In Hennepin County, Minn., which includes Minneapolis, but not St. Paul, the incarceration rate of the Black population is nearly ten times that of the White adult population. The Minneapolis public schools graduate fewer than half their Black students in four years. Most Black children in Minneapolis grow up in poverty. These matters are not unrelated.
Let us begin with the police.
This past May, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota released a devastating report on policing practices in Minneapolis. The ACLU report, Picking Up The Pieces, found that “Black people in the city are 8.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for low-level offenses, like trespassing, disorderly conduct, consuming in public, and lurking.” This last, lurking, apparently means being seen by a police officer while Black.
The report concentrated on arrests for low-level offenses, because these are actions over which individual police officers have the most range of choices and because they are all too often the trap door through which young Black men fall into a life-cycle of arrests, incarceration and unemployment.
About the police officers’ range of choices: The ACLU found that one police officer made 2,026 low-level arrests between January 1, 2012 and September 30, 2014, seven others made over 1,000 low-level arrests, while the median number of arrests by officers during that period was 51. On the one hand, there is obviously a matter of personal responsibility here. These eight employees of the police department were, in effect, deciding to criminalize Minneapolis’s descendants of enslaved Africans. It would not have been difficult for the department’s administrators to notice this, and stop them, but they did not, therefore, they, too, were individually and day-by-day choosing to assist in the criminalization of young Black men.
But the burden of responsibility of the police department’s administrators is heavier than that. According to the ACLU, “Even . . . without these top eight arresting officers, Black people were 8.5 times more likely to be arrested for a low-level offense than white people.” Some, most, police officers on the street made repeated decisions to arrest Black people at rates nearly 9 times that for White people, which, except for the most egregious instances, gave the appearance of anonymous, institutional racism, while in fact individual police department administrators were personally responsible for the continuation of these activities, by not stopping “Officer 2,026 Arrests,” by not acting on the appalling difference in the rates at which Black men and White men were arrested and incarcerated by other officers on the street.
There is no reason to believe that the attitudes of the police of Minneapolis differ greatly from those of other members of the city’s White community. The actions of those individual officers in the field and of the police administrators at their desks were, frankly, indicators of pervasive racism. The ACLU report quotes Anthony Newby, a local community organizer, as saying that Minneapolis has “become the new premiere example of how to systematically oppress people of color . . .it’s done through our legal system, and so low-level offenses, as an example, are just one of the many, many ways that Minnesota has perfected the art of suppressing and subjugating people of color.”
Jail is the culmination of that art. It begins very early in life.
A reasonable estimate of spending by middle class families on early childhood education would be, say, $2,000 per child per year. In order, then, to give Black children educational opportunities similar to those of White children in Minnesota, supplementary funding becomes the responsibility of the state. But the good burghers of Minnesota invest very little in other people’s children. Just one percent of three- and four-year-olds in Minnesota are enrolled in pre-school, giving the state a rank of 24 for access to preschool for three-year-olds, and 41 for four-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2014 Yearbook.
The National Assessment for Educational Progress does not track achievement levels for Minneapolis, but it does for Minnesota. As most of the Black population of the state lives in Minneapolis, disaggregating the state statistics by race and school location (urban/suburban) gives us a good approximation for Minneapolis educational outcomes.
NAEP assessments begin at grade four. Over half of White city students in the state are proficient in reading in fourth grade, as compared to just 16 percent of Black city students. Or, in other words, at the crucial fourth grade point in their education, 84 percent of Black students in Minnesota’s cities cannot read well.
Furthermore, 58 percent of Black students in Minnesota’s cities score Below Basic at grade four. In effect, they cannot yet read (as compared to just 17 percent of city students in the state who are White).
About half of White students in the state, including urban students, score at or above Proficient, that is grade level, on the reading assessment in eighth grade. That is three times the percentage of Black students who are proficient. The 30 percentage point gap has remained fairly constant this century. For mathematics, the eighth-grade gap in 2015 was 42 percent, a dismal new record for the state.
The percentage of city eighth-grade Black students in Minnesota scoring Below Basic on reading is 42 percent; only 14 percent of White students scored Below Basic. This means that, for all intents and purposes, Black teenagers in the state’s cities still cannot read to any useful extent after nine years of schooling. [This is considerably worse than the situation for Hispanic students, “only” 30 percent of whom score Below Basic, despite language issues.]
