Why #BlackLivesMatter – in Arkansas too

We’ve seen the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag plastered all over social media for the past several months. But what does this actually mean?  It means that ALL lives, including Black lives, matter. It means that when our economy leaves one group behind, we can’t ignore the problem any longer. It means we should all be concerned when social and economic issues – such as discrimination, unfair wages, unemployment, graduation rates, and school discipline policies — hurt some groups disproportionately and lessens their chances of reaching “the American dream.” We prosper as a state and our nation thrives when every person succeeds.

Last week, the Schott Foundation released its biennial report: “Black Lives Matter” as a way to highlight barriers of educational opportunity for Black and Latino males.  Several weeks prior, the African American Policy Forum also released a report focused on issues facing Black girls and educational achievement entitled, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected.”

Both reports are important because they shift the conversation from discussing the back end problems (like criminal activity and prison rates of Black and Latino students) to a focus on front end preventative solutions (like increasing reading and math proficiency, raising high school graduation rates and getting higher education degrees/ certifications).

Arkansas is guilty of focusing on the back end problems rather than investing in the proven front end solutions that fix the problem.  Over the past several months, Arkansas’s prison crisis has climbed high on the priority list of policy issues.  We devote nearly $400 million dollars of our state’s general revenue towards locking people up and our prisons are over capacity. The number of folks we continue to place in prison continues to skyrocket not only in our state but nationwide; so we’ll just keep throwing more and more money into this black hole that is our prison system each year.

We know that absence from the classroom, being behind academically, and harsh discipline methods increase a student’s likelihood of dropping out and/or getting involved in criminal activity, widen the opportunity gap even further, and limit the student’s chances of succeeding thereafter. Arkansas contributes to this problem because:

  • Black male students are suspended three times more often than their white and Latino counterparts in Arkansas and Black girls nearly five times more often than their white counterparts.
  • Black students in Arkansas score significantly lower (25 percentage points lower) than their white counterparts in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams
  • Black male graduation rate is 12% lower than that of white male graduates in Arkansas, where 62% of Black males graduate high school and 74% of white males graduate

Although we know those alarming facts, we also know that things like attending pre-K, reading on grade level, graduating high school, and attaining a college degree would raise a student’s chances of getting better jobs and decrease the likelihood of getting into criminal activity.  So, we must ask our elected officials:

  • Why aren’t we investing in after school and summer programs that give children the extra help they need to be proficient?
  • Why is it hard to find money to make sure that our pre-K programs remain high quality – especially when everyone claims that pre-K is “important” and a “priority”?
  • Why aren’t we implementing restorative justice techniques to keep kids in the classroom and teach them to work through problems instead of suspending them?
  • Why are we talking about adding more prison beds in Arkansas when we have the choice to invest in our youth to keep them from ever having to see one in their lifetime?

The Schott Foundation also makes the case for investing in Black men as a means of improving our state’s economy. In this video, they argue that Black men are an un-tapped resource because when they graduate from high school with a solid foundation:

  • They serve our country (1 in 4 Black men have served in the military)
  • They earn college degrees (over 1 million Black men are in college now and 2.5 million of them have degrees)
  • They build new businesses at a higher rate than other groups
  • They contribute to charity more than the average American household (by 25%)

This is the information that we must share with Governor Hutchinson and the members of our General Assembly. Tell them that if we’re TRULY about fiscal responsibility and efficiency, we would invest in PEOPLE over prisons so that we can change what leads to more prison beds, improve economic sufficiency and narrow the opportunity gap in return.