved through counseling, conflict mediation, and similar supportive
methods.” In effect, these policies “push students out of school and into the criminal justice
School officials are ratcheting up the level of infraction so that instead of treating a minor
violation of school policies, such as a dress code infraction, as a guidance issue, administrators
suspend students for insubordination because they failed to obey an authority figure.
Insubordination, “defying or disobeying the lawful authority of school personnel or school safety
agents,” is considered a Level 3 infraction on the same level as the destruction of school
property, fighting, or “engaging in gang-related behavior.” Students accused of insubordination
can be given detention and excluded from extracurricular activities, recess, or communal
lunchtime. They are also subject to a principal’s suspension from school for up to five days.
If these trends continue, government and school officials won’t have to worry any longer
about the school-to-prison pipeline because New York City schools, especially those for Black,
Latino, and poor students, will have effectively been transformed into prisons.
Rikers Island—Last Stop on the New York City School-to-Prison
In the January 30, 2012, issue of The New Yorker magazine critic-at-large Adam Gopnik
described what he called “The Caging of America.” The size of the prison system in the United
States is horrific. According to Gopnik:
Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—
perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more Black men in the
grip of the criminal justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there
are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag
Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second
largest in the United States.
Equally horrific are its rapid growth and the direct and indirect costs. Gopnik reports that in
1980 there were about 220 people incarcerated for every 100,000 Americans. The incarceration
rate more than tripled during the next thirty years. Today there are over 700 prisoners for every
100,000 Americans. State governments now spend six times as much money on prisons as they
do on higher education.
In New York City, the hub of the prison system is Rikers Island, with ten separate jails, a
budget of $860 million a year, an inmate population of 14,000, and a staff of 8,500. Rikers Island
may be the world’s largest penal colony.
The island and prison are located in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, right next
to LaGuardia Airport runways. They are named after a Dutch settler whose descendants owned
the island until it was transformed into a prison by New York City in 1884. During the American
Civil War it served as a training ground for the Union Army.
Prisoners on Rikers Island include people awaiting trial who cannot afford or obtain bail and
those held without bail. There are also prisoners serving sentences of one year or less or awaiting
transfer to other facilities. The only access to the island is over a causeway from Queens. Visitors
must pass through repeated checkpoints and once inside are locked up along with the inmates.
Because of the large number of young people age eighteen to twenty-two in the inmate
population, Rikers is also home to the Island and Horizon Academies. In February 2011, I was a
Black History month speaker for social studies students at the Island Academy. That was my
third visit to the island to talk about the history of slavery in New York.
More than 12,000 New York City students are incarcerated every year and attend school
behind bars. Currently, there are fifty-three prison school sites run by New York City. Island
Academy on Rikers, founded in 1959, was the country’s first high school in a jail, and because of
high student turnover, it is now primarily a GED preparation program.
At Rikers, classroom attendance is compulsory and an armed security guard is assigned to
every room. The average student reads at a fifth-grade level and almost 50 percent of the
students are diagnosed as having special educational needs.
Black and Hispanic youth make up an overwhelming 95 percent of students in New York
City jail. An estimated 90 percent of the prison systems youth alumni are rearrested by the time
they’re twenty-eight.
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