Racial Power Imbalances in Ferguson Start Early

Look at what's happening to black kids in the area's schools.

As a police shooting claimed the life of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., sparking peaceful protests, intermittent looting, and a public display of militarized policing in another Midwestern city, Ferguson officials have professed utter shock and surprise. The city's mayor has described Ferguson as a place where "there is no racial divide." The city's virtually all-white power structure and police force have already garnered substantial attention. But a look inside the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the district serving most of Ferguson's students, also highlights the kinds of conditions that have helped this majority-black city remain the sort of community about which the Kerner Commission warned.

Between 1965 and 1968, sporadic riots broke out in some of the nation's largest cities. In July 1967, a police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours Detroit bar lead to a series of confrontations, arrests, and finally an all-out riot.

The situation was so troubling that President Johnson asked a group of experts to examine the causes of growing municipal unrest. Known as the Kerner Commission, the group published a report in 1967 showing that in nearly every community, riots had occurred when white police forces relied on almost unchecked force and fear to maintain order.

In these same communities, black access to educational and economic opportunities or local policy-making bodies could only be described as limited to nonexistent. Together, these conditions had created a ready-to-boil-over level of frustration in black communities. In the years since the commission's report, the political will and public support for programs aimed at addressing these disparities has waned in almost every arena save one: education.

Demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. While black students make up three-quarters of the student population in the Ferguson-Florissant school district, every single student arrested in the schools in 2011-12 was black.  (National Journal)
National Journal

During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent period for which detailed data are available, the Ferguson-Florissant school district reported that 77 percent of its students were black and 15.6 percent white. Another 2.3 percent of students were Hispanic and 0.7 percent Asian or Native American.

But enrollment in the district's Gifted and Talented program looks quite different. In fact, only about 35 percent of the students enrolled in these programs are black, while 48 percent are white.

Black students were, however, overrepresented when it came to discipline.

A look at discipline figures in Ferguson-Florissant schools shows that black students make up nearly 88 percent of the nondisabled kids placed in in-school suspension and 87 percent of nondisabled kids suspended and sent home.

And when it comes to the most serious form of discipline available to school officials — summoning police to make an arrest — data show that this remedy was only applied to black students. Overall, the share of nondisabled students arrested is small — just 51 out of 13,234 students in the school district. But among those subject to a school-related arrest (usually after a fight), 100 percent — all 51 of them — were black. And almost all of them, just over 88 percent, were black boys.