05/12/2015 05:28 pm ET Updated May 12, 2016

It's All About Race

Michael Holzman is this week's guest author. A large seminal study called "Moving to Opportunity," studied millions of families, and suggests that changing one's ZIP code provides a path out of poverty. The question has to be asked, what about those American citizens who struggle with poverty and the vestiges of institutional racism, and, as a consequence, are unable to change addresses? What Dr. Holzman points out in this piece is the impact that national and state policies have on the lives of millions of the nation's citizens.

Many are trying to spin the events following last month's tragedy in Baltimore. From the black mother who pulled her teenage son out of the street, hitting him "upside the head" in the literal fashion, to the state's attorney who brought charges against several police officers for the killing of Freddie Gray, they want to assure the public that what has happened in Charm City is "not about race."

Wrong. It is, and remains, about race.

Some hoped that Baltimore would be different, because the city has a black mayor and a black police chief and many black police officers. It also has an African-American CEO of the school district, who had been the superintendent in Milwaukee, another troubled city.

But as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out long ago, there can be black officials and yet persistent institutional racism. The presence of black leaders doesn't ensure good leadership that supports brighter futures for black children and communities.

Want proof? Look no farther than Baltimore.

Maryland incarcerates 1,437 of every 100,000 Black residents -- four times greater than the rate for whites. This is not unusual. In fact, it is business as usual in America: the mass incarceration of African Americans, specifically young Black men, to enforce caste boundaries, impoverishing their families in the process.

Drug laws are useful for this purpose. So are traffic laws. Both can result in summonses and then, often enough, bench warrants, which are particularly useful in perpetuating cycles of debt in servitude. Summoned to appear in court for one of these sometimes-minor violations, a man who believes he will be fined more than he can afford does not appear. Because he does not appear in court, a warrant is issued, at which point, for lack of the price of the judge's dinner, he becomes an outlaw, as Alice Goffman writes in On the Run: Fugitive Life in America.

Public education is supposed to be the answer. We hope that the yellow brick road out of poverty and onto the sunny uplands of post-racial America runs through the schools.

But does it? Let's look at what happens to Black children in Baltimore's schools.

  • In 2013, just 13 percent of Black eighth graders read at or above grade level.
  • Just 8 percent of eighth-grade Black males read at or above grade level.
  • Just 7 percent of the Black males in the eighth grade who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program read at grade level (according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress).

As the data show, and as the website and podcast Dropout Nation has documented, Baltimore schools are not teaching their Black children to read.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education's Maryland Report Card, 84 percent of all classes in high-poverty high schools in the state -- but only 78 percent of classes in Baltimore -- were taught by high-quality teachers in 2014. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 35 percent of Baltimore teachers were absent more than 10 days of the school year in 2009-'10 -- an extraordinary and unacceptable level of teacher absenteeism.

The Baltimore schools' drop-out rate for Black students was nearly 30 percent for the class of 2013, according to the 2014 Maryland Report Card. Half of those graduating go to college. Just half of those who go to college are still there after the first year.

Compared with residents of Maryland as a whole, twice as many of Baltimore's Black residents over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school. Half as many have graduated from college. Eleven percent of Black men in Baltimore have graduated from college, compared with 48 percent of White men, according to the U.S. Census' 2013 American Community Survey.

You might think that poor Blacks -- especially poor Black males -- in Baltimore read these statistics and get angry. You might expect poor Black males in Baltimore to be incredulous to read comments that recent events in their city are "not about race."

But when 93 percent of poor Black males in the eighth grade cannot read well enough to read a newspaper or this article, what do we expect them to learn? What do we expect them to know about their place in post-racial America?

Here is what they do understand: The intersection of the criminal justice and education systems works very well to police the boundaries of caste in this country. Just look at Ferguson, Missouri, or Chicago, or New York City or Milwaukee. Or Baltimore.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Michael Holzman is a research and author. He has served as consultant to numerous foundations and is the author of the Schott Foundation's series "Public Education and Black Male Students: A State Report Card." His latest book is The Chains of Black America.