Race still plays a big part in who gets ahead in this country, and that stratification is very evident in postsecondary education. While improvements in access to education have resulted in increases in enrollment of students of color in recent years, racial disparities in degree completion still exist. And while race and income are commingled in this country, socioeconomic status does not completely explain why students of color are lagging behind their white counterparts. Data from the Department of Education show that 47 percent of students who receive Pell grants, a federal student aid program for low-income students, graduate within six years, a higher graduation rate than that of blacks and, until very recently, a higher rate for Latinos. When further disaggregating postsecondary data by gender, graduation rates for men of color in higher education lag behind not only those of white male students but also those of women of color. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute:
- College enrollment among African-American males grew at less than half the rate of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
- College enrollment of Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) males declined by 9 percent between 1990 and 2008, while enrollment among their female counterparts rose by 11 percent.
- College enrollment among Latino males grew at about two-thirds the rate of that of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
- In 2013, the percentage of males ages 25-29 who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher was 55 percent for AAPI students, 37 percent for whites, 17 percent for African-Americans and 13 percent for Latinos.
However, the vast majority of men of color persisting towards a postsecondary degree are doing so at community colleges. In “Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges,” the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that while men of color are underrepresented in higher education overall, those who enroll in college are more likely to attend a community college than a baccalaureate institution. The past 20 years of research on men of color tells us that the profile of these students can look a little different from their white counterparts. Men of color often delay enrollment, meaning they’ve been employed or participating in the workforce for a while before attending college, they are a little older when they return to school, and tend to be concentrated in developmental education courses at the start of their educational pathway – often because they have been out in the workforce for many years before returning to school.
In 2011, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) was established to address the role of community colleges in educating men of color. Since so much of the previous research is focused on outcome disparities of men of color at the university level, M2C3’s primary objective is to expand the research on how men of color experience community colleges. In addition, the center is focused on research, tools, and resources to help institutions improve institutional effectiveness through a series of discussions and workshops that use faculty and staff professional development to achieve equitable student outcomes.
M2C3 research reveals that the education of men of color need to go beyond addressing the socioeconomic factors that create barriers to success and must focus on intentional culturally relevant teaching and the development of a positive campus environment that acknowledges both the racial and gender identities of students. Assessments of male students of color and best practice research point to four key relationship strategies that yield successful outcomes for men of color and can be applied to any underserved population:
- Build relationships from an anti-deficit perspective. Men of color are seeking postsecondary education for the same reasons as other students. Convey high expectations verbally and non-verbally. Convey mutual respect and avoid unintentional microagressions—for example, assumptions of a lack of intelligence or criminality (i.e. cheating).
- Focus on positive messaging that conveys “you belong here” and “you are college material.” College campuses should create an environment that welcomes and engages men of color without singling them out. Praise men of color publically, but critique privately (so as not to reinforce the “you don’t belong here” mentality many students of color feel when attending college.) Validation should be specific to their coursework and work ethic—not personality traits or athleticism.
- Practice authentic care. Faculty should connect to students on an individual level and make time for students outside of class. Men of color have better graduation outcomes when they have authentic interactions with faculty on a regular basis.
- Implement intrusive interventions. Avoid the “approach me first” mentality. Men of color are less likely to seek out help. Structure help as part of the class by making office hours mandatory for all students. Check-in frequently with students to see if they have questions or concerns and connect them directly to resources or people who can help them in other departments on campus.
While the above strategies for faculty are general and foundational guidelines that have been shown to benefit underserved men of color, M2C3 also designs campus-specific strategies and workshops based on a series of assessments and conversations with all campus stakeholders. You can even contact M2C3 staff for an institutional-level assessment of instructional areas for your campus. Faculty’s scores are compared to scores of exemplar faculty members who have a demonstrated track record of success in teaching men of color. The instrument report highlights areas where professional development activities should be concentrated. In addition, you can also access webinars recordings on educating men of color here. These strategies—and the cultural shifts they require—are essential to make meaningful changes in racial disparities in postsecondary completion rates.
We are at a critical moment in early education. According to A Better Start: Why Diversity in Preschool Classrooms Matters, the recent surge in early childhood initiatives and the increasing diversity within the population of young children have yet to translate to diversity within the classroom. In order for all children to succeed regardless of race and class, we must see these investments through into the future.
