Harnessing the Potential of LGBT Youth of Color

All-In Nation asks an important question: How do we maintain our standing as a country of opportunity and upward mobility, and ensure that today’s and future generations of Americans have the tools and skills to succeed? The answer is simple: We educate instead of incarcerate.

This premise, however, is a far cry from reality for many black and brown youth, particularly black boys, and gender-nonconforming youth of color, whose educational outcomes are stunted by harsh discipline policies that push them out of their schools and into the juvenile justice system.

This was the case for a black gay student named Kyeon who attended a school in New Orleans that fostered a school climate that was hostile and unsafe for gay students and allowed bullying to go unchecked. Kyeon was ridiculed and harassed because of his sexual orientation, and this taunting by his classmates ultimately led to a fight with another student. Because of the school’s zero-tolerance discipline policy, both students were arrested for the incident and incarcerated in a juvenile detention center—a harsh punishment for what felt like self-defense for Kyeon.

Kyeon’s education was disrupted and his academic trajectory stunted by this “school-to-prison” pipeline. Sadly, his case is not unique. Approximately 300,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youth are arrested and/or detained each year, of which more than 60 percent are black or Latino. What’s more, LGBT youth—particularly gender-nonconforming girls—are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.

In fact, LGBT youth of color are the most marginalized group within the K-12 education system. Discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity is not federally prohibited in public schools, so while black boys and LGBT youth share an invisibility card within our schools and are the targets of overly harsh school discipline policies, LGBT youth still have no recourse.

To have a world-class and competitive workforce in the 21st century, we need all hands on deck. But if 300,000 of those hands remain cuffed and behind bars, how are we going to “claim the future,” as President Obama implored us to do? Addressing school climate issues and dismantling harsh discipline policies will help create a school environment where all youth, especially LGBT youth of color, can achieve educational excellence.

By the year 2018, 45 percent of all jobs will require an associate’s degree or higher, compared with years passed where a high school diploma was all you needed to solidify your stake in the middle class. In order for the United States to remain globally competitive, we need an educated citizenry. Educating youth—particularly those of color who will make up the majority of our workforce over the next generation—should be a no-brainer. But instead of creating pipelines to Princeton, we’ve created pipelines to prison for our future workforce.

As Geoffrey Canada noted, “If we are going to stay competitive in the global marketplace, we cannot ignore the potential of all of our children—the future stewards of America. How can we not do everything humanly possible to make sure our children will continue to write the story ofthis country’s incredible legacy”?

All-In Nation offers a fresh blueprint for doing just that. By dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and tackling inequitable education and discipline policies, we can pave pathways of academic success for all youth of color, especially LGBT youth who are among the most vulnerable.

Originally published at All in Nation
A project of Progress 2050 and Policy Link, “All-In Nation: An America That Works for All” describes how strong communities of color are critical to America’s economic future and lays out a comprehensive policy agenda to build an equitable economy where everyone, including fast-growing communities of color, can participate and thrive.