When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election and was reelected in 2012, some national commentators wondered if his victory was a sign that the U.S. had become a “post-racial” society. A post-racial society is essentially one with true equality between races, in both the legal sense and the general outlook of its population. Put simply, though, the notion that this country has moved past race can’t be further from the truth.
By now it’s safe to say that nearly everyone has at least a general idea of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri. At noon on Aug. 9, an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson. Brown was black. Wilson is white.
Ferguson is a predominantly black city, with 65 percent of its population identifying as black or African American, according to the 2012 American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau. However, only three of the 53 officers of the Ferguson Police Department are black.
Protests and riots broke out after Brown’s death, challenging the way society treats minorities. The fact of the matter is that minorities are still not treated fairly in this country. The numbers are there to prove it, and statistics even show that it is going on in classrooms.
A Department of Education report from March focusing on school discipline shows the disproportionate amount of punishment that black students face in comparison to white students. For context, black students account for 16 percent of the collective student body of the entire U.S., while white students are 51 percent.
The report tracked four different types of punishment: in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension (single day), out-of-school suspension (multiple days) and expulsion. Respectively, black students account for 32 percent, 33 percent, 42 percent and 34 percent of those punishments that are dealt out. Every single rate is at least twice that of the proportion of the student body that are black.
Out of the three largest component populations (white, black and Hispanic), black students are the only body that receive punishment rates higher than their enrollment percentage.
Similarly, the 2014 report tracked, for the first time, preschool discipline. The only two punishments monitored were single-day out-of-school suspension and multiple-day out-of-school suspensions. Black children account for only 18 percent of the preschool student body but an astonishing 42 percent of single-day suspensions and 48 percent of multiple-day suspensions. Once again, black children are the only population who have punishment rates higher than enrollment percentage.
But those aren’t the only statistics the report gathered. Another was referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests. A referral occurs when a student is reported to any law enforcement agency for an action conducted on school grounds, school transportation or during a school-related event. A school-related arrest is any arrest conducted in the same areas.
Black students account for 27 percent of referrals to law enforcement and 31 percent of school-related arrests. As you could probably guess by now, they are the only students among the white, black and Hispanic populations who receive a rate higher than their enrollment percentage.
The report covers 99.2 percent of schools in the country. These numbers are not a fluke — they are a sign of a systemic problem in our society. Black students are not treated anywhere near fairly by schools. These numbers alone should dispel any notion that the U.S. is a post-racial society, but unfortunately those numbers barely scratch the surface of the problem.
The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, hovering around 2.1 million people. Of those inmates, nearly one million are black. As that number suggests, blacks face a much higher incarceration rate than whites. According to a report by the Sentencing Project, using data gathered from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.3 percent of blacks are incarcerated at any given time, compared to 0.4 percent of whites.
Illinois does just a bit better than the national average. Here, 2 percent of blacks are incarcerated, compared to 0.2 percent of whites.
The numbers get even more sobering when focusing on the young black population. Currently 11.7 percent of African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 are in a jail or prison, compared to roughly 1.2 percent of white men in the same age range. Even worse is the likelihood of imprisonment. While white men have a 1 in 17 likelihood of being imprisoned in their lifetimes, black men face a mind-numbing 1 in 3 chance of being jailed.
Are black men any more dangerous than white men? Of course not. But there is an obvious problem within the system, taking into account the two problems we have mentioned.
Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti, economists from the University of Western Ontario and UCLA, respectively, found that there are strong connections between schooling and decreased tendency to commit crime. The suspension and expulsion rates that black children are victim to decreases the time they are in the classroom and increases the time they are idle — both factors make committing crime more likely.
The punishment rates in schools and incarceration rates in prisons and jails are symptoms of a disease that continues to eat away the fabric of the United States. Racism still exists –– it’s naive to think that any singular action can erase it. To be realistic, racism — or at least inequality along racial lines — will probably never go away. When a country is as diverse as the U.S. is, there will always be tensions.
But as the future leaders of this country, we cannot turn the back and move on from what is happening in Ferguson. Our parents and grandparents fought for a society that treated people of all races equally. There is no reason for us to not pick up the movement. Every generation makes strides towards the achieving what all of our greatest leaders have desired: a truly free and equal country. But it is not easy. Change is a hard thing to bring about.
The basis for equality exist and has been sown already. Even if the protests die down, as they are bound to do, we have the opportunity to keep furthering what previous generations started.
Racism is not something that can disappear in a few generations. Racism and institutional inequality are thing that we need to continuously keep fighting against.
It is our responsibility as human beings to assure that everybody receives the same treatment. It is our duty to actively work toward eradicating one of the longest diseases this country has suffered.
We must do this, not naively, but with the courage and seriousness that is worthy of the thousands who have come before us and the countless lives that can be spared.