In North Carolina, 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children under 6 live in poverty, compared to 44 percent and 46 percent of black and Hispanic or Latino children (US Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey). Even the overall success of investments and efforts to improve early childhood education programming and access has not addressed participation rates and quality of services along the aforementioned lines of economic and racial segregation. More must be done to incorporate diversity and instill equity into learning environments.
Source: CLASP calculations of American Community Survey data
Children’s peers are increasingly diverse. As the Center for Public Education explains, “Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population.” Economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools misrepresents the world these children will grow up in and it begins in U. S. preschools; only 17 percent of children are currently learning in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.
Children, particularly children of color, are aware of—and thus affected by—race as early as age four. At this developmental stage, they ask questions to inform their own behaviors and learn from their environment to understand the way the world works, according to Louise Derman-Sparks. As A Better Start notes, “Children with disparate skills may learn from each other in the daily interactions and play activities that typically characterize the preschool day.” This kind of interaction enriches language and vocabulary development and, according to A Better Start¸ even promotes cross-cultural learning. That’s why preschool is a significant supplement to the home environment of all children: though incoming math and language skills correlate to socioeconomic status (SES), children from low SES consistently perform better in math and language in the company of higher SES peers. A Better Start explains how classroom diversity can benefit higher SES, white students by reducing the prejudices and social isolation of children by race.
Getting that kind of head start on academic and social learning is a key foundation in an infrastructure of opportunity that works for children from day one. No matter how family demographics, ideologies, and resources may differ, parents share common values for their children. Providing families of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds access to the same high-quality early childhood education gives those children, full of potential, the opportunity to learn from each other rather than internalizing the “way the world works” through misleading cues like segregation.
MDC recently began work with the Kate B. Charitable Trust as the “activating agency” for Great Expectations, a major community-wide initiative of the Trust that aims to ensure that all young children in Forsyth County—with a special focus on those living in financially-disadvantaged families—meet age-appropriate developmental milestones in their first five years, enter kindergarten ready for school, and leave kindergarten fully ready for learning and life success.
The approach to Great Expectations centers on systems change with a strong commitment to creating ways to elevate the voices of low-SES parents and caregivers and parents/caregivers of color in the conversation about how to improve outcomes for their children. An improved system could increase availability and accessibility of high-quality child care classrooms for all families, regardless of SES and race. As more low-SES children and children of color enroll into childcare, more parents/caregivers will have the opportunity to share their vision for their child’s early education. Everyday experiences like story time and reading assignments could be transformed to show children their potential through stories from and about children from varying lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.
Through interactive exposure to diversity in play and in academic settings, children can turn their natural curiosity and sense of community into tools to form conceptions of equity—as they contextualize their identity with race and class. Doing so at an early age encourages the social responsibility and intuition children need to succeed and value the shared success of their peers—and that is essential to maintaining a productive and equitable society.
Today’s guest post on criminal justice comes to us from Abby Reimer, a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and a business minor at Kenan-Flagler. Incarceration disrupts the educational trajectory of young people, and erects barriers to employment and economic security. While funding for public education is cut in the South, state corrections spending continues to rise, exacerbating the challenge for communities trying to address low mobility.
In October 2015, President Obama headed to Charleston, W. Va., to launch a “criminal justice tour,” a high-profile spotlight on criminal justice reform across the country. It is significant that the tour started in the South, where the problems of America’s criminal justice system—racial inequity, harsh sentencing laws, and overcrowded prisons—are most visible and entrenched. In recent years, Southern states have joined the increasingly bipartisan effort to address prison overcrowding, high costs, and prisoner reintegration.
Like the rest of the country, the South has seen a significant drop in both violent and property crime during the last 20 years. From 2013 to 2014, the South saw a 5.9 percent drop in property crime and a 3 percent drop in violent crime, a slightly smaller decrease than the rest of the country. While decreasing, the South has a long history of being the U.S.’s most violent region. In 2012, the South accounted for 40.9 percent of violent crimes in the country, while its population makes up 37.4 percent of the country.
Nationwide, the drop in crime has been attributed to a smattering of factors: aging populations, decreased alcohol consumption and up to the mid-1990s, increased incarceration.
African Americans, in the nation as a whole and in the South, are overrepresented in all parts of the criminal justice system, from traffic stops to incarceration. In Alabama, Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, more than 60 percent of those serving life sentences are black, a rate shared by only four Northern states.
The South also carries the distinction of having the largest prison population in the country, almost doubling the incarceration rate in the Northeast. Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” incarcerating 1 in 75 adults, the highest rate in the world. However, prison populations have declined slightly in Southern states during the past few years, even as prison populations have grown in northern and western states.
