Racial Justice

Education Not Incarceration: Rejecting the Criminalization of Communities of Color

Education Not Incarceration: Rejecting the Criminalization of Communities of Color
The Sankofa symbolizes the importance of learning from the past.

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind… We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

More than 2 million people are held in jail, prison and detention in the United States. The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2016 (Resolution 3379) notes that “from 1970 to 2009 the US prison population grew more than 700 percent” and “with only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States incarcerates 25 percent of all prisoners in the world.”

We are not all feeling the weight equally. The NAACP notes that African-American incarceration rates are more than five times those of white incarceration rates. Meanwhile, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (2000) showed that while “white youth aged 12-17 are more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth.” In other words, white youth are committing more drug crimes than African-American youth but are arrested and incarcerated far less. This is a result of the ongoing criminalization of communities of color.

The Rise of Mass Incarceration as the New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, explains how mass incarceration has emerged over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as a new form of racist power and control. During the Civil Rights Movement, she writes, “conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.” Starting in the 1970s, researchers discovered that “racial attitudes – not crime rates or likelihood of victimization – are an important determinant of white support for ‘get tough on crime’....” By the late 1980s, politicians of both parties were pushing for harsher and harsher penalties, escalating the war on drugs and the criminalization of communities of color. By 1996, the U.S. government was spending twice as much on the penal system as it was on welfare or food stamps. Under President Clinton, funding for public housing was cut by 61 percent, while funding for corrections was increased by 171 percent, “‘effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor,’” Alexander writes. The increase in funding for prison was also seen at the state level. The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference reports that in the 30 years between 1987 and 2007, spending on higher education increased by only 21 percent, while spending on corrections increased by an astonishing 127 percent.

Over the last half-century, “get tough on crime” language has become a key means to mobilize white racism against communities of color. As readers of the New Testament, we remember that many leaders of the early church, from Paul to Jesus himself, were considered criminals deserving death for disturbing the unjust “law and order” of their own day.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

In 1994, in response to several tragic incidents of gun violence at school, Congress passed the Gun-Free School Act (GFSA). It required that any student who brought a weapon to school face expulsion for a year or more. However, many individual states, eager to bring the tough-on-crime approach to the classroom, took the law a step further, creating harsh penalties for a variety of lesser offenses as well. Many schools implemented “zero tolerance” policies. Meanwhile, the relationship between schools and the criminal justice system grew closer through the employment of school resource officers, among other strategies.

Unsurprisingly, deep racial disparities quickly developed in the application of school discipline and “zero tolerance.” Only 16 percent of female students are black, but more than 1 in three girls arrested at school are black. Children of color face much stiffer punishments than white children, even for very minor misbehavior. Monique Morris, in Pushout (a 2018 UMW Reading Program Selection), shares some stories of what the school-to-prison pipeline means in the lives of black girls and young women today. “In May 2013, Ashlynn Avery, a 16-year-old diabetic girl in Alabama, fell asleep while reading Huckleberry Finn during her in-school suspension. When she did not respond, the suspension supervisor allegedly threw a book at her and ordered her to leave the classroom. As she was leaving the room, a police officer allegedly slammed her face into a file cabinet and then arrested her.”

African-American Girls

Suspensions and expulsions particularly feed the school-to-prison pipeline for black girls. A joint report from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Women’s Law Center found that during the 2011-2012 school year, 12 percent of all African-American girls and young women were suspended, a rate that is six times higher than white girls and young women. A girl describes her experience with zero-tolerance discipline in the book Pushout this way: “If somebody fights in [school name omitted], that’s ten days automatic suspension… That’s two weeks of school that you already missed, and so now you’re playing catch-up. So that’s already unfair. But when you get into a fight, they don’t solve the situation. They just say, ‘You go home for ten days, and you go home for ten days’…  instead of trying to really figure out why did y’all fight and what’s going on.” In other words, the system is focused on punitive, not restorative, justice.

This isn’t only impacting black girls in their adolescence; Kindergartners are caught in the pipeline, too. More and more frequently, we hear news stories of 6-year-old black girls arrested for in-class tantrums, like Desre’e Watson (in 2007 in Florida) and Salecia Johnson (in 2012 in Georgia). The Washington Post writes that data from the 2013-2014 school year shows that “Black girls represent 20 percent of female preschool enrollment, but 54 percent of female preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.”

Looking Back and Moving Forward

This month, we celebrate the many who have made a way where there was none, leading the path of black freedom in the United States. Let us call their names with praise and thanksgiving, for they have been, truly, “doers of the Word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

But as we celebrate, let us remember, too, how far there is to go. Too many black children and young adults suffer under the new Jim Crow — mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Let us recommit ourselves to the ongoing work. What will be your next step?

Emily Jones is executive for Racial Justice for United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 1/31/2018 12:00:00 AM
Give Thanks. Give Now.

Suggested Pages:

*Racial Justice and Mass Incarceration

*Black History Month

*Issue Priorities 2016-2020

*Info Alert: Officers, Schools and Institutional Racism

Learn More: 

  • Join Michelle Alexander at a Town Hall forum at this year’s UMW Assembly.
  • Read the United Methodist Church’s Resolution 3379, “Stop Criminalizing Communities of Color in the United States,” and Resolution 3422, “Speaking Out for Compassion: Transforming the Context of Hate in the United States” in The Book of Resolutions.
  • If you missed the United Methodist Women’s webinar, “Mass Incarceration 101,” you can still view it here, alongside the blog post, “Ending Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Call to Faith Communities.”

Take Action:

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

—James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” United Methodist Hymnal