Over the weekend, I heard a story that a teacher from Wilkes County, N.C. in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, told about discipline problems he had encountered at school. My friend kept us spellbound as he described how a trouble maker, whose mother had taught him “not to take nothin’ off nobody,” engaged in a series of physical confrontations with students and teachers. Our initial reaction was, wow, what a jerk. But as my friend delved deeper into the tale, we gained a little sympathy. The kid’s parents were separated and his mother turned tricks in the back seat of the car. One day, not long after the incidents at school, the father returned to the house. He shot the boy in the stomach, shot the mother in the head, killing her, and then put the gun under his chin, and killed himself.
The story brought to mind Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” about the social and moral disintegration of the white working class in America. There has always been a violent streak to Southern white working-class culture, of course, so a single tragic anecdote means little in itself. But having blogged recently about Virginia’s dropout rate (which is actually improving) and the fact that Virginia’s immigrant population has achieved greater success (whether measured by education, unemployment or income) than native Virginians, I wondered if Murray’s thesis accurately described what is happening here.
I found myself perusing Virginia Department of Education statistics on public high school graduation rates for the class of 2012. The broad patterns are familiar to everyone. Women graduate on time at a higher rate than men: 90.6% compared to 85.5%. Whites graduate at a higher rate (90.8%) than blacks (82.7%) and Hispanics (80.9%) but at a lower rate than Asians (94.7%).
What was interesting and counter-intuitive, however, was what emerged from taking a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction look at graduation rates. While the statewide pattern of women graduating at higher rates than men held true for the vast majority of localities, the pattern of of whites graduating at a higher rate than blacks was far less likely to do so.
Statewide, there is a 5.1 percentage point differential between the graduation rates of women and men. Women graduated at higher rates in every Virginia city and county save 15, and in nearly every one of those the difference was minimal. By contrast, there was an 8.1 percentage point differential in the graduation rate between whites and blacks statewide — yet blacks showed a higher graduation rate than whites in 31 jurisdictions.
In some jurisdictions with higher black graduation rates, the differences were miniscule. In others, blacks represented a tiny minority in a predominantly white student body, comprising only 11 individuals, for instance, in Grayson County, where all 11 (100%) graduated compared to only 84.6% of their white classmates. Perhaps those can be dismissed as meaningless statistical anomalies.
But what do we make of Caroline County with black and white student bodies of roughly equal size, where the black-white graduation gap was 9.0 percentage points — in favor of blacks? Or Cumberland County where the graduation gap was 10.3 percentage points in favor of blacks? Or Nottoway County where the gap was 14 percentage points? Or Lunenburg County where the gap was 19.6 percentage points? All statistical flukes? I doubt it.
Across Virginia’s suburban and inner-city jurisdictions the pattern of higher white graduation rates prevail almost uniformly. The exceptions to the rule occur primarily in Virginia’s rural counties where, the stereotype holds, racial prejudice and discrimination are the strongest. These numbers would seem to demolish that widely held view. As a fallback position, one might argue that rural counties are equal in their poverty. How, then, does one explain a Nottoway or Lunenburg County? How does one explain such superior outcomes for blacks?
To answer that question brings us full circle. I would love to think that it means rural blacks are prospering. Given the general state of the economy, however, I find that difficult to believe. Alternatively, one must ask, do these numbers reflect a breakdown of white, working class families and value structure? It would be dangerous to draw hard-and-fast conclusions from one year’s worth of graduation data. Any serious inquiry would require examining standardized test scores, unemployment rates, incomes, teenage pregnancy rates, rates of substance abuse and rates of incarceration and tracking trends over time. But such an effort might yield fascinating conclusions.