Changes in Prison Population (2011-2014)
Source: Brennan Center for Justice
Criminal reform in tough-on-crime states
Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Alabama are policy leaders in reducing prison populations. The recent reforms show a path forward for conservative, traditionally “tough-on-crime” states to tackle criminal justice reform. Leaders in the state emphasized cost savings and “common-sense” reforms, while not addressing more politicized issues like racial inequity and the death penalty.
Mississippi, which still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, saw its prison population fall 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, with a 14 percent drop from 2013 to 2014 alone. The state passed a sweeping reform bill in April 2014, supported by a grant from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a partnership between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trust to help research criminal justice reform. The bill shortened the sentences for many property and drug crimes and suggested new sentencing recommendations for officers. The state also increased supervision of parolees, increased the number of prisoners freed on parole and opened technical rehabilitation centers, which housed parolees who violated terms of their parole rather than sending them back to prison. Conservatives in the state emphasized the financial impact: $266 million in savings over the next decade.
South Carolina’s prison population has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, and state spending on prisons has increased almost 500 percent since 1983. Faced with a projected growth in prison population and a $27 million Department of Corrections deficit, South Carolina passed a reform bill in 2010. The bill shortened sentences for some non-violent crimes, ended mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession and expanded prison alternatives and parole. From 2011 to 2014, crime dropped 14 percent and the prison population dropped by 6 percent.
Texas faced similar financial pressures in the mid-2000s. Prison population growth showed no signs of slowing down, and would have required spending $500 million on new prisons in 2007. The state responded by appropriating $241 million to prison alternatives including drug courts and substance abuse and mental illness treatment programs. In 2011, the Texas legislature passed two bills that shortened probations if parolees completed treatment programs and reducing prison sentences if prisoners completed educational programs. Texas saw a 12 percent drop in crime from 2011-2012 and a 3 percent drop in prison population.
The Republican-controlled government emphasized savings and assured conservatives the state was still “tough on crime.” In March 2014, Republican Gov. Rick Perry spoke about criminal justice reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), assuring the crowd that criminal justice reform was a mainstream conservative strategy.
“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” Perry asked. “Shut prisons down. Save that money. Texas is still tough on crime. Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody.”
Alabama is the most recent Southern state to tackle criminal justice reform. The state was faced with the same mix of budget constraints and booming prison populations, as well as lawsuits from The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Equal Justice Initiative contending that some state prisons did not meet constitutional standards. The Department of Justice backed up the claims, filing a report in 2014 that claimed that inmates at a women’s prison were subject to sexual abuse by male officers.
In May 2015, the state passed a Republican-sponsored bill that followed the strategy of Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi: reducing penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes, creating a new felony designation for some nonviolent offenses and prioritizing parole and parole supervision. Alabama also passed a bill expanding prison capacity. The reforms are estimated to save the state $380 million and reduce the prison population by 4,200 people.
The death penalty: part of the ‘Southern way of life’?
Southern states have been slower to change death penalty policy, which has largely become Southern in use. While the death penalty largely faded away from 1935-1972, the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia reinvigorated the death penalty as a “states’ rights” issue in the South, said Frank Baumgartner, who studies the death penalty and racial inequity in the criminal justice system at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Racial discrepancies in the death penalty still loom large. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 42 percent of defendants on death row were black and 43 percent were white, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. When the victim is a black male, the death penalty is rarely applied even when black men are the most common victims of homicide, Baumgartner said. A black man who kills a white woman is the most likely to be given the death penalty.
While death penalty reform or abolition hasn’t been backed by the same bipartisan push as prison or sentencing reform, there has been some movement on the issue, Baumgartner said. An upcoming Supreme Court case dealing with racial bias in juries may change the application of the death penalty, Baumgartner said. In North Carolina, for instance, of the 159 prisoners on death row, all-white juries sentenced 31 and another 38 had only one person of color on their juries.
“The death penalty has been politicized in the South to be part of the ‘Southern way of life,’ but it’s actually one of the ugliest reminders of the ‘Southern way of life,’ which is this great fear of the black man that might do something terrible to a white woman in the South,” Baumgartner said. “That fear is really strong, and politically powerful… It leads to an arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty really in a discriminatory manner, where some victims are more valuable than others.”
