Losing One Generation After Another: The overincarceration of African American and Latino young men is a national scandal
June 20, 2012
The overincarceration of African American and Latino young men is a national scandal. Low-income young men of color—especially those growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods—are fated under current circumstances to end up in prison in percentages that far exceed their share of the population. We are losing generation after generation.
Check the boxes: father in and out of prison or whereabouts unknown or never known. Mother struggling to find steady work and often not succeeding. Drugs or alcohol in the parental picture somewhere. Violence in the home. Early childhood inattention or worse. Terrible schools. No caring adult other than the mother or grandmother in the boy’s life. Street culture that valorizes defiance and denigrates educational achievement. Police all too willing to arrest.
Result: time in prison, likely fathering children and not marrying the mother, and difficulty in finding work for the rest of his life. Poverty in childhood makes these young men strong candidates for getting into trouble with the law in the first place, and time in prison makes them even stronger candidates for lives of poverty and disenfranchisement from the democratic process, pushing the arithmetic of politics to the right and shrinking the constituency for support of low-income communities.
Not all boxes apply to each young man, of course, but enough do. Whether the underlying facts are George W. Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which brilliantly describes the targeting of young black men in the criminal justice system—and both ideas are operative—the situation is truly dire. Comprehensive reform of the juvenile and criminal justice systems, including our misbegotten “war on drugs,” is a must.
Dire as it is, though, the cradle-to-prison pipeline is comparatively narrow. There is a wider pipeline yet. I call it the cradle-to-nowhere pipeline, and it is full of girls as well as boys. There are 804,100 youth and young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) in prison or jail, and about 92.4 percent of them are men. But there are three million or more youth and young adults who are not in school and are out of work for a long time, most of whom will not spend time in jail or prison. (Andrew Sum of Northeastern University puts the number as high as 5.2 million.)
These young people have come to be called “disconnected.” Depending on the estimate involved, they constitute from one in twelve up to as many as one in six of the sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old age group. About one-third are parents, approximately fifty thousand are homeless, and many have lived for long periods of time in foster care. If nothing changes, at least half of these three million young people will spend much of their lives unemployed or sporadically and marginally employed at best. Not surprisingly, African American, Latino, and Native American young people are disproportionately represented among the disconnected.
Three million disconnected youth is a number that was in wide currency before the Great Recession. It includes some high school graduates, because young people who do not pursue postsecondary education or training face increasingly impassable pathways into the legal labor market. The pathway is even less reliable for disconnected youth who do not graduate from high school. Only about two-thirds of all students—and only half of all African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans—who enter ninth grade graduate with regular diplomas four years later. For minority males, the figures are even lower. And dropping out is disastrous. In 2000, when unemployment was comparatively low, 50 percent of high school dropouts were employed, compared to 93 percent of adults holding an associate’s degree or better. It’s a lot worse than that now.
What should we be doing about all of this? Early childhood development, competent teaching from kindergarten on, and so on, but what about high school? Is the answer college for all?
Here we wade into a debate that has been going on at least since the days of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Basically, every high-performing academic high school articulates its main goal as going to college. There have been some spectacular successes, and I have no interest in arguing with the approach they use. It works for them.
But it is not a shoe that fits everyone, even at those schools. If you look a little closer at many of the graduates of good high schools that serve low-income students, you will see that a number of students go on to community colleges and may or may not obtain a bachelor’s degree. You will see that some who don’t get a BA do get a diploma or certification to pursue a productive career that doesn’t require a four-year degree. College for all may be the flag they fly, but the outcomes—and I mean the good outcomes—are more varied.
The stakes are highest at large public inner-city high schools—the dropout factories that are scarring so many lives. The first task is to get students’ attention, to convince them to stick around. Inner-city high schools should offer motivated students a full opportunity to go to as good a college as they can get in to, but students also need options that are more tangible, more hands-on, and more immediately rewarding than the promise of an education that leads one to a rich life of the mind. Of course, some young people will thrive on a liberal education regardless of their background, and some young people resonate with a more hands-on option wherever they grow up. Young people of all economic strata flock to good career- and technical-education programs in suburban schools. But it is especially important that there be strong career pathways in inner-city high schools. We don’t want to reinvent the dysfunctional vocational education of the twentieth century, and we don’t have to. Vocational High School in Minneapolis, where I grew up, was a dumping ground. We don’t want to go back there…