Racial Power Imbalances in Ferguson Start Early

Look at what’s happening to black kids in the area’s schools.

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Stephanie Stamm and Janell Ross
Aug. 22, 2014, 11:04 a.m.

As a po­lice shoot­ing claimed the life of Mi­chael Brown, an un­armed black teen­ager in Fer­guson, Mo., spark­ing peace­ful protests, in­ter­mit­tent loot­ing, and a pub­lic dis­play of mil­it­ar­ized poli­cing in an­oth­er Mid­west­ern city, Fer­guson of­fi­cials have pro­fessed ut­ter shock and sur­prise. The city’s may­or has de­scribed Fer­guson as a place where “there is no ra­cial di­vide.” The city’s vir­tu­ally all-white power struc­ture and po­lice force have already garnered sub­stan­tial at­ten­tion. But a look in­side the Fer­guson-Floris­sant School Dis­trict, the dis­trict serving most of Fer­guson’s stu­dents, also high­lights the kinds of con­di­tions that have helped this ma­jor­ity-black city re­main the sort of com­munity about which the Kern­er Com­mis­sion warned.

Between 1965 and 1968, sporad­ic ri­ots broke out in some of the na­tion’s largest cit­ies. In Ju­ly 1967, a po­lice raid on an un­li­censed, after-hours De­troit bar lead to a series of con­front­a­tions, ar­rests, and fi­nally an all-out ri­ot.

The situ­ation was so troub­ling that Pres­id­ent John­son asked a group of ex­perts to ex­am­ine the causes of grow­ing mu­ni­cip­al un­rest. Known as the Kern­er Com­mis­sion, the group pub­lished a re­port in 1967 show­ing that in nearly every com­munity, ri­ots had oc­curred when white po­lice forces re­lied on al­most un­checked force and fear to main­tain or­der.

In these same com­munit­ies, black ac­cess to edu­ca­tion­al and eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies or loc­al policy-mak­ing bod­ies could only be de­scribed as lim­ited to nonex­ist­ent. To­geth­er, these con­di­tions had cre­ated a ready-to-boil-over level of frus­tra­tion in black com­munit­ies. In the years since the com­mis­sion’s re­port, the polit­ic­al will and pub­lic sup­port for pro­grams aimed at ad­dress­ing these dis­par­it­ies has waned in al­most every arena save one: edu­ca­tion.

Demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. While black students make up three-quarters of the student population in the Ferguson-Florissant school district, every single student arrested in the schools in 2011-12 was black.  National Journal

Dur­ing the 2011-12 school year, the most re­cent peri­od for which de­tailed data are avail­able, the Fer­guson-Floris­sant school dis­trict re­por­ted that 77 per­cent of its stu­dents were black and 15.6 per­cent white. An­oth­er 2.3 per­cent of stu­dents were His­pan­ic and 0.7 per­cent Asi­an or Nat­ive Amer­ic­an. 

But en­roll­ment in the dis­trict’s Gif­ted and Tal­en­ted pro­gram looks quite dif­fer­ent. In fact, only about 35 per­cent of the stu­dents en­rolled in these pro­grams are black, while 48 per­cent are white. 

Black stu­dents were, however, overrep­res­en­ted when it came to dis­cip­line. 

A look at dis­cip­line fig­ures in Fer­guson-Floris­sant schools shows that black stu­dents make up nearly 88 per­cent of the nondis­abled kids placed in in-school sus­pen­sion and 87 per­cent of nondis­abled kids sus­pen­ded and sent home.

And when it comes to the most ser­i­ous form of dis­cip­line avail­able to school of­fi­cials — sum­mon­ing po­lice to make an ar­rest — data show that this rem­edy was only ap­plied to black stu­dents. Over­all, the share of nondis­abled stu­dents ar­res­ted is small — just 51 out of 13,234 stu­dents in the school dis­trict. But among those sub­ject to a school-re­lated ar­rest (usu­ally after a fight), 100 per­cent — all 51 of them — were black. And al­most all of them, just over 88 per­cent, were black boys. 

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