Reconnections: "Stakes is High"

Kwesi Rollins
April 3, 2012

Part of our Reconnections blog series on disconnected youth.

A lyrical and literary look at how notes from the past reassert themselves today.

While channel surfing in a Seattle hotel room recently, I happened upon a gray-haired fellow playing folk guitar. As I listened, his lyrics stirred me. He was singing about his childhood friend, a young Latino high school dropout from Cupertino California. This friend ultimately joined the army, his solution for staying out of trouble. He died in Vietnam in 1967.  Could this story have ended differently if he had stayed in school?

A song from another era, but it brought me right to thinking about today. So many tragic stories of troubled youth have been put to music—literally soundtrack upon soundtrack of sorrows and missed opportunities. 

Much like varied lyrical twists, our language for describing the challenges facing boys of color has changed over time. Terms like “disconnected youth,” the  "opportunity gap,” and “the school to prison pipeline” have given us new ways to talk about negative conditions. 

These challenges often reflect realities we thought were long gone, like those in Ralph Ellison’s classic work Invisible Man or the conditions widely experienced by Black Americans under Jim Crow laws.

But of course the past isn't gone; new versions of old systems of discrimination reassert themselves as today’s opportunity gaps.  Systems that should be protecting our youth and preparing them to become productive adults too often end up shuttling them through a pipeline of unemployment, incarceration or worse.


Accurately Counting the "Invisible"

Two new books take a fresh look at conditions facing boys of color—and while their titles hearken back to the experiences of prior generations, their content is straight up current.

In the Seattle Times, columnist Jerry Large has a thoughtufl review of the book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, by sociologist Becky Pettit. Pettit points out that much of our sociological reports on Americans are based on studies like the monthly federal Current Population Survey, which gathers data only from people living in households, not men in prison. Because black men make up about 40 percent of the prison population, taking them out of the equation changes how we see black people as a group. It's enough, Large writes, to reverse our sense that  high school dropout rates are declining among black boys. 

Similarly, in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander suggests that “People of color are classified as "criminals", which allows the unleashing of a whole range of legal discrimination measures (in employment, housing, education, public benefits, voting rights, jury duty, etc.).”

It is no stretch to consider that today’s incarcerated man of color was yesterday’s disconnected youth. 

In fact, the school to prison pipeline is one of the most important civil rights challenges facing our nation today, according to the ACLU, which explains: “The pipeline encompasses the growing use of zero-tolerance discipline, school-based arrests, disciplinary alternative schools, and secured detention to marginalize our most at-risk youth and deny them access to education.”

Bias in the Systems

"The everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise."

- Sec. of Education Arne Duncan

Over 20 years of research has documented racial bias in schools and other social service systems. 

This is especially true for youth with mental health needs. For example, in a 1991 study of racial bias in the mental health system, the characteristics of youth placed in a psychiatric facility were compared with those of youth placed in a corrections facility. Despite similar scores on the Child Behavior Checklist, Black youth were more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Black peers.  Native American youth are also overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.

A March 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights—a report with the decidely unlyrical title of Part II of the 2009-10 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC)—finds that “minority students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers.” 

In response to this report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that "the undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise."

Going even deeper, The New York Times' March 6, 2012 article, Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests, reports that:

“Black and Hispanic students—particularly those with disabilities—are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion.”

Collaborating to build a Pipeline to Success 

On a more hopeful note, a number of successful efforts are addressing the opportunity gaps that often lead to youth being disconnected, and showing positive results.

In How Black Boys with Disabilities End up in Honors Classes While Others without Disabilities End up in Special Education, the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color asserts that: “Black males with and without disabilities can excel in schools that have adequate opportunities for diverse learners and a structure that supports personal and emotional growth and development”

A number of communities have found that increasing focus on cradle to career alignment of systems and supports along with an emphasis on providing quality early childhood learning experiences leads to improved outcomes for vulnerable youth across several indicators, including achievement.  

One example, the Community Schools strategy, is being utilized more and more across the country because children and their families are benefiting from deeper cross-sector collaboration and community engagement.  

We need to build on these successes.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to the pay the price of missed opportunity, wasted productivity and lost human lives.

“A skin not considered equal, a meteor has more rights than my people…”

These lyrics from a classic hip-hop song by De la Soul remind us that the ‘Stakes is High’.

De la Soul is right. They certainly are.

More from the Reconnections blog series:

Plugged In: The Escalera Program and Its Lasting Effects
Ana Hageage

Youth in the President's Budget
Kisha Bird

Half-Time in America: Time to Reclaim Disconnected Youth
Roberto Viramontes and Lindsay Torrico   

Full series 

 Share your ideas in the comment section below or to suggest a story for this series, email Caitlin Johnson, managing editor of SparkAction.

Kwesi Rollins is the director of leadership programs with the Institute for Educational Leadership, where he oversees programs to develop and support leaders with a particular emphasis on family and community engagement, early childhood education and community-based leadership development.  He has years of experience working with local communities and state agencies to improve multi-agency service delivery systems supporting children, youth and families. Working with young people is also a personal passion for Kwesi: among many honors, has been recognized as the Big Brother of the Year in the District of Columbia and is an ex-officio member of the Board of Directors of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the National Capitol Area, serving for seven years as Vice-President for Program Services.  You can email him at

We invite you to share your thoughts with guest blogger Kwesi Rollins directory or in the Comment section below.

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Very interesting blog, Kwesi. It reminds me of the history of the Jim Crow era in the south after the Civil War when black men were arrested and imprisoned on bogus or minimal charges in order to provide free or cheap labor for white farmers (prisoners were "rented" out for labor). There was a PBS special on this side of the Jim Crow era recently - it lasted until World War II, when black men could join the army and find a way out of the system.

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. It&;s not easy to weave together a broad historical perspective, current data, and a clear and compelling call to action. You provide a good model for doing just that.

Hi Kwesi,
First, thank you for highlighting the books, I&;ll put them on my book list. Secondly, what really struck me (not for the first time) reading through this piece, is the sheer number of unfortunate circumstances and realities that boys of color may face today. Structural bias in the system is just one example, but the most frustrating sometimes for me; systems should not work against those who face the most obstacles. Still, you offer a glimmer of hope in closing, which makes me wonder what it will take for everyone who contributes to the &;system&; to recognize it is probably within our collective capacity to advocate for a sustainable shift moving forward.

Its really bad news . "Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion".