Opinion: If colleges want to be antiracist, they should start by ‘banning the box’

Studies show criminal records checks do not make campuses safer — but they discriminate against Black applicants.

Twitter / @J_S_Billings

Within a week of the start of the protests that continue to surge through the nation, nearly every college in the United States released a statement that supposedly reaffirmed their own commitments to racial justice and systemic change.

In the Philadelphia area, that included Drexel, Temple, Penn, Haverford, Villanova, Swarthmore and others. Unfortunately, however well-meaning, these statements are filled with dissonance.

However angry or indignant school administrators and boards feel about the police killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — or the overall violence perpetrated against Black people in America for over 400 years — their words ring empty without attempts to address their own discriminatory practices.

The use of a criminal record box on college applications is one of the most egregious examples. It’s something that has become standard, but disproportionately disqualifies applicants of color.

Criminal record screening is frequently justified by pointing to the necessity of public safety on college campuses. However, studies show that this does not, in fact, make colleges safer. A 2017 study by the nonprofit Center for Community Alternatives investigated the relationship, and found no correlation whatsoever. Per the study, “there is no statistically significant difference in the rate of campus crime between institutions of higher education that explore undergraduate applicants’ disciplinary background and those that do not.”

While criminal background checks may seem neutral, policing, surveillance and incarceration in the United States disproportionately targets Black people.

Black Americans are no more likely than their white peers to commit crimes, but are surveilled and imprisoned at much higher rates. People of color make up two-thirds of the state and federal prison population, despite accounting for just 39% of the U.S. population. The rate of imprisonment for Black men is nearly six times the rate for white men; Black women are twice as likely to be incarcerated than white women.

If the criminal justice system unfairly targets Black persons, then a college application question asking about criminal history will inevitably perpetuate racial inequities in higher education.

Then there’s the deterrent effect. Just the presence of a criminal background checkbox on a college application can discourage potential students from applying, the CLS study found. More specifically, research at the State University of New York in 2015 found a full two-thirds of prospects with felony convictions did not complete the college application, compared to one-fifth of prospective students overall.

In response to this research and surrounding advocacy, the SUNY system banned the box on its applications in 2016. The Common Application similarly stopped requiring a question about criminal records last year. But 70% of four-year colleges still choose to ask about applicants’ prior criminal history.

It is worth grasping the current moment to call out colleges that are quick to acknowledge systemic racism in police departments, but fail to admit or address systemic racism in their own practices. If an institution of higher education is truly committed to dismantling white supremacy, it will start with itself. It will start with Banning the Box. To do otherwise is hypocritical and unjust.

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