Crime and punishment looking forward
The South has long been a ‘tough on crime’ region with stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system. However, recent reforms in conservative states show an increasingly Republican-led push for lowering prison populations, changing sentencing laws and cutting costs. Bulging prison populations, drug law enforcement and high criminal-justice system costs will push more Southern states into reforms.
Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthen the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC has been holding enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence.
Even though MDC has roots in this area, like the Human Resources Development Program, the Rural Community College Initiative, and the Program for the Rural Carolinas our team has been fascinated to learn more about these counties. Coincidentally, two of our favorite news sources—CityLab and EdNC—have been talking about Warren County this month, and we want to share a little bit about what we’re learning about that county’s history of inequity and one way people there are building for a more equitable future.
Stretching along the Virginia border and the shores of Lake Kerr and Lake Gaston, Warren County remains distinctly rural despite I-85 running through it and its proximity to one of the state’s most economically dynamic metropolitan areas. The region’s economic history is archetypal North Carolina: tobacco and cotton farming, driven by slave-labor until the end of the Civil War. Tobacco and cotton are labor-intensive crops, and the soil in the area was well suited to their production. In 1860, 10,401 people in the county, or 66 percent of the total population, were enslaved African Americans. The slave population was twice that of the white population—the highest ratio in the state. When enslaved African Americans were freed at the end of the Civil War, many became sharecroppers in a system where land owners provided land and resources to croppers in exchange for a significant portion of the crop. The legacy of an agricultural economy, which created immense wealth for some by exploiting the labor of many others, and subsequent legalized segregation which barred African Americans from opportunity, presents unique challenges for broadening economic opportunity in the region today.
By the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and the legal, social, and economic rights of African Americans in the area were significantly constrained. The massive population shift of African Americans leaving the South, known as the Great Migration, was felt in Warren County: between 1950 and 1970, the African American population in the region decreased by 20 percent. While the prospect of jobs and upward mobility certainly pulled people to the North, many felt themselves pushed away from the communities they called home because of entrenched racism and legalized segregation.
After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances at upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, and particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier agricultural and manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 20 percent of adults in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher. The area also faces significant health challenges. According to County Health Rankings, Warren County ranks 92nd in North Carolina (out of 100) in an index of health factors, including health behavior, access to care, and social and economic factors. One-fifth of people were uninsured in 2015, almost twice the national average (though that figure is down from one-quarter in 2013). Nearly a quarter of all people are food insecure, according to Feeding America.
Despite its challenges—or because of them—the area has a strong history of community organizing and activism, particularly civil rights organizing. In the 1970s, Floyd McKissick led the development of Soul City, a planned multi-racial community with an explicit mission of black empowerment, profiled here by Brentin Mock of CityLab. Ultimately, the economic downturn and political opposition prevented Soul City’s completion. “Oh, it was visionary, it was bold, it had the concept though not the financial backing as it turned out, to be a stimulus to turn around that kind of a rural area,” said Eva Clayton in a 1989 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. Clayton, who in 1992 was North Carolina’s first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, worked in the Soul City administration in the 1970s. While Soul City did not flourish into the thriving community that McKissick and others envisioned, the infrastructure continues to be used, and it created organizing energy that continued in the region, as Mock discussed in another article last week. For example, in the early 1980s, when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources decided to build a PCB landfill in Warren County, the community responded with organized protests due to significant public health risks. Hundreds were arrested. Because the area was predominantly African American and low income, and the conditions at other sites would have been more environmentally responsible, the decision to locate the landfill there led Benjamin Chavis, who later became executive director of the NAACP, to start using the term “environmental racism.”
Today, local institutions and groups are still thinking creatively about how to broaden prosperity in the region and improve wellbeing. In an article this week for EdNC, Nation Hahn interviewed Gabriel Cummings, founder of Working Landscapes, an organization that is working to improve access to healthy food in Warren County. Cummings is thinking about more than just health; the organization also wants to improve local livelihoods:
When people think about farm-to-school work, they probably mostly think first about the benefits to children — health, education, etc. — and rightly so. But farm-to-school work can also be a powerful engine for economic development. In fact, that is why we got into it. We were interested in opening up new markets for small, local farmers. In Warren County and other rural counties of our region, the school system is the largest purchaser of food. However, the school system was not buying any food from local farmers, so it was having zero impact on the local agricultural economy. We set about changing that. Our farm-to-school supply chain is small, but already it has created employment both on and off the farm, and it has spurred capital investment through the redevelopment of a building in Warrenton that would otherwise be sitting empty. And that is just from chopped collards and cabbage!
