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Review of: “Elementary Genocide: From Primary to Penitentiary”

By: Erin Gloster, Editorial Intern

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” But what if this powerful weapon was being exploited for capital gain? Award-winning filmmaker Rahiem Shabazz, with appearances by Roland Martin, Dr. Boyce Watkins and a cast of social critics, explores the relationship between early childhood education and the prison system, and the intersection of education and capital, a pattern known as the “school to prison pipeline.”

Elementary Genocide

The problem: Most states look at the reading levels of black boys at the end of elementary school to predict how many prison cells they will need in the next decade.

The reason: Capital.

Do prison executives use illiteracy rate data of black boys to predict future prison populations and thus future profit margins? Researchers like Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson believe the data points to this logical conclusion and to overlook it wouldn’t make business sense. “If a black boy cannot read by fifth grade, there is a 75 percent chance he will be a criminal by age 25,” asserts Abdullah-Johnson, a nationally certified school psychologist and political scientist, in the opening scene of the interview portion of the documentary; illuminating the statistical nexus between the illiteracy of young black men and the population of black men in prison and the apparent conflict of interest when capital gain — and not rehabilitation — is the ultimate driving force of the prison system.

The problem: Miseducation begins the first day a black boy steps into the classroom.

The reason: A broken education system.

“Less than half of black boys in the United States who are in fourth grade can read on grade level.” The education system is broken by design, posits Dr. Sujan Das, a best-selling author and community activist. Placing young, middle- to upper-class white women to teach in a lower-class black community, while expecting young black students to be able to relate and find connections with people that do not look, talk, or act like them is problematic. It is expected for the oppressed to essentially learn from their oppressors, Das explains. Having been told by a white guidance counselor that he would “amount to nothing,” Das has first-hand knowledge of the cultural dissonance. In order to correctly educate black boys and girls, changes must be made, beginning with the type of teaching employed at the primary and elementary school level.

The problem: “Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow.”

The reason: Human capital exploitation.

Eighty percent of school drop-outs end up in prison 40 percent of which are African American yet African Americans make up just 13 percent of the population. Civil rights litigator and activist Michelle Alexander bills it “the new Jim Crow,” referring to the racial caste system that plagued the South at the turn of the 20th century. According to Alexander, the policies of the current criminal justice system replaced Jim Crow laws, which in turn had replaced and mirrored slavery. Further, Sistah Iminah, the founder of Ghetto to Goddess, proclaims that the prison systems are not reforming people; instead, they are getting bodies, and free labor to generate money and commerce.


Director Rahiem Shabazz Photographed by Calvin Evans

“Elementary Genocide” [is for] those of us who have a moral obligation to see the next generation is better off than the previous one. The documentary will resonate with community leaders, students, parents and faith-based organizations,” explains Shabazz.

“In order to deal with the unbelievable ratio of illiterate black boys, we must seriously look to alternative ways such as homeschooling. When it comes to discipline in school, we should look to restorative justice instead of the get tough policy employed across the nation. More importantly, we must change the cultural perceptions of education as it exists today into a more African-centered one that doesn’t ignore or distort our contribution to the world.”

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