With this record, what are the district’s graduation outcomes? More than three-quarters of White non-Hispanic students graduate in four years from Minneapolis Public Schools. Fewer than half of the district’s Black students do so. The graduation rate for the district’s Black students was lower than that for the district’s English language learners, as a group, lower than that for all students eligible for free or reduced price meals, lower than that for Hmong and Somali students.
Minneapolis’ failure to teach its Black children is matched by its willingness to suspend them. As Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle detailed last year in a series of report, the district metes out one our more out-of-school suspension to 13.1 percent of black students in regular classrooms while only 1.7 percent of white students were suspended one or more times. Based on the discipline numbers submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education, a black child in the Minneapolis district has a one in eight chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, while their white peer face only a two in 100 chance. Minneapolis schools are preparing Black children for life in prison.
Minnesota’s schools fail to teach nearly half of the state’s male Black students to read by the time they are in eighth grade. These students then do not graduate from high school on time. And then, at astonishing rates, they are incarcerated. The comparative lack of educational achievement and the additional handicap of incarceration have a notable impact on the occupations available to the adult Black population and its poverty level.
While more than half of the White population of Hennepin County is employed in management, business, science and arts occupations, only a quarter of the Black population finds employment in those middle class jobs. On the other hand, while just 13 percent of the White population is employed in the service sector, twice that percentage of the Black population is employed in the service sector. And the unemployment rate for the Black population is nearly three times that for the White population.
This is a race-based caste system.
It is not then surprising that most Black Minnesotans live beneath or near the poverty-line. Over half of Black women in the state with children under the age of 18, and no husband present, live in poverty. The median income for all Black households is $27,000, barely above the poverty line for a family of four. In comparison, the median income for White households in the state is over $64,000.
This enormous gap has significant implications for educational opportunity, beginning at birth.
The typical Black family in Minneapolis simply does not have the $2,000 a year or more to spend on the education of each child that is available to White families in the city. They must depend on the school system to provide those education resources needed to level the playing field. But most Black children in fourth grade do not have the crucial reading skills necessary for school and the system barely improves matters by grade 8. Despite generations of reform efforts, it is more reasonable to say that the Minneapolis public schools are an instrument for the maintenance of the area’s race-based caste system than a route out of poverty for the city’s Black population.
How can this cycle be broken? The ACLU report and its recommendations were received positively by one of the individuals responsible for the policing section of the cycle, Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau, who has implemented a series of reforms, including anti-bias training for employees of her department. This is a good beginning. But much more is needed, including systems that automatically track police-originated bias incidents and lead to remedial consequences. Perhaps then, the key metric, the racial disparity in arrests and incarceration rates, can be reduced.
It cannot be said that public education in Minneapolis is in a crisis, as it has been inadequate for lower income and Black children for generations. There are some current programs, which, if strengthened, could contribute to improving education opportunities for Black and other lower income children.
The district has a half-day program for four-year-olds, High Five, that is free to lower income families. Best practices indicate this should be extended to two- and three-year-olds, too. Children from lower income families should also have full-day kindergarten. The district’s Minneapolis Kids School Age Care program, which offers before- and after-school and vacation services, should be extended to Saturdays as well. It also should be made available to all lower income children, free, rather than at its current prohibitive cost. It should have a strong academic component. In other words, the out-of-school day experiences of Black and other lower income children in Minneapolis should be more like those of children from White and other middle income families.
Another issue the district must address is its overuse of harsh traditional school discipline. Dropout Nation has offered numerous solutions for this problem and they should be implemented. The most-important of all: Address the reading issues of black students, which is the underlying reason why so many are targeted and disciplined in the first place.
There is a search underway for a new superintendent for the district. That person will have their work cut out for them. But the goals of equal educational opportunities for all children, and closing the gap in outcomes, are achievable. But it requires unwavering commitment to that goal expressed not in slogans but in budgets and personnel actions.
When the Minneapolis police, prosecutors and courts stop “systematically oppressing people of color,” and when the schools offer excellent education for all children, from early childhood through a meaningful diploma, then things might actually be nice in Minnesota.