Fifty-eight years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, we should remember the original cause, equality.
Today is the 58th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court told communities to end school segregation by race, when they got around to it.
The law changed, but segregation didn’t go away, not entirely. So now do we accept racial divisions as normal? Do we hope all will resolve itself without community action? It won’t.
We need to revisit what we’ve done and what still needs doing, and clarify our goals, particularly recognizing that pursuing diversity is not the same as combating racial inequality.
I picked a couple of elementaries in the Seattle Public School system just based on location and looked at their stats for 2010-2011.
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Bryant Elementary near the University District was 71 percent white, 17 percent Asian-Pacific Islander, 5 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent black. Dunlap Elementary in Rainier Beach was 1 percent white and 48 percent black, 41 percent Asian-Pacific Islander and 16 percent Hispanic.
Ten percent of Bryant students qualified for free or reduced lunches versus 83 percent at Dunlap.
I could do the same kind of comparison between whole districts in King County and find similar gaps.
Segregation is an aspect of the larger problem of inequality based on race. The differences in schools reflect differences in neighborhoods, which reflect income disparities. Poor people of color tend to be clustered together and segregated from the majority more than white poor people. That is especially true for black people, who still have lower incomes, higher unemployment and a host of other disparities in comparison with other Americans.
Racial inequality is an off-putting topic. For years we’ve preferred to talk about diversity, which sounds nicer and is important in its own right, but not at all the same as battling racial inequality. In fact, sometimes it obscures the main problem as much as arguments over school busing once did. Effective remedies require clarity.
Consider programs intended to help overcome the disadvantages that have built up over our history — college-recruitment programs, organizations designed to help kids. Often these days the beneficiaries are people who are relatively new to the country, who have many hurdles to overcome, but none of them as a result of generations of privation and racism here. Yet sometimes they are all lumped together by color, rather than experiences. I saw a Washington Post story about Ivy League recruiters who touted the number of black students they’d attracted, but a closer look showed many were African immigrants mostly from well-off, well-educated West African families.
Recruiting them improves diversity, which is great, but it doesn’t close historical gaps. Children like my son whose parents can provide the preparation and support other middle-class families give their children should be viewed differently from children who don’t have those advantages. And of course immigrants come with their own wide variations in needs.
Taking color into account, but not getting stuck there is a tricky business, made more complex by uneven progress within groups and the simplicity of focusing on outward appearances. Distinctions should be made among different groups of Latino and Asian Americans, too. Sometimes lumping makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t.
To fix the most entrenched problems requires awareness and change across society targeted to specific needs.
Contemporary studies show there are still race-based barriers that limit access to employment, housing and health care, as well as high-quality education.
Education is affected by inequality, but can be a big part of the solution by producing citizens who understand it and won’t tolerate it and by helping to uplift children who’ve been left behind.
And all educators would have an easier job if we invested heavily in early education, and King County’s Nurse-Family Partnership, which has a proven record of helping mothers nurture their children to success.
It would have been so much easier for us today if the country had taken care of business then, but it didn’t. So we are left with a job only partially done, and because the country has changed in so many ways, it is harder now to get down to the roots and finish the work.
But do we really want to leave it undone for the next generation and the one after that?
Black Americans made astounding progress before the country’s commitment to change began to wane. Past success ought to inspire us to finish the job.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.