Monday, December 22, 2014

Lessons from the Grand Jury Protests

Post by Todd Hornaday: Todd has been a social studies teacher for 19 years, the last 18 at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Todd on Twitter @lthornaday

First, Happy Holidays to all!  Or, maybe I better say “Merry Christmas to all!”, so as to not upset Conservative pundits who would accuse me of declaring a so-called ‘War on Christmas’.  How about “Happy Festivus for the rest of us!”, or would Jerry Seinfeld sue me?

Hopefully having framed a discussion on being 'politically correct' with my intro paragraph, this social studies teacher begs the question, “What lessons can Iowa students learn from the Ferguson and New York grand jury protests?”   I argue that now is not the time to only be politically correct, but that it is imperative for teachers to guide students into some potentially uncomfortable, but integral, discussions and reflections on race in America using stone cold data.  (Being a role model, I will cite a source whenever numbers are used.)

First, let me provide an example on using data to analyze politics in Iowa.  The case can easily be made that our state is a politically active state-- in the midterm 2014 elections, 50% of eligible voters in the state participated, compared to a national rate of 36% (source: Since 1972, the state has held caucuses that have been the first major electoral event of the nominating process for the President. We are also an educated people-- the percentage of 25-34 year-olds in our state with at least a bachelor’s degree was 45% in 2010, compared to the national rate of 39%. (source:  U.S. Census Bureau)

With Iowa’s better-than-average political participation in mind, allow me to illustrate some potential discussion questions, followed by data, that should catch the attention of our students:

If the majority of people disagrees with your viewpoint, does it do you any good to voice that opinion? Also, what if you are 100% certain that the majority viewpoint is wrong?
The Pew Research Center held a nationwide, scientific poll that found that 57% of Americans did not support the Staten Island grand jury's decision to not indict the white cop who put African-American Eric Garner in a choke hold.  However, the same group found that only 37% did not support the Ferguson grand jury's decision to not indict the white cop who shot African-American Michael Brown. Feelings of discord and inequity led to thousands employing their First Amendment rights by protesting for improved minority rights.

Should police officers be held to a higher standard of care?
State grand juries very, very rarely indict police officers.  These public servants-- New York City employs 34,450 of them (source: are given every benefit of the doubt in court as they are presumed to be putting their lives on the line for our citizens every second that they are on duty.  In the last 10 years, only one cop has been indicted for an on-duty shooting in both Dallas and Chicago. (source: Houston Chronicle)

What should people be protesting?  What can be done to improve the lives of many African-Americans?  
Based on 2013 Census Bureau data, America’s 45 million African-Americans make up about 14% of our country’s population.  
  • As of November 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate is 4.9% for whites in America and 11.1% for African-Americans.
  • The Department of Justice (2010) cites 4.3% of all African-American men currently being imprisoned, compared to less than 1% of all white American men-- roughly 39% of the total prison population is African-American and 39% is white American.
  • According to the Center for Disease Control, the ‘out of wedlock’ birth rate is 72% for African-Americans and 30% for white Americans.
  • The city of Chicago has 28,000 violent crimes per year. African-Americans constitute 33% of Chicago’s population, yet they commit over 90% of its violent crimes (source:  The Guardian). At Fenger Academy High School in Chicago, only 4% of 11th graders were proficient on the state math standards test in 2013.  Across the city, Englewood Technical Prep had only 3% proficiency and both Harper and Robeson high schools achieved 2% proficiency.  (source:  Neighborhood Scout)

Of course, data can be spun to support any argument.  What is important in our high school social studies classes is that opinions on current events are critically formed and discussed, and that logic and data are used as support.

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