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Black Men And Their 'Life Cycles Of Inequity'

May 17, 2014
Originally published on May 17, 2014 11:29 am
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On this anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education decision, many people are trying to examine the state of race relations in America.

An online magazine called Colorlines focuses on race and is running a monthly series of in-depth stories on black men. We asked Kai Wright, the editor at large for Colorlines, to join us to discuss their series "Lifecycles of Inequity." Mr. Wright's in our studios in New York City. Thanks much for being with us.

KAI WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Our listeners will have just heard a story in which African-Americans said they hardly want to return to segregation, but some people say they do miss the closeness of community many neighborhoods used to have before children had to travel to integrate schools. How do you feel about that?

WRIGHT: I certainly understand the emotion behind it. And it's true not just for schools, but for a whole bunch of things. There is often this conversation amongst black folks about, you know, well, it was different when we had to be all together. But it's important to remember that history showed that that did not work out very well. Moreover, when we talk about schools, we can see it in modern times not working out because schools remain quite segregated.

There has been a good bit of research showing just how dramatically schools remain segregated today and that those segregated schools are facing the same problems they faced when we first were trying to address it with Brown, where they have fewer resources and poorer outcomes for the students in them.

SIMON: Describe for us what I think you call the school-to-prison pipeline, as you see it.

WRIGHT: There is a significant racial disparity in the number of children who are black and removed from schools for infractions as small as talking back and sometimes larger. But you have this extremely harsh discipline that is driving kids out of school. And once driven out of school, those kids are statistically far likelier to end up in prison.

And so this has been identified as a crucial racial justice question inside the education system today. Researchers are trying to identify what is driving this. But the outcome is clear. There is a massive racial display in how many black kids are driven out of school and how those kids then end up in prison.

SIMON: What happens with the suspension? 'Cause I think you call it one of the identifying moments of a young man's life.

WRIGHT: Just one suspension doubles the likelihood of dropping out. And then once you've dropped out, the rate of incarceration amongst people who did not finish high school, particularly high school dropouts, is far higher than everybody else.

SIMON: It strikes me that over the years some of these suspension policies have come about because their have been teachers and educators, including African-American teachers and educators, who say that a kid who can be troublesome in the classroom ruins education for everybody else. And they have to have what they sometimes call a zero- tolerance policy.

WRIGHT: That's right. This isn't necessarily about evil teachers. This is about teachers who are overwhelmed. And they're dealing with students who are facing many challenges in life. And they don't have the resources to deal with the challenges that those kids have.

SIMON: But if you went to the, currently, the African-American mayor of Washington, D.C. and say, you've got to desegregate the schools, you've got to get kids on buses and send them around town and desegregate the schools, I suspect you'd have a political fight on your hands that the federal government wouldn't want and probably wouldn't win.

WRIGHT: Part of the challenge is the residential segregation. Part of the challenge is the income inequality. There are challenges that extend beyond the school walls that just moving kids around isn't going to fix. You know, our conversation around bussing and segregation is somewhat dated in the sense that if you look at - in the places of the country where you have the most dense populations, there is no longer a majority and minority amongst our kids in our school systems.

And so the essential way we understand segregation integration needs to change, right. Like, we have to understand that there are now more students of color in the public school system than there are white students in places like the west and the south. So if we're talking about how to fix the education system, we are necessarily talking about how to deliver good education to students of color.

SIMON: It's tempting for a lot of Americans to survey education today and get depressed about what Brown v. Board of Education actually did when you see what's been called the re-segregation of schools. But what did it accomplish that people might also take some heart in.

WRIGHT: Well, to be clear, it succeeded when we enforced it. During the period of time in which the federal government worked hard to enforce the law and insist that schools desegregated, it succeeded wildly. I think the hopeful thing to take is that when we try, we succeed. So if we would return our efforts to saying hey, we want to create equitable schools, we want integrated schools and we want equitable schools, and put our energy into that - there's plenty of evidence that it works.

But if we're going to spend our energy on how do we police teachers and how do we police students, what we're going to end up with is a school system where the school-to-prison pipeline is the problem instead of talking about how kids are learning from one another by being in integrated classrooms.

SIMON: Kai Wright, editor at large for colorlines.com. Thanks so much for being with us.

WRIGHT: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.