Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.

Posts about Education and literacy

'No Justice, No Peace' in Ferguson and Across America

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: November 25, 2014 - 6:03 AM

                                               "They dress the wound of my people
                                                   as though it were not serious.
                                                      ‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
                                        when there is no peace." -Jeremiah 6:14 (NIV)

After learning that the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed teen Mike Brown, I felt like running in the streets and screaming at the top of my lungs. I was not surprised by the decision, and yet I longed for an outlet to demonstrate the rage that I felt in that moment, knowing that no black mother's son is safe from a similar fate in America. The problem is deep and it is systemic.

Irrational fear of black men                                                                                                            

Our sons are perpetually typecast into a role that they unwittingly inherited as being evil, scary, large, dangerous, menacing, and "up to no good." This narrative has been used for centuries to justify slavery, untold violence, brutality, castrations, lynchings, beatings, and even death at the hands of those who exercise authority over the lives and livelihoods of African American men. The stereotyping and racial profiling that undergird this diabolical narrative are also used to justify the disproportionate rate of police contacts and incarceration that African American men experience. Indeed, statistics show that upwards of 40 percent of the more than 2.3 million people who are incarcerated are African American men, the majority of whom are poor.

Mass incarceration as a bi-product of injustice

Many of these men are incarcerated for lengthy periods of time for nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the War on Drugs that began in the mid-1980s. The War on Drugs was the precursor to the militarization of our police forces (as we have seen in Ferguson), increased spending on the criminal justice system, and an over-representation of law enforcement in our poorest communities across the country. It has also led to a ballooning of our criminal justice system, with an unprecedented number of men, women, and children experiencing incarceration. Sadly, the damage does not end there, as according to the Children's Defense Fund, an estimated 1 in 3 black boys born in 2001 are at risk of spending some portion of their lives behind bars.

Poor African Americans suffer daily indignities

The only way in which we can reasonably tolerate such injustices is because we have been conditioned to see black men as less than human, just as society did during the cruelness of slavery and the Jim Crow era, and to look the other way in the face of their suffering and oppression. The daily indignities experienced by black men, women, and children are made manifest in areas such as a lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment rates, inadequate access to education, criminalization of black children in the public school system, marginalization of poor blacks into ghettos, disparate health impacts, discrimination through financial systems and lending practices which help to maintain racial segregation, high incarceration rates, and negative media representations of African Americans. 

The suffering that ensues from the denial of our basic human rights occurs under the noses of the average American citizen on a regular basis, and yet those concerns are not brought to the surface until a major incident happens, like the one in Ferguson, which exposes America's racial fault lines. These racial fault lines are like ghosts from the past; always present, always haunting, always reminding us that they exist to wreak havoc on the progress we think we are making. As is our custom, we have learned to bury these racial fault lines as soon as they surface, in the hopes that if we ignore them long enough, they will go away so that we may get back to 'business as usual.' This is folly. Where matters of justice are concerned, there is no place for 'business as usual.'

We're told 'peace', when there is no peace

In the midst of the daily harms and degradations African Americans face, we are told to remain peaceful and tolerant. This is a false sense of peace, used to comfort those who are comfortable. However, we face the fear that at any moment our children could be treated in a manner similar to Mike BrownTamir RiceVonderrit MyersEric Garner, (the list goes on and on) and we know that the law may not protect them or hold their killers accountable. It is in this realization that many have taken to the streets in Ferguson to peacefully protest unjust laws and policies, while some have resorted to rioting (arguably exacerbated by the prosecutor's choice to announce the grand jury's decision late at night). As Dr. King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” 

We must root out racism

There is no escaping the fact that the majority of our systems and institutions throughout this country, including many of our churches, are built on a foundation of racial inequality and white superiority. Although we were not responsible for creating these systems, we do bear the responsibility for rooting out the racism that is embedded within them, and reconciling ourselves to the truth. Until we are able to engage deeply, painfully, and honestly about the roots of evil and hatred that permeate our institutions, systems, and in many cases our hearts, things will not change; they will only grow worse. Too many of us remain silent because we benefit from the way that things are structured, even though the foundation is like sinking sand.

