OPINION: School-to-prison and white post-racial privilege

By Sikivu Hutchinson
Community Contributor

“If you’ve seen a black or Latino person portrayed as a criminal on TV within the past twenty-four hours, stand up. If you’ve seen a black or Latino person portrayed as a professional on TV recently, stand up.” These were the two powerful icebreaker questions my students asked the audience in a room packed with 9 – 12th graders during a recent Youth of Color college panel at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.

imageRacial playing field is unlevel for college students of color, according to Hutchinson.

Virtually everyone in the room stood up for the first question. Six people stood up for the second. One student wanted clarification on what a professional was.

According to the Education Trust-West, only “20 percent of African-American ninth-graders who graduate from high school four years later do so having completed the A-G coursework needed for admission to the University of California or California State University.”

The report estimates that “if current trends continue” only one in twenty black students in Los Angeles County will go on to a four year college or university. Massive sequestration-generated cuts to early childhood education, and K-16 will only deepen these disparities.

At the college panel, young African-American and Latino first-generation graduates of Princeton, UCLA, UC San Diego and the California Institute of the Arts spoke candidly about the high-stakes climate students of color face in higher education.

A decade of racist anti-affirmative action propaganda has sanitized public discussions about racial politics in higher ed. Indeed, many education activists predict that the ultra-conservatives on the Supreme Court will strike down affirmative action policy in a landmark case involving the University of Texas. But, for many student activists, pretending like the racial playing field is level, and that white college students face the same conditions as students of color, is no longer an option. Skyrocketing unemployment amongst African-American college graduates has permanently stymied upward mobility for many working class blacks struggling to “make it” into the middle class.

According to a 2005 Princeton University study, even white, former felons got offered jobs at slightly greater rates than black job applicants with no criminal records.* The cultural presumption of white innocence, despite a criminal past, coupled with the stereotype of black incompetence/untrustworthiness, is still deep and intractable.

During the forum, Princeton University graduate and community organizer Brandon Bell talked about the assumption some white biochemistry instructors had that he wouldn’t be able to cut the rigorous coursework. Coming from the highly-regarded King Drew Medical Magnet in Compton, he was saddled with the perception of being an affirmative action admission, while his white legacy peers skated by with their meritocratic silver spoons in their mouths.

Undocumented youth activist Edna Monroy spoke of being one of only three Latinas in her graduating class to go to UCLA. California’s draconian Proposition 209 prohibited affirmative action at public colleges and universities and dramatically reduced black and Latino admissions to elite UC’s. Even though she had been a straight-A student in high school, Monroy struggled during her first year at UCLA because she hadn’t had college caliber coursework before.

Graduate student Diane Arellano spoke of being viewed as less than competent because she was the only Latina in the photography department at prestigious Cal Arts – where high profile disciplines like directing and animation, fount of the Pixar empire, were almost exclusively white male.

Bell and Monroy’s experiences highlight the institutional challenges that often prevent students of color from even getting to college – i.e., inadequate preparation at the middle and high school level, overcrowded classrooms, low caliber teachers and racist/sexist stereotypes that translate into low academic expectations.

The Ed Trust report criticizes racially disparate suspension policies that disproportionately “pipeline” black students to juvenile detention. Coupled with federal policy such as the Obama administration’s Race to the Top “accountability” initiative that mandates high stakes tests and relentlessly promotes charter schools, the over-suspension of black students is a national travesty.

Following a national trend, billionaire outsiders like Michael Bloomberg, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation have poured millions into Los Angeles charter schools.

Charter privatization is a major driver of school re-segregation. Charter re-segregation buttresses disparities in home buying, home ownership and employment amongst African-Americans of all class backgrounds.

A recent Brandeis University report concluded that the wealth gap between blacks and whites has increased dramatically from 1984 to 2009. White wealth derives from greater home equity, investments and inheritances from family. By contrast, the bulk of Black and Latino wealth comes from one place – home ownership. Because whites of all classes live in higher income neighborhoods than do African-Americans, and have benefited from lower interest rates, longer term home ownership, greater access to social amenities, living wage job centers and better-resourced schools, white privilege continues to be the engine for white upward mobility.

But there is no federal policy that specifically addresses these disparities.

The Obama administration’s “colorblind” remedies for the mortgage meltdown have been piecemeal, fragmented and grossly inadequate for the economic crisis of communities of color. Even as President Obama forges ahead with a more “liberal” second-term agenda, the administration’s robber baron race-to-the-bottom corporate education policy and its indifference to the scourge of mass incarceration underscores the lie of the American dream.

It means that students like Bell, Monroy and Arellano know that they will have to work ten times as hard as their white counterparts who can still bank on earning a nice wage of whiteness in a “post-racial” age.

*The study was based on testers, some posing as ex-offenders, applying to nearly 1,500 job openings in New York City and concluded that “black job seekers fare no better than whites just released from prison.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, due out on March 30.

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