What does it mean to be an American the day after Georgia may have just murdered an innocent man?
Read the first words of the preamble to our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice.”
Read the phrase engraved above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
And read the reaction by the widow of the man Troy Davis was convicted of murdering 22 years ago: “We have laws in this land so that there is not chaos.”
In this year of global upheaval – from Egypt to Wisconsin – what is happening to our capacity to serve as the world’s beacon of freedom and equality? And when did our conception of justice shift so mightily – from securing equal treatment to avoiding chaos?
For those of us concerned with comprehensive school reform, the execution of Troy Davis is more than a temporary news item. Just twenty years old when he was arrested, Davis was also a high school dropout. And although his full reasons for doing so are unclear, what is clear is that of the ~1.2 million young people who leave school each year, more than half are from minority groups. Worse still, this pipeline of talent is running in the wrong direction, and sending disproportionate numbers of African-American men away from the workforce and higher education, and toward the dead end of the prison system.
The Advancement Project, a civil rights “action tank” committed to highlighting this issue, explains: “Across the country, school systems are shutting the doors of academic opportunity on students and funneling them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The combination of overly harsh school policies and an increased role of law enforcement in schools has created a “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track,” in which punitive measures such as suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, and huge numbers of youth are pushed out of school and into prisons and jails. In many communities, this transforms schools from places of learning to dangerous gateways into juvenile court. This is more than an education crisis; it is a racial justice crisis, because the students pushed out through harsh discipline are disproportionately students of color.”
The economic and opportunity costs of this exodus have been well documented. Yet today, in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s cavalier reluctance to intervene in the state-sanctioned execution of a potentially innocent man, let’s be clear: the cost of this systemic societal dysfunction runs much deeper than lost wages. At stake is the legitimacy of our status as a nation committed to equal justice under law. At stake are the lives of potentially innocent men and women caught up in the gears of our legal system. And although our courts would seem to bear the sole weight of righting the ship, it is our public schools that are most responsible for giving young people the skills and self-confidence they need to not just stay out of trouble, but also become active, visible contributors to the common good. As the Greek philosopher Plato observed, more than 2,500 years ago, a civil society’s ultimate wellbeing rests primarily on its capacity to answer a single question: “But how, exactly,” he wrote, “will they be reared and educated by us? And does our considering this contribute anything to our goal of discerning that for the sake of which we are considering all these things – in what way justice and injustice come into being in a city?”