This begs the question: How many more innocent lives must be sacrificed before we are willing to open our eyes to the truth and make the necessary changes? #blacklivesmatter

Minneapolis Public Schools: Our Children Deserve More than the Status Quo

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: November 2, 2014 - 12:43 AM

I know that we don't like to talk about it, but race still matters in Minnesota. Arguably, nowhere is that more evident than in the disparate outcomes between black and white students in Minneapolis Public Schools. When I express concerns about the intolerable racial disparities, typically there are four responses: 1) place blame on black parents and children; 2) express disinterest in the problem or remain silent; 3) defend the system at all costs; or 4) agree that there is in fact a crisis that needs to be urgently addressed. Although most folks that I encounter fall into categories 1, 2, and 3, or some hybrid of the above, I tend to gravitate more towards those who are brave enough to admit that serious problems exist and who are willing to lend their voices and social capital to speak publicly about these issues. Typically, these folks are not employed by the district, are not under contract with the district, and have some level of passion for social justice.

Time to challenge the status quo

Indeed, challenging the status quo is not easy, but it is necessary if we stand any chance of addressing the imbalances within the system and changing things for the better. Last month, numerous African American parents, children, and community members showed up at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters to challenge the District’s inequitable practices as seen on this short video.

When we begin to put our differences aside and critically examine the available data, it becomes apparent that there are structural biases built into the Minneapolis Public School system that tend to reinforce and exacerbate racial disparities. For one, a disproportionate number of Minneapolis Public Schools are racially segregated, with a high concentration of children who receive free and reduced lunch. Within such schools, children are often taught by teachers with less experience and lower levels of educational attainment than their white counterparts at more affluent schools. It is not a stretch to surmise that students in most circumstances benefit from being taught by teachers with more experience and higher credentials. (Recent articles also show that poor students of color are also more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers, further compounding the problems, as shown here and here).

Are schools on the Northside being short-changed?

Assuming that premise holds true, if would not be unusual for a school district to want to assign its most experienced and highly credentialed teachers to the schools with the highest need for support in increasing academic proficiency for students. Yet for some reason, in Minneapolis Public Schools, that is not the case. The schools that seem to have the highest percentages of African American students and the lowest rates of proficiency in reading, math, and science, are provided with less experienced teachers on average than their white counterparts. Case in point, I searched MDE's (Minnesota Department of Education) website and took a look at the section called School Report Card. I looked at two schools that had high rates of African American students and high rates of students who receive free and reduced lunch: Namely, Lucy Laney and Bethune. I then compared a few key statistics from those two schools with Lake Harriet and Barton, two schools with higher percentages of white students and significantly fewer students receiving free and reduced lunch.

Here's what I found: Lucy Laney's student population is 88% black with 98% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. In terms of proficiency rates, only 8.7% of students are proficient in Reading, 12.9% are proficient in Math, and 5.7% are proficient in Science. (Yes, you read those statistics correctly). 35% of the teachers have been teaching for less than three years and 33% have a Master's degree.

Similarly, at Bethune, 85.8% of students are black with 100% of the students receiving free and reduced lunch. 10.5% of students are proficient in Reading; while 17% are proficient in Math; and 4.8% are proficient in Science. (And yes, you read those statistics correctly as well). 31% of teachers have been teaching for less than three years, while 47% have a Master's degree.

By comparison, Lake Harriet Lower Elementary School, a crown jewel of MPS, boasts a population that is 88.5% white and 7.7% free and reduced lunch. 72% of students are proficient in Reading and 80.5% are proficient in Math (Oddly enough, no Science proficiency rates were reported). Interestingly, only 4.2% of teachers have taught for fewer than three years, while a whopping 91.5% of teachers have taught for ten years or more.

Similarly, Barton boasts a population that is comprised of 65.5% white students and 29% of students receive free and reduced lunch. 74.3% of students are proficient in Reading, 66.4% are proficient in Math, and 54% are proficient in Science. 79.7% of teachers have a Master's degree, while 83.5% of teachers have been teaching for more than 10 years and only 5.6% of teachers have been teaching for fewer than three years.

The district has some ‘splainin’ to do

The question must be posed as to why schools with higher percentages of white students and lower percentages of students who receive free and reduced lunch, have significantly higher percentages of teachers who have taught for longer than ten years. Such schools are also more likely to be staffed by teachers holding at least a Master's degree. The question must also be asked and answered regarding how and to what degree having less experienced teachers impacts student proficiency levels and outcomes. As a matter of district policy: Who ensures that human capital is deployed equitably throughout the district to protect against schools with the highest needs being given the least amount of resources? On what bases are such decisions made and how is what is in the best interests of children factored into the equation?

