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GUEST COMMENTARY: Wealth disparity and our graduation rate 

Not long ago, published research demonstrated that countries that had a high disparity between wealth and poverty were also characterized by low confidence in their government and contempt for the law. There is a justifiable assumption that the government is corrupt, serving the elite while either actively suppressing the poor or failing to use the power of the law to protect the poor from exploitation by the rich. When laws are made and applied arbitrarily; people learn that the trick is not to obey the law, but to not get caught.

I worried that the US was becoming a "banana republic." Nationally, CEO's are given salary packages worth 400 times the average worker's wages: a disparity ratio that exceeds every other nation in the world.

Monroe County ranks very high in average income in New York State, and yet the City of Rochester, situated nearly at its center, has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country. The disparity between rich and poor could not be more obvious than in our own community.

And when Rochester established its Zero Tolerance policing policy, I worried that the net effect would be to create contempt and suspicion toward all our institutions. People who have no use for the Police Department tend to look upon schools, libraries, and museums the same way. I went to meetings where racial profiling was alleged, but for the most part, I was determined to keep an open mind.

But now we have the Schott Report that tells us only 9 percent of African American boys in Rochester graduate from high school "on time." We may dispute the percentage, but local research conducted by School Board Commissioner Van White, focused on interviews with juveniles in jail, make the connection, for me at least, between a policing system that has targeted African-American boys and their low opinion of the educational system. "F-It," they say, "I can play by the rules, or I can break the rules. It makes no difference either way, because there is a great big target painted on my back."

We are reaping what we have sown.

Willa Powell is a member of the Rochester school board.


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