Justice Begins and Ends with Education

by Anne Price and Vishnu Sridharan

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., protests continue to simmer across our nation. The message of those protesting — demanding positive change to our nation’s persisting, systemic inequality — dominated our national dialogue during the closing days of 2014. That this conversation has disappeared from the tongues of politicians and mainstream media belies the fact that nothing has changed.

Deep inequality persists in our society.

One of the most contentious statements made by Lesley McSpadden after the murder of her son Michael Brown was: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?”

Brown, if not for the fatal shooting by police officer Darren Wilson, would have started classes at Vatterott College. Education was to be his gateway to the American Dream. The rallying cry Black Lives Matter has come to refer to the systemic injustices and absence of human dignity facing Black Americans well beyond the criminal justice system. The grand jury decisions in both the Brown and Garner cases are met with calls to address not only problems with our policing and justice systems, but the public education system as well.

The roadblocks Blacks face within and related to education are complex and far-reaching. Even after finishing high school, Black students face unique obstacles to earning a college degree; heavier student debt and slower growth in earning potential are just two examples. These facts are part of the growing discontent that is surfacing around the country in the form of protests. Citizens all over the US are not only calling on us all to address the racial bias in our criminal justice system and policing practices, but are also calling for reform of an education system that erects barriers rather than tearing them down in neglected communities.

In 2010, the high school graduation rate for Black males in Missouri, where Michael Brown grew up, was 56 percent, compared to 81 percent for white males. There are myriad reasons for this, including lack of early childhood learning opportunities and the fact that people of color are most likely to attend schools that have the least resources per student. Students in such schools also suffer under disproportionate disciplinary action, such as out-of-school suspensions. Recent research conducted by the Civil Rights Project showed that almost one-third of Black male students had been suspended by middle school, which doubled the likelihood that they would drop out of high school.

Even if they reach college, Black men like Michael Brown face tough odds. Roughly 41 percent of Black students graduated from college in six years in 2010, compared with a national average of 60 percent. A key reason for the difference is that Black students are disproportionately concentrated in colleges and universities that have the lowest graduation rates in the nation. In addition, the inequities that started in high school continue to adversely impact students. For example, Black students and others from low-income communities are less likely than their peers to meet college readiness benchmarks, which contributes to them “feeling like an outsider” in an environment that isn’t designed to meet their needs.

One of the most significant drivers of educational inequity, and probably with the deepest roots into our nation’s history, is the connection between race and wealth. Even with more Black youth growing up with college-educated relatives, the need for student loans among Black students has increased from 49 to 78 percent since 1970. According to a recent study by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, more than 52 percent of Black students had student loans in 2012, compared to about 42 percent of whites. Researchers in the study found that the racial disparity in student loan debt can be traced back to family wealth.

A college degree alone cannot remedy the cumulative impact of policies that have resulted in disparities in wealth accumulation among whites and Blacks. University of Michigan researcher Trina Shanks and colleagues show that for a white family, the additional median gain in net wealth (excluding home equity) with a college degree is $56,000. For a Black family, the boost is just $1,000. Some of the difference might have to due with Blacks starting out with less wealth at birth. In 2009, 41 percent of Black children were living in families without assets, like money in checking or savings accounts, homeownership, or ownership of stocks, compared to 7 percent for white children.

Last month, Pew Research Center released a new analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances that showed wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010. Joblessness among Blacks is twice that for whites, and Black men and women earning less than whites at every education level make it more difficult for them to build wealth over their lifetimes. Lest we forget, counties in Missouri also target communities of color for the extraction of “poverty fees” which take income and wealth out of the most needy families.

As protests bloom across the nation and we consider solutions to save the lives and livelihoods of all our American youth, we should replicate initiatives like Los Angeles Unified School District’s passage of the School Climate Bill of Rights in 2013, which banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” a tool that accounted for almost half of its suspensions in the previous year. A community college program in California called Umoja has been successful in helping Black students graduate and transfer to four-year institutions through culturally responsive approaches. But perhaps we can make the greatest progress by making investments in providing all young people access to seed funds that can help give them a leg-up on future opportunities to buy a home, offset education costs, or start a business.

The righteous outrage at our nation’s institutions that produce and reproduce racial inequality does not begin and end with the police. From grade school to college, racism walks hand-in-hand with Black youth as they try to achieve a basic standard of living for themselves and their families.

Lesley McSpadden had worked her entire life so that her son, Michael Brown, could overcome tough odds and become a well-educated, high-achieving, young man. We must take this message to heart, and remember Michael Brown not just as a target of police brutality, but as a young person who persevered through a racist and unequal system toward the American Dream.

Dr. King said, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” We as a nation bear on our collective conscience the burden of never bringing Michael Brown’s killer to court. We will honor his memory and forge a “nation at peace” only when we invest in education for all.

Anne Price is the Director of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative.

Vishnu Sridharan is a member of the Experts of Color Network housed at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.