The New Jim Crow Comes to UC

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Cincinnati is not known as a city with stellar racial politics. From the 2001 uprising following a string of police murders of young black men culminating in the killing of unarmed 19 year old Timothy Thomas to the more recent discovery that the highly gentrified, increasingly segregated, area of Over-the-Rhine is home to the greatest level of income disparity in the country (according to census data), it is clear that there is not only still a long way to go, but also that things may be getting worse.

A new admissions policy at the University of Cincinnati is characteristic of the all encompassing system of institutionalized racism that Michelle Alexander wrote about in her book, “The New Jim Crow” released in 2010. UC is switching to the Common Application, a one-size-fits-all admissions application used by hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide, which requires member institutions to ask for a list of both misdemeanor and felony convictions.

According to Alexander, a new form of legal discrimination has emerged since the end of the civil rights movement and the dominance of electoral and legislative politics. While political forces have rightly defended institutions like affirmative action, they have not remained vigilant as other kinds of racism have emerged in society. Ex-criminals are faced with a number of issues after they are convicted which make it difficult, if not impossible, to vote in elections, find housing, work, food assistance, medical care, and other essentials. Alexander points out that African Americans, especially young males, have been disproportionately charged, convicted and jailed under the War on Drugs. This system of incarceration and lingering consequences, while claiming to be unbiased, actually creates a situation similar to the explicitly racist Jim Crow laws that dominated race relations in the South from reconstruction the civil rights era.

While the university may do what it wants with the information on convictions, a document sent from the UC admissions office to the faculty senate, who were discussing the switch in February, includes some indication that it will be used in a review of prospective students: “For the colleges, guidelines would need to be established regarding qualitative factors that can be used to either positively or negatively impact admissions consideration by the reviewers.” 1 This statement can mean a number of things, the new information could be used to determine whether students may be admitted into certain programs (or the university at all), be able to live in dorms, or take part in other activities — to essentially be full members of the university community, academically and otherwise. There is no question, however, that the information will be used; the branch campuses will not switch to the common application with the main campus, but they will be adding the question about convictions to their applications.

Taken to the extreme, the effects could be devastating for the university that fetishizes its “diversity” and the fact that it is an “urban campus.” UC has had its share of racial issues in the past decade. Most recently, the University Police tased and killed Everette Howard, a black high school graduate who was on campus for a summer program before going to college in Tennessee. The documents released surrounding the tasing were initially heavily redacted and, possibly because of a lack of a strong organized public outcry, the officer who tased Howard is still on the force; the chief of the university police retired months after the incident, however, this didn’t seem to have any connection with the death.

UC’s actual diversity initiatives unfortunately seem to be falling short of their own low goals. Available demographic data indicated African Americans have consistently decreased as a percentage (11.2 percent to 8.9 percent) of the student population over the last 9 years that statistics are available for (2003 to 2011). This is as overall enrollment has reached new records. Applications from black prospective students have also decreased after peaking in 2009. In 2010 the percentage of staff that is African American stood at the lowest point since at least 2003. 2

Recently, one repeatedly cited solution that the university administration has put forward to the problem of falling diversity is to add an admissions representative in the Chicago area to increase out of state applications. Such a step, along with the new admissions requirements seems to take one step forward and two steps back. It is unclear if diversity is the actual goal of the admissions representative in Chicago, it seems equally likely that it would be a strategy to help patch up the crumbling budget, as any student enrolling from that area would pay out of state tuition, much higher than the skyrocketing rate that Ohio residents pay to go to the public university.

The common application added the question about convictions in 2006, codifying discrimination into the last place where, not only the ruling class, but the general public, has repeatedly told the least fortunate to turn to in order to get ahead. Paul Street calls mass incarceration a “self fulfilling prophecy”, noting a number of ironies embedded in the way society operates, chief among them the inverse relationship between wages and crime. Street writes, “according to one estimate, a 10 percent decrease in wages is associated with a 10 to 20 percent increase in the likelihood of incarceration.” 3 Couple this with the realities of capitalism: that more education is directly related to a higher wage and a total lifetime salary and that African Americans can expect to earn much less than white counterparts over the course of their lifetime. 4

The contradictions are rampant: more education is the only way to guarantee a higher wage, but, somewhat paradoxically, the system puts in place barriers to enrollment, which will only promote lower wages and higher crime.

