A report that puts a spotlight on how racial inequality affects learning, career prospects and the criminal justice system in Kentucky requires not more study but action, black leaders said Tuesday.

The report, which was prepared by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, shows how systematic racism has caused Blacks to fall behind in education and more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

In a discussion hosted by the state Chamber of Commerce, Black leaders said they weren’t surprised by the statistics, but the report shows the need for people to recognize that disparities exist and work to address them.

“What we have ... is a society built on the backs of many,” said Aaron Thompson, president of the state Council on Postsecondary Education. Society is built on an “infrastructure that has disenfranchised people of color,” he said.

Institutional racism is when racist policies are embedded in things like the education system or criminal justice system and people are not consciously aware of them, Thompson said.

Anti-racism, he said, gives people the tools to combat institutional racism.

When asked what he would say to people who are uncomfortable with talking about racism, Thompson said, “It’s impossible to talk about this without having everybody at the table, including the business community.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Black residents make up 8.5% of the state’s population. But, in 2018, Black inmates made up 21.8% of the state’s prison population, according to the Chamber report.

By comparison, whites made up 75.04% of state inmates that year, although they make up 76.3% of the state’s total population.

The Chamber of Commerce report found striking achievement gaps between Black and white students across grade levels. For example, the reports say that among high school students, 21.1% of Black students achieved proficiency on state achievement tests compared to 49% of white students. In math, 13.5% of Black students were proficient compared to 39% of whites.

The differences in achievement manifest early. While a comparable percentage of white and Black students in the state were considered prepared for kindergarten in 2015, according to kindergarten readiness assessments, a large achievement gap had opened up by the time students were tested on reading in third grade, with Black students far behind white students in reading scores, the report says.

Felicia Smith, senior director for U.S. Regions with the National Geographic Society, said the education system has not provided needed support to students who get off track.

In educational opportunities, white students vastly outnumber Black students in advanced placement courses, with 33,800 white students enrolled in AP courses during 2018-19 academic year compared to 2,920 Black students. The same was true in gifted and talented programs, where there were nearly 80,000 white students in those programs, compared to less than 5,000 Black students, the report found.

The graduation rate for Black students was 83.2% that year, compared to 92.1% for white students, but only 38.1% of Black students were considered “transition ready” for college or a career, compared to 70.6% of white students.

Resources are part of the issue, and those issues have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. OJ Oleka, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, said the pandemic “certainly can and likely may” cause the gaps between white and Black students to grow.

For example, people who have lost jobs during the pandemic are unable to work from home, and many of those workers are likely to be Black, Oleka said.

“The way we deal with that now is ... ensuring those families get the resources they need to be successful,” Oleka said.

Black students were disproportionately affected by school discipline actions, the report found. Using state Department of Education data, Black students made up 10.5% of Kentucky’s school population but accounted for 34.7% of all school disciplinary events during the 2018-19 school year. In disciplinary actions that resulted in arrests, more Black students were arrested in schools than white students.

“The data was really hard to read,” said Ashli Watts, the Kentucky Chamber’s president and CEO.

The report includes a list of recommendations, to give leaders “a course of action,” Watts said. “Now it’s time to get to work.”

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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