Race & Class

Report: Black Memphians are better educated than 50 years ago, but child poverty is up

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The percentage of black children in Shelby County living in poverty rose from 45 percent to 48 percent since 1980.

More black Memphians have completed high school and college compared to 50 years ago, but those gains have not corresponded with a drop in child poverty.

While the percentage of black Shelby County residents obtaining a high school diploma has increased dramatically — and nearly caught up with white residents — the disparity between black and white residents with a bachelor’s degree has risen, according to a newly released report by the University of Memphis and National Civil Rights Museum.

The rise of black residents completing high school corresponded with lower poverty rates in the county until the turn of the century, when a college degree became a more important indicator of future wealth, the report said.

“A high school diploma is helpful only up to a point; beyond that, a college degree becomes necessary for economic progress,” it said.

The report sought to document local changes in poverty, education, employment, and income since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago next month. King made his final trek to Memphis to support a sanitation worker strike for higher wages and safer working conditions as he prepared to launch the “Poor People’s Campaign” to shift focus to economic equity in the U.S.

The report said it was “embarrassing” that the percentage of black children in Shelby County living in poverty rose from 45 percent to 48 percent since 1980, and that overall child poverty rose from 27 percent to almost 35 percent based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The city was named the poorest region in the U.S. with 1 million or more people last year using the same federal data. The difference in poverty rates for black and white children has increased since 2000.

Educational attainment was highlighted as one of the few areas with tremendous growth for black Memphians.

Since the historic U.S. Supreme Court case in 1954, which ruled laws dictating school segregation are unconstitutional, the rate of black Memphians completing high school rose by 76 percent, narrowing the gap between white and black Memphians from 32 percentage points in 1980 to just under 9 in 2016.

Additionally, the rate of black Memphians obtaining a bachelor’s degree increased from 1.2 percent in 1950 to nearly 20 percent in 2016.

But the gap between the percent of black and white students finishing college has increased since 1980 from about 14 to 24 percentage points. Memphis youth age 16 to 24 are the mostly likely in the U.S. to not be in school or working, according to a 2015 report by a research group that studies economic opportunity.

While more white students in Shelby County also finished high school and college, the increased educational attainment did not have nearly as great an impact on poverty rates compared to black residents.

“This is an important consideration: education appears to have a greater effect on the poverty rate of African Americans rather than whites in Shelby County,” the report said.

Source: “The Poverty Report: Memphis since MLK”

The findings reflect a national report released last month looking back on 50 years of data related to economic racial disparities. The Economic Policy Institute report sought to compare that data to the historic 1968 Kerner Commission report that identified racism as the primary cause of “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing.”

Nationally, black people saw dramatic increases in educational attainment, but no progress in homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration compared to white people. The racial disparity for completing high school, however, was lower than in Memphis, with a gap of just 3 percentage points.

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on Change.org calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”