David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

A Case Study in Urban Exclusion

Before six Baltimore police officers were indicted last week in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in the custody of police, sections of this city mired in economic stagnation and beset by social disparities were the scenes of mass rioting reminiscent of Newark in 1967.

President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were asked to comment on disquieting images of mostly young black men looting and setting local businesses on fire, jumping on the hoods of abandoned and burnt out police cars, and confronting police officers with rocks and bottles. Neither minced words. Both referred to the rioters as “thugs” with the President expressing disappointment that peaceful protests of long-standing complaints of police mistreatment and brutality had given way to “inexcusable” criminal behavior.

Baltimore’s black mayor would later tell reporters that she regretted using the word “thug” to describe some of the protesters. Most likely the mayor was motivated by concerns that her words would validate the media’s depiction of young black men in the unflattering light that has become all too common in American culture.

Criminalization of African-Americans

In the minds of many Americans there is no distinction between the term “thug” and black criminal. Indeed, words such as “thug,” “hood,” “predator,” youth,” are now synonymous with violent, black lawlessness and have been generalized to most black people living in poor communities. In The Condemnation of Blackness, Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that Jim Crow-era narratives of deviant blackness amounted to wholesale criminalization legitimated by social science. Whether we accept it or not, the criminalization of African-Americans has been culturally ingrained.

Today, relative calm has been restored to the streets of Baltimore; a curfew has been lifted, the National Guard has been removed and there is hope that those responsible for Mr. Gray’s death will be held accountable.

Yet the larger battle looming for Baltimore, and cities like it with large communities of color living in economically-distressed pockets, is making sure the dehumanizing portrait of black citizens these episodes provoke don’t become excuses for maintaining the status quo.

The hope is that Mr. Gray’s death compels a broader public discussion – among the 2016 presidential candidates in particular – of the social structural factors that have devastated poor black and brown communities. Factors such as the lack of decent housing, limited access to meaningful educational opportunities and living wage employment are at the heart of Baltimore’s problems. These are the barriers to full participation in American society that directly contribute to economic and social disparities that result in criminal justice involvement.

Unable to participate in the living wage labor force, young black men and, increasingly, women have been pushed into the prison system. The statistics are too familiar: 2.2 million persons are in the nation’s prisons and jails – 35.7 percent are black and 21.6 percent are Hispanic – close to 60 percent of color. One-third of Maryland’s residents in the state prisons are from the city of Baltimore.

Fair Access to Education Act

We can’t let this go on. Higher education is incredibly important in helping individuals ensure a decent economic future for themselves and their families. We can’t allow our systems to hold our young people back from their chance at the American Dream, even if that dream appears increasingly out of reach these days.

Unless our colleges make a significant effort to change their application processes, though, thousands and thousands will be discouraged from reaching that dream. Why? Because a fair proportion of our nation’s colleges currently require applicants to discuss and provide information about any arrest or conviction they may have had. Questions about arrest and conviction history are not the end of the story, though. Many schools put applicants who’ve answered “yes” to the arrest/conviction question through a gauntlet in order to be admitted.

The entire process is so off-putting, start to finish, that many applicants don’t complete it. And as you can imagine, this has a serious racial impact. It furthers segregation, and it discourages young people from living their best lives. You don’t have to look far for proof of this problem: a recent study by the Center for Community Alternatives provides sobering stories and statistics. The study found that at the State University of New York (SUNY), nearly two out of every three applicants who check “yes” to the felony conviction question do not complete it and are never considered for admission.

It’s time to change this reality. A good first step would be enactment of the Fair Access to Education Act (A3363/S0969), a bill now pending before the New York State Legislature. It would prohibit New York colleges and universities from asking about or considering an applicant’s past arrests or convictions during the application and admission decision-making process.

We know criminal history screening policies and procedures disproportionately hurt African-American applicants. Rather than ask about a person’s criminality, we should remove systemic social and economic exclusionary policies that stand in the way of people achieving economic mobility and living better lives.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org