Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The School to Prison Pipeline

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As euphoric images of post-racial unity from the Democratic National Convention recede, it is worth recalling the heady sentiments of the 2004 convention speech which launched Barack Obama into the public eye. Proclaiming that there was no “black, white, Latino or Asian America” just the United States of America, Obama captured the imagination of a white Democratic electorate weary of the messy racial dust-ups of the Rainbow Coalition era. The historic nomination of Obama in the 45 year anniversary of King’s "I Have a Dream" speech has been embraced by some as a full circle realization of a future of black and white children holding hands. Yet in all of the Convention's Americana electionese there was nary a word about the fact that much of America’s future is being warehoused in prisons. If we just waved a magic wand a black South L.A. high school student would enter the ninth grade with the same access and cultural affirmation as a working class white child from, say, Scranton, PA. If we just waved a magic wand that same child would go through four years knowing that the rhetoric of “one America” is more than a seductive fantasy belying the prison pipeline that urban youth are initiated into when they are bounced out of school for discipline problems. If we just waved a magic wand none of the students in my high school classes would stand during a discussion icebreaker when asked if they have a friend or relative who is either on parole or currently incarcerated. Often deep into their row by row cliques of playing the dozens, disguising their intelligence and vulnerability, black and Latino ninth and tenth grade boys who were otherwise bashful about speaking out in class related that they were routinely harassed as gang members or drug dealers in encounters with the police. Many of them have internalized this treatment as part of a soul devouring male rite of passage. But having been subjected to racial profiling, juvenile detention and harassment on their campuses, the bond of criminalization is shared by both black and brown students who sit side by side yet may otherwise be miles apart in their cultural outlook. With precious few resources inside the classroom that educate them about their rich shared history and shared struggle, many black and brown students are united by the crucible of living in occupied communities. Occupied communities that are not just paramilitarized by law enforcement but by the regime of mass media that destroys the self-images of youth of color.

With one of the most incarcerated populations on the planet, California voters are now being asked to consider yet another proposition that would further criminalize youth of color. The Runner Initiative, or Proposition 6, has been targeted by youth justice and civil rights organizations across the state for its proposed diversion of funding from education and social services to more incarceration and sentencing for youth. The passage of this initiative would have a devastating effect on black and Latino communities already laid waste by the prison industrial complex. But as the law and order right becomes more strident similar initiatives will crop up nationwide.

It remains to be seen whether an Obama administration would redress the national disgrace of the school to prison pipeline. Certainly this is the real twenty first century challenge of King’s legacy.

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