The data show that in truth, the district could be doing better by all children it serves. Given the high social costs of obtaining a subpar education, the district should pay particular attention to the quality of academic instruction that children of color from lower-socio economic backgrounds receive. This is a matter of human dignity, equity, and justice and should be treated as such.

We should refuse to accept the notion that simply because a child hails from a low income family or community, they are forever destined to be at the bottom of society's social ladder.  If we are serious about closing the opportunity gap that exists, we must begin by challenging our own (sometimes biased) assumptions about poor children's capacity to learn, and begin to critically examine and reassess policy decisions, formulas for resource allocations, teacher assignments, harsh disciplinary practices, uneven referrals to special education, vendor contract awards, and school climate and curriculum.

It’s not about good intentions

Let us remember, that accepting the status quo in our school system has nothing to do with good intentions, and everything to do with the history of race relations in this country and in our state, and the residue that still clouds our perceptions of the "other."

The Crisis Facing Black Boys in Minneapolis Public Schools

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: July 2, 2014 - 7:18 AM

Public education debates in Minnesota frequently center on disputes between those who want to reform education and those who support the position of teachers’ unions. As those heated debates continue to swirl, important aspects of the discussion tend to fall by the wayside. One key example is the current crisis facing African American boys within the Minneapolis public school system. Sadly, black boys are often excluded from classrooms, placed in special education at alarming rates, subjected to administrative transfers, and are graduating at dismally low rates. They are also routinely subjected to harsh discipline for minor infractions and in many cases even criminalized and brought into the juvenile justice system through the use of school resource officers.

Black boys face racially-hostile school settings

As a civil rights attorney, I have learned of black boys as young as six and seven years old that have been arrested in public school settings and hauled away in the back of squad cars. I have also been made aware of black boys who have been charged with disorderly conduct for non-violent offenses, thereby opening the door for future involvement in the criminal justice system. The cumulative effects of unevenly-applied school policies and practices upon black boys have arguably created a racially-hostile environment that makes learning difficult to impossible. It is a continual affront to the human dignity of black boys to be treated as second class citizens within the public school system and made to feel as though they are not welcome in mainstream classroom settings.

Is Jim Crow still alive?

Moreover, the current treatment of black boys in public schools cannot be divorced from the oppressive and inhumane treatment black people have experienced throughout their history in this country and in our state. The signs reminiscent of the Jim Crow era may no longer be visible on school house doors, yet the sentiments have somehow seeped into policies and practices that deny opportunity to some of our youngest, most vulnerable citizens, with untold consequences to boot.

In response to the myriad challenges and obstacles that black boys face within the district, Minneapolis Public Schools has resolved to create an Office for Black Male Student Achievement. While the specific plans for the office have yet to be unveiled, there seems to be a great deal of public support for such an effort and some would say that it is long overdue. Many would also say that given the magnitude of the problems that black boys are experiencing, the district must begin to act with a greater sense of urgency and commit to making a sufficient investment if it is serious about addressing the challenges that exist.

The district's response to the crisis is inadequate

A major concern that has surfaced in recent weeks is the fact that in determining expenditures in its most recent budget, the district has opted to earmark a mere $200,000 toward establishing the Office of Black Male Achievement. As one might imagine, the amount that is being allocated is a paltry sum in the grand scheme of things, which amounts to just $28.00 per African American boy. For many concerned parents and community members, this feels like a slap in the face, given the district's enormous budget of over $700 million ( Although the district claims that the $200,000 investment is initial seed money, many see it is an indication of the level of seriousness, or lack thereof, of the district's prioritization of this issue.

In response to these concerns, a coalition of 13 community-based organizations and civil rights groups sent a joint letter ( to district leadership requesting a reconsideration of the amount that has been allocated to this effort and a community meeting that will allow for greater levels of collaboration and input by concerned members of the public. As one of the signers of the letter, I feel that it is important that the district begins to honor the voices of parents, students, and community members who want to ensure that the crisis facing black boys is taken seriously by district leadership.

