The following is a guest post from the Reverend Dr. Merchuria Chase Williams, a former school teacher and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.
Last month, sixty years after the Supreme Court threw out the toxic doctrine of “separate but equal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked us to keep our “eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She pointed out that in law and in daily life, race still matters deeply and cannot “be wished away.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote those words in a dissent to the Schuette decision that upheld Michigan’s state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action, six decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said schools may not be segregated by race. It’s no coincidence that both of these decisions were about education. If anything proves that race still matters in America, it’s our public schools.
While the 1954 Brown decision brought badly needed change and helped invigorate a nationwide civil rights movement, glaring racial inequalities persist to this day – and nowhere are they more evident than in the classroom. In recent years, school segregation has actually gotten worse rather than better. On average, a black student today goes to a school where 29 percent of her fellow students are white – a percentage that has dropped seven points since 1980. Students of color are less likely to have access to a broad range of math and science courses and are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And according to the Center for American Progress, on average American schools spend hundreds less on each student of color than they do on each white student.
While we may no longer be legally separate, educational opportunities and conditions for our nation’s students are far from equal.
Despite these gaps, big funders on the Right continue to pour money into efforts to privatize the education system rather than strengthen the public education system that the vast majority of our nation’s children use. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family that established Walmart, has pumped millions into efforts to expand private school vouchers, undermining the public schools that are, in education advocate Diane Ravitch’s words, “the heart of most communities.”
Those of us who have been working for many years to improve the education system in Atlanta and across the country know that we need to support and strengthen public education, not undercut it. We need to work to address ongoing education inequalities for students of different backgrounds, not pretend that race simply doesn’t matter or that racial inequalities do not exist. Let’s use the anniversary of this landmark decision to recommit ourselves to building an education system that truly provides equal opportunities to all of our nation’s children.
Today’s Supreme Court majority may not get it, but the millions of children failed by our school system do.