It would seem that capitalism is incapable of promoting any sort of achievement among African Americans. African Americans in Ohio skew toward the lower end of educational achievement (some high school, high school graduate, or some college or associate’s degree) compared to whites. 5 Additionally, black educational attainment for males aged 25-34 is at the lowest level since the generation born before civil rights. 6

Under capitalism, it is desirable to have a class of low paid workers, if that class is further divided along racial lines, all the better. In 2009, the median net worth of black households was less than half of what it was in 2005, doubling the tenfold gap between black and white households to a twentyfold difference, according to the Pew Research Center. 7 This also comes at a time when the cost of education is increasing at an ever growing rate; public colleges and universities were the first targets for austerity after the 2008 recession and continue to be hit hard by budget cuts. In addition to enacting pay freezes, firing faculty and staff, and severely limiting the number of tenured professorships, these institutions have passed the burden onto the backs of the students themselves.

It is necessary to understand the societal significance of the criminal justice system and to realize the limitations of the broader system that has a long history of racism and discrimination. In Ohio, black men had a 640 percent higher rate of imprisonment than white men in 2009. 8 After the 2001 uprisings, a collaborative agreement with black activist leaders mandated audits of the Cincinnati police over the course of the next several years. These audits showed, time and time again, that traffic stops and other searches disproportionately affected the black community (blacks were stopped as much as two times more often), even though the hit rate, that is, the rate that contraband was found, was the same as white citizens. 9 A forthcoming paper from Francis T Cullen and John Paul Wright of, interestingly enough, the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Criminal Justice Research makes no illusions to the state of young black offenders in a town like Cincinnati, noting that “[being] a minority, especially from an inner-city community, dramatically increases one’s prospects of significant contact with the criminal justice system.” Cullen and Wright conclude their paper by calling for society to take measures to save youths from a life of crime–denying educational opportunities based on previous convictions seems counterproductive given the previously referred to correlation of education, wages, and crime.  10

Important to Alexander’s thesis is the apparent colorblindness of the criminal justice system. Alexander explains that the colorblindness is actually cover for the the system’s structure of racism. It is interesting to note that the changes to UC’s admissions policies are coming just as the university switches to a “holistic review” process for determining admission, seemingly throwing out any “blindness” when it comes to choosing new students. The criminal justice system, acting as the agent of the New Jim Crow, is a tool to maintain an attractive social order that leaves poor blacks at the lowest rung of the ladder. We should not make the claim that UC’s admissions department is racist, that is an unwarranted accusation, however, we should realize that asking for conviction information on applications only serves the aims of the ruling class: to make it harder, if not impossible, for the working class to attain a good schooling (at any level–not just college) and, conversely, to only allow those of the right pedigree to attain a higher education.

The vigilance of NGO’s and others who seek to protect the gains of the civil rights movement is not enough to counter the gradual spread of discrimination in other areas. On the other hand, campaigns that spring forth as a reaction to a single case of injustice and fold at the close, good or bad, do not have the lasting effect needed to effectively combat all instances inequality and racism. Cincinnati’s characteristic lack of a lasting, proactive, anti-racist movement, made up of every kind of person, means racist policies like the New Jim Crow can and will always manifest themselves, in our criminal justice system, on our police force, and now, in our schools.

Notes:

  1. UC Faculty Senate Notes, February 9th 2012 avalable at: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/facultysenate/senate/docs/facultysenate/fspreparatorypackets/FS_prepack_February_9_2012.pdf
  2. Various reports. Available at: http://www.uc.edu/president/reportcard.html
  3. Paul Street, “The Vicious Cycle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation” Chicago Urban League, retrieved from: http://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/ocjs_Prisonersin2009.pdf: 38
  4. Andrew Sum,Ishwar Khatiwada, Joseph McLaughlin and Paulo Tobar, “The Educational Attainment of the Nation’s Young Black Men and Their Recent Labor Market Experiences: What Can Be Done to Improve Their Future Labor Market and Educational Prospects?” Center for Labor Market Studies Northeastern University Boston, Massachusetts, 2007: 12.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Detailed Tables, Table 201, Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN Metro Area, Educational Attainment, Black or African American alone or in combination with one or more other races, White alone.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2011.
  7. Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, 7-26-2011.
  8. Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services, “Prisoners in 2009,” Retrieved from: http://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/ocjs_Prisonersin2009.pdf: 3
  9. Ohio ACLU. “Appendix by ACLU to Five Year Rand Report,” 2009 Retrieved from: http://www.acluohio.org/issues/PolicePractices/CincinnatiAgreement/AppendixByACLUToYear5RandReport.pdf: 2
  10. Francis T. Cullen and John Paul Wright. “CRIMINAL JUSTICE IN THE LIVES OF AMERICAN ADOLESCENTS: CHOOSING THE FUTURE,” 2011, Retrieved from: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/ccjr/docs/articles/wright_articles/CJ_IN_LIVES.pdf: 4, 46