Solutions must include community voices

Too often our voices are shut out of the process of providing input, critical feedback, and diverse perspectives that will ensure that the district is moving forward in a way that puts the interests of children, and particularly vulnerable populations, at the center of its decision-making. Ensuring public involvement would also increase the likelihood that there is proper accountability and balance in how the district prioritizes limited resources. Instead of quickly hiring someone to lead the Office of Black Male Achievement, as the district has indicated that it will do, district leadership should be willing to take a step back and allow for a community process before things move forward. Involving the community in a strategic way will help to begin rebuilding public trust and confidence in the district and will usher in a paradigm of collaboration and cooperation that will benefit all stakeholders, and especially the children who are most in need of our support.

The treatment of black boys in Minneapolis public schools has been unconscionable. Rather than continue down a similar path, it is time to reverse course and make critical investments in the lives of black boys. They deserve the chance to reach their full potential in life.

As the Battle for Equity Heats Up, Scapegoats are Caught in the Crossfire

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: June 20, 2014 - 4:29 AM

It's a crying shame that getting people to talk candidly about racial justice and equity in Minnesota is like pulling teeth. To be frank, not only is it difficult to broach the subject of race and our need to address socio-economic disparities for people of color, but those who do show courage and speak the truth are often targeted by those who disagree.

For those who have been reading my blog, you know that I have been writing about white privilege, racial injustice, and equity for the last several weeks. My goal is to increase awareness of the issues at hand and to awaken our appetites for justice and equality in our state. Although some have been inspired by my writings, others have been enraged by what I have to say. Indeed, I have received disturbing emails filled with venom from those who believe that people of color experience higher rates of poverty and social isolation due to laziness, a lack of values, and/or a poor work ethic. Here is an excerpt from one of the emails I received: "Your article represents the usual black whining about the evil whitey.  In the last 50 years whites have bent over backwards to help blacks, in many cases to the detriment of their own children and grandchildren.  No good deed goes unpunished - and we all know the results because we see them every day - laziness, crime, violence, aggression, out of control ghetto breeding, refusal to take responsibility. Of course all this is the whitey's fault. "

Sadly, such attitudes are widely -and I would venture to say secretly- held by a certain segment of our society who is unwilling to entertain evidence that bias, and institutional and structural racism work to perpetually limit access to opportunity for people of color and aid in producing many of the negative outcomes that occur. Rather than show intellectual curiosity for uncovering the truth, these individuals tend to stereotype people of color and sit behind a computer screen and spew vitriol that they would never have the audacity to utter in public. It's what some people call "Minnesota Nice."

There’s a shift away from real issues

Another form of Minnesota Nice that I have seen play out in recent weeks is related to public discussions surrounding an equity agenda in the City of Minneapolis and the resources being devoted to that issue by the Department of Civil Rights. The media has been ablaze with stories that reflect growing tension between a couple of members of the city council and Velma Korbel, the Director of the Civil Rights Department, who happens to be an African American woman. Disturbingly, Ms. Korbel has been berated in public and called to the carpet to explain the amount of time and resources being expended by her office to promote equity within the City. In this instance, Minnesota Nice is rearing its ugly head by shifting attention away from the real issues at the intersection of race and inequality and focusing the attention on Ms. Korbel through attacks on her character and even her management style.

From my perspective, in light of the fact that Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities between blacks and whites in poverty, unemployment, criminal justice, and high school graduation rates in our state and probably the country, it should be a no-brainer to focus on equity and to aggressively implement the racial equity agenda that is being developed. Indeed, many of the problems that plague the poorest communities in Minneapolis would dissipate through an urgent focus on equity and economic justice that opens doors to affordable housing, home ownership, high quality education, and most importantly JOBS for those who desire to work.

We must ask the right questions

And yet, despite these challenges, it is painful to see the mask that Minnesota Nice wears in an effort to impede progress towards equity in the City of Minneapolis. As concerned citizens, we need to be asking the right questions of our elected officials such as: What are you specifically doing to create jobs for those who are locked out of access to economic opportunity; especially African American men? How will you ensure that those with criminal histories are given a second chance? Does the City's workforce adequately reflect the diversity contained within the City? If not, are you using an equity toolkit to ensure more diversity within government hiring? Will the City continue to pay out millions of dollars to settle police brutality claims while simultaneously raising concerns about the resources being spent on an agenda that promotes equity? Who is providing political cover for those like Ms. Korbel, whose office is tackling the issue of equity head-on? Will you allow Ms. Korbel to be used as a scapegoat on this issue while the status quo is allowed to remain in place? And my personal favorite: Who among you is willing to spend down political capital to protect the interests of the poor and take a stand for justice and equality?

