The numbers are grim.
Last month, The Schott Foundation for Public Education reported that 52 percent of black males who entered ninth grade in the 2006-07 school year graduated in four years nationally. That compared with 78 percent of white, non-Latino males and 58 percent of Latino males. The black male graduation rate has been rising so slowly that, if the current pace continues, it will take nearly 50 years for black and white males to graduate at the same rate.
(The numbers for New York City are worse for every demographic, with just 28% of black and Latino males completing high school in four years versus 57% of white males. The New York City school district "boasts" the 7th lowest black male high school completion rate in the country.)
Why does the graduation gap persist?
It's easy to forget that the situation once looked much more promising. Between the mid-1960s and the late-1980s, the educational outcomes of black students improved dramatically and was on pace to erase the racial gap completely by 1996. Instead, the gains started to stall out around 1990, and by 2004 black male graduation had fallen back to a rate not seen since 1972.
To date, no one has shown conclusively why this reversal occurred.
Is the War on Drugs to blame?
A new study (PDF) by three economists offers one controversial explanation: the rise of crack cocaine. The study estimates that crack markets account for between 40 and 73 percent of the drop in black male high school graduation rates. As the drug spread through black urban neighborhoods in the 1980s, the authors argue that it changed the educational calculus for black males in three ways:
- Decreased life expectancy. The unprecedented levels of violence among drug dealers that accompanied the crack epidemic -- and often spilled over to innocent bystanders -- lead many young black males to fatalistic assumptions about dying young. If they wouldn't live to see 30, they believed, what was the point of completing high school?
- Increased likelihood of incarceration. Politicians responded to arrival of crack by instituting ever more draconian punishments for possession and distribution. The number of federal and state prisoners doubled between 1980 and 1996. Young black men, in particular, found themselves increasingly targeted by law enforcement for a broad range of behavior. As greater numbers went to prison on longer and longer sentences, incarceration became an expected rite of passage among many. Anticipating a life behind bars, completing high school no longer seemed necessary.
- The lure of money. Crack cocaine dealing offered a unique source of tax-free income in neighborhoods that had been hit hardest by the urban deindustrialization of the 1970s. Many young black men were recruited into the drug trade by older dealers to take advantage of the lighter sentences handed out to juvenile offenders. As crack dealing became established -- and in many cases glorified -- as a legitimate alternative to legal employment, the perceived need for a high school diploma diminished.
Although the economists do not extend their analysis to include changing social structures, early deaths, long prison sentences, and the unstable nature of the dealer lifestyle all significantly impacted black families. As increasing numbers of children were born to single mothers with absent fathers, the structure and oversight necessary for high educational attainment weakened.