Farming may have created many of this region’s long-standing inequities, but a new generation of leaders is thinking about how to turn the region’s history and assets into a more equitable future. Many of the challenges Warren County has faced are emblematic of Southern history. Reflecting on the story of a place—who started there, who left and why, who tried to reinvigorate it, who has benefited from opportunity, and who has been left behind by economic and social change—is essential work for all communities as they build an infrastructure of opportunity.
If you’ve ever been a working student trying to make a living to support your family and your education, you’ve probably had moments where one unexpected challenge after another makes you feel that success is impossible. You don’t know how you’ll make it through the next crisis—your car breaking down or your doctor calling with troubling test results. You just can’t handle making one more choice between two bad options: like missing work or missing class when your boss knows your schedule but says they need you to come in, or waiting a few more days to buy your kid a backpack for school or risking your rent check bouncing. The reason all of this feels so impossible, like the deck is stacked against you, is because it’s not just about you and your choices: it’s about the policies, institutional practices, and systems that make it harder for low-wealth people to get ahead. There are so many things out of your control that affect your path to success, like the scheduling system your employer uses, whether or not you are eligible for paid time off, the timing of courses offered by your college, the reliability of public transit, and the availability of financial aid. And those of us who want to improve economic mobility, or to move people from economic stress to stability, need to understand that context when we design programs and policies.
From my window today, I’m looking out at what could be considered a forest (a hedge, really, at the edge of a small woodland), but recent wind and rain have diminished the forest and left me with mostly trees. And since I’m looking for a metaphor for the importance of understanding the context of a system before adopting a programmatic solution, “missing the forest for the trees” came readily to mind, looking at these bare branches and chill blue sky. When it comes to how we shape responses to economic mobility issues—income inequality, school segregation, college completion—we often get so tied up in our focus on individual success (trees) that we lose sight of the impact of community systems of opportunity (forest).
The philosophy behind why you do the work and the current (and, often, the historical) context it’s happening in, matter. Here’s a great example of a philosophy that changes service delivery: LISC Financial Opportunity Centers. The FOCs—in communities across the country—employ an Integrated Services Model—that’s jargon for offering financial coaching and products (like IDAs to make saving more feasible), education and training, and income supports (like public benefits and tax credits) all in one place, in a sequenced flow that helps individuals move from financial stress to survival to stability:
Taken together, these three core services help move low- and moderate-income families along a continuum of improvements aimed at ultimately increasing their net income (monthly cash flow), credit score, long term job retention and net worth.
FOCs want interim milestones, but they are driven by a big end goal: net worth. And more of it for low-wealth families. At an FOC, they don’t stop at helping someone get emergency funds for utility payments to avoid eviction [TREE]. They don’t stop at providing training and support for a new better-paying job [STILL TREE]. They form a long-term relationship that helps their clients build wealth, like home ownership and retirement plans—because financial stability is the forest made up of all those really important trees.
This long-range relationship and a programmatic orientation that moves from stress to survival to stability is key, especially when you consider the extreme disparities in financial stability and wealth creation in the United States. Recent data from the Pew Research Center reveal that the median net worth of for white households ($141,900) is 13 times that of African-American households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. (This staggering gap inspired CFED’s creation of the Racial Wealth Divide Project.) In Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans , scholars from The New School, Duke Center for Social Equity, and Insight Center for Community Economic Development discuss how “an analysis of who holds America’s wealth makes clear how life outcomes can diverge radically, in particular for those subject to systemic historically rooted discrimination [FOREST], which is not related to the amount of personal effort exerted [TREE].” The analysis shows that neither income nor education is an equalizer when it comes to this wealth gap:
- The wealth gap persists at every income level, and “white families at the lowest end of the income distribution have a higher median wealth than middle-income blacks”
Source: Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain
- The wealth gap also persists at every level of education, and “for families with household heads that have a college degree, the typical white household has $180,500 in wealth while the typical Black household has $23,400”
Source: Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain
Less wealth mean less stability and more stress and struggle for black families, especially when it comes to investing in education, entrepreneurship, or retirement. The authors recommend a possible intervention—Child Trust Accounts—that would be based on the wealth (not income) of their parents. It’s an example of an intervention that takes into account the history and context of the issue being addressed—a short-term action with a long-term view, like the philosophy at the Financial Opportunity Centers. If we want to see real movement toward more equitable economic outcomes, that’s the kind of growth we need to cultivate.