Jena 6 Case Highlights Racial Disparity in American Justice

'We are the Jena Six," read a demonstrator's T-shirt, as tens of thousands gathered in Jena, La., to protest the treatment of the Jena 6. Last week, Mychal Bell was released from prison after serving nine months for participating in a schoolyard fight. The reaction of African Americans caught the country by surprise, but it reflects the growing sense that our children are at risk and must be defended.

Nearly a decade ago, Downstate Decatur was in the spotlight. There, "zero tolerance" for misbehavior in school had been harshly applied to African-American students, as opposed to white students. The ensuing protests led the Clinton administration to launch a series of studies on student discipline.

The latest results by the Department of Education show that young black students, particularly boys, are much more likely to be disciplined severely -- suspended or expelled -- than white or Asian or even Hispanic students. A young African-American boy in a New Jersey public school is 60 times as likely as a white student to be expelled. The national average is that African Americans face serious discipline more than three times the rate of white students.

What causes this? Part of it can be related to poverty or class. Poor students of all races -- usually measured by those who qualify for the school lunch program -- are more likely to face school discipline than middle- or upper-income students. That's not surprising -- poorer students are less likely to be prepared when they enter school, more likely to come from broken homes, less likely to have parents who are involved in the school.

But even after one adjusts for income or class, young African Americans are still disciplined at a significantly higher rate than others. The pre-eminent scholar on this question is Russell Skiba of Indiana University. His study, "The Color of Discipline," published in 2000 in the wake of the Decatur protests, reviewed all existing studies and did independent research. He found conclusively that, once adjusted for income, African-American students did not misbehave significantly more than others, but faced far more harsh discipline when they did misbehave. They were more likely to face corporal punishment, more likely to be sent to the principal's office, more likely to be suspended or expelled.

Part of this comes from fear. A whole right-wing campaign geared up in the 1980s warning about a generation of "predator children" -- dangerous kids who would terrorize society and had to be locked up. Zero tolerance, charging and sentencing children as adults, and harsher penalties all increased. Part is a function of old-fashioned discrimination. The disparity between white and black sentencing, according to Professor Skiba, tends to be worse in states where African Americans are a smaller part of the population. Call it "structural inequity," he says, or call it "institutional racism."

Many tend to deny this problem exists. They assume African-American children are more prone to misbehave and more likely to be violent. But as the Jena demonstrations show, denial won't work. This problem of discriminatory discipline is real, widespread and destructive to young African Americans.

A record of suspension or expulsion is, in essence, a ticket to jail. Blacks are facing a school-to-prison pipeline that is destroying lives that we should be looking to save. And in too many states, a prison-industrial complex is growing up that has an economic stake in greater incarceration. Too often, young African-American men are the victims of this system.

"We are all the Jena 6." The demonstrations surprised the mainstream media, which didn't see them coming. And they are unlikely to go away. Worried African-American parents across the country are beginning a new movement for civil rights, this one focused on saving the children.

(c) 2007 Sun-Times News Group

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