If Hubert H. Humphrey had not taken a similar stand many moons ago, we might not be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act this year. Because of the courage of Humphrey and so many others, that means at a base level that I can go to any restaurant and hotel in the City and drink from any water fountain I choose, without being denied access because of my skin color. However, in spite of the gains that have been made, there is still much work to be done.

Minnesota nice must go

Thus, it's time that we pull the mask off of Minnesota Nice and demand change on behalf of those whose interests are constantly being ignored or pushed to the back burner for the sake of political expediency. We are allowing too many distracting forces to stand in the way of what is right and true and just. The time for equity is now. The future of Minneapolis and our state depend upon it.

If We're Serious About Equity, Job Creation Must Become a Priority

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds Updated: May 6, 2014 - 2:01 AM

In recent months, I have attended numerous events and meetings throughout the Twin Cities in which the focus is on achieving equity. I have also heard speeches from politicians and heads of organizations about the need to ensure that equity is a priority in closing persistent and intolerable gaps in Minnesota across areas such as health, wealth, education, and employment. Although I'm sure that many of these individuals and organizations mean well in emphasizing the need for equity, there comes a point in time in which good intentions are not good enough. Talk becomes cheap and without a true demonstration of equity in action, the feeling emerges that we have identified a new buzzword of the moment with little accountability for living out its meaning. This is particularly dangerous in a landscape in which African Americans and Native Americans in Minnesota have some of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation as shown here and here.

Time to Create Good Jobs
Thus, we must be willing to dig deeper and not only reflect upon the meaning of equity, but what its application should look like in practice in our region. From my perspective, the true meaning of equity is all about leveling the playing field. It is about coming to the realization that the racial gaps in key areas of quality of life will never close without a focus on creating jobs in our most under-resourced communities. And not just any type of jobs--but jobs that pay a living wage and that provide a pathway to upward mobility within our community. Sadly, all too often when we see families and children in crisis, we tend to think about addressing their immediate short-term needs, without taking a longer view of the problem and looking toward root causes of the circumstances they face. What is often at the root of the problems is difficulty in finding a good job that will keep a family in stable housing, with food in their refrigerator, money to pay utilities, and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Short-Term Fixes Don't Solve Long-Term Problems
I recognize that in a crisis, there is often a need for a short-term fix. However, when the problems are systemic and cyclical, taking an approach which emphasizes primarily the short-term will arguably result in more problems in the long run and will merely serve to maintain and reinforce the status quo. When poor families are forced to visit local agencies and charitable organizations for support time and time again, this merely creates a cycle of dependency and makes it difficult for families to strive towards upward mobility. As Dr. King once said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

I would argue that we have an over-flowing abundance of organizations in the Twin Cities that offer short-term fixes to problems, when what we really need are business leaders, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs (with full support of government) to venture into our poorest communities and help develop jobs that pay a living wage and restore the dignity of the poor. This will not only vastly improve the quality of life for residents, but will reduce the need for spending on criminal justice (currently over $400 million annually in our state) and social welfare programs. Beyond that, increasing access to job opportunities for the under-served will contribute to the health of our economy and will strengthen our regional economic competitiveness now and in the future.

The reality is that many folks who have been marginalized throughout their lives face tremendous barriers to finding and maintaining employment in some of our largest corporations. On the one hand, we must remove the barriers that exist, and on the other hand, we must find alternative solutions. If we can't get the people to the jobs that they need, then we must get the jobs to the people by creating them within their communities. I'm talking about jobs that are within walking distance, and that will allow them to grow and work their way into management-- jobs in which they feel are designed with them in mind-- and that give them a sense of pride and purpose.

We Must Rise to the Challenge
In order for us to overcome, we must look critically at the problems facing the poor, our current response to the problems, and then resolve to rise to the challenge of implementing creative solutions that will force us to think outside the box and invest in the people who need it most. If we continue to do what we have always done, then we will continue to get what we have always had. I posit that it is time for a new thing, a shift from a heavy focus on charity to a more balanced focus on economic justice and job creation, with affordable housing as a complementary priority.

So for anyone claiming to be serious about achieving equity, I challenge you to prove it. Show me the money. Show me the jobs that you are creating in our most under-served communities to truly level the playing field for those in need.



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