“And then I got to Memphis.”
Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968
Recruitment for jail in the Memphis area begins in the schools. In 2011-2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights counted 26,000 out-of-school and 11,500 in-school suspensions and 4,400 expulsions, over 90 percent of which were of black students in the 100,000 student Memphis schools. There were also 100 each of referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests. In that single year, nearly 1,000 black students in the Memphis area became known to the police, while at least 40,000 others had school discipline records. New York City, with ten times as many students, had fewer than 14,000 out-of-school suspensions and exactly 332 expulsions.
Three-quarters of Memphis’ black students are not reading at grade level by ninth grade. In the suburban Shelby County district (which finally merged with Memphis in a controversial consolidation last year), black students are nearly twice as likely to reach grade level in reading as in the city’s schools. The state lists the graduation rate for African American students in Memphis in 2012 as 71 percent, roughly the same for males and females. These graduation rates are quite extraordinary. One explanation might be found in the ACT data for the districts. (The ACT is a standard test used for college admission.) The 2013 mean composite ACT score for the Memphis City School District was 16.2. The state average was 19.3 and that for Shelby County (outside Memphis) was 20.9. Half of students, nationally, taking the ACT, scored between 20 and 21. Just 23 percent scored at or below Memphis’s 16.
One can only conclude that while 70 percent of Memphis students may graduate from high school, few of them are career or college ready. After all, three-quarters of black students in Memphis could not read at grade level when they were in eighth grade.
This is borne out by some data about the two largest local postsecondary institutions: Southwest Tennessee Community College and the University of Memphis. Let us assume that all the black students at Southwest Tennessee Community College and the University of Memphis were graduates of the Memphis city schools. (Of course some were from other districts and some students from the Memphis city schools went elsewhere, but for the sake of the argument, we will assume that these factors approximately balance.) This gives us 8,000 black students in grade 9, including 4,600 black males.
Four years later 7,000 black students graduate, including 3,400 black males. Of these, 2,000 go to Southwest Tennessee Community College and 835 go to the University of Memphis, 700 and 265 of whom, respectively, are Black males. Forty-five black students graduate with Associate’s degrees from Southwest Tennessee Community College within 150 percent of normal time, 16 of whom are Black males. Two hundred black students graduate from the University of Memphis with Bachelor’s degrees within 150 percent of normal time, 70 of whom are black men. Of 8,000 black students in grade 9, 45 eventually receive Associate’s degrees, 200 receive B.A. degrees, a success rate of 3 percent.
If the progression from the first year of high school in Memphis for black students through graduation, college matriculation and degrees is anything like that indicated by these approximations, it cannot be said that the district is preparing its students well for college and careers. Presuming that the goal of the Memphis educational system is that its students attain at least Associate’s degree and that many will obtain Bachelor’s degrees, it is failing to achieve those goals 97 percent of the time.
As things stand in Memphis, many of those students, especially young black men, do not go to college. They go to jail.
Although the number of adult white residents of Memphis is evenly divided between men and women, that of adult black residents shows 22,000 fewer men than women. Where are those missing young black men? According to the 2010 Census, there are about the same number of white men in Shelby County college dorms as in the county’s jails and prisons and nearly four times as many white women in the dorms as in cells.
The situation is quite different for the county’s black residents. There are ten times as many black men incarcerated in the county’s jails and prisons as in college dorms and less than twice as many black women in the dorms as in cells. Or we can notice that the Shelby County jail in Memphis booked 54,000 people last year. Most of those were young adult black men. There are about 50,000 black males in Memphis between the ages of 18 and 34. No doubt some of the bookings were of white men and women, some of black women and some people were booked more than once. No doubt.
In Tennessee, as in other states, the largest category of prisoners are those incarcerated for drug offenses. The average prison sentence in Tennessee for drug law offenses is eight years, except for cocaine offenses. The average prison sentence for cocaine offenses is 17 years. Eight years is a long time to spend in prison for activities that are now legal in two other states. Seventeen years in prison for an activity common among upper income white people is unspeakable.
In Tennessee, as in other states, African Americans are much more likely than White Americans to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses, even though drug usage is much the same between the races. It would seem from Census figures that if the laws were equitably enforced in Shelby County there would be 10,000 more White men in jail, or maybe at least 4,500 fewer black Shelby County men incarcerated. No one wishes to see 10,000 more white men in jail, especially for drug offenses. Perhaps the criminal justice system could concentrate on incarcerating fewer black men.
In all these matters in Memphis, black men are extraordinarily disproportionately represented: from school suspensions to arrests to seventeen-year prison sentences for victimless crimes. And they are disproportionately under-represented in higher education.
This matters—need it be said?—because higher education is an entry point to civilization itself. Once through that door a person can travel through science, the arts, the humanities, coming into contact with entire worlds far from her or his family’s neighborhood and quite possibly bringing what they learn there back to that family and neighborhood to further enhance human development.
There are also the issues of employment, income and wealth. In the United States today, except for the inheritors of great fortunes, these are interconnected.
Adults without a high school degree can look forward to an unemployment rate of more than twice the average and an income of less than half the average. Each additional educational level decreases the first and increases the second. The black/white education differentials in the Memphis area are considerable, in part because most black children attend schools in Memphis and most white children attend schools in the suburbs.
If black educational attainment were at white levels, there would be many more black adults with baccalaureate degrees and many more with further degrees, significantly lowering the unemployment rate of the black community and raising its income level. It would also, other things being equal, lower the rate of incarceration.
Featured photo courtesy of Joe Spake.