Fifty years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an empassionate speech. His famous speech will forever be remembered for its visionary content, but King offered much more than a dream. He offered a scathing critique of American society. He brought to the forefront of America’s consciousness, the gap between American society as it was, and American society as it should have been.
Despite claims of a post-racial society, there is still compelling evidence that far too many of America’s promissory notes are returned; they are still marked insufficient funds. Promises of justice, fairness and equality are still unfulfilled for many Americans, including people of color. Evidence of the persistence of racial inequality is all around us. I have written about the persistence of racial wealth inequality and the overrepresentation of blacks among the asset poor. Other scholars, such as, Michelle Alexander, have written about the disparate impact of the War on Drugs. Eduardo Bonillo-Silva and Patricia Hill Collins are just two of the scholars writing extensively about the new racism and the myth of colorblindness-the idea that we as a nation no longer see race. Few places is the enduring racial divide as evident today, as it was five decades ago, than on the educational front. Almost sixty years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and a half a century after a quarter of Americans marched on Washington, many of our schools remain separate and unequal.
Those with power and privilege, an overwhelming majority of which are white, continue to have access to, what most would consider, good schools. Economically disadvantaged children, and children of color, remain trapped in bad schools. In contemporary times, these overwhelming black and brown children, watch as more affluent, often white students, have unencumbered access to schools that prepare them, not only with a lifelong love of learning, but for success in college, and for jobs in what social scientists call the primary sector.
Jobs in the primary sector of a split-labor force provide security, opportunities for advancement, and benefits. People of color are often relegated to the secondary sector, which is characterized by low wage jobs, the absence of benefits, and very little job security. It’s no wonder that people of color are disproportionally employed in the secondary sector, if they are employed at all, when one examines the inequalities in education that continue to set individuals on separate paths based upon the social groups to which they belong.
Far too many children of color find themselves in schools which, thanks to the new educational reform movement, are slapped with the label FAILING. Students, parents, and teachers are scapegoated in many of these districts, in part, to detract attention from decades of misguided educational policies that now accomplish work previously performed by ardent, overt segregationist.
Black and brown children, as a result, are disproportionately forced to learn in educational environments that King and others could not have envisioned fifty years ago, would still be around today. An increasingly popular mark, on the relatively new educational landscape, is a phenomenon I call “pop-up schools”. Much like the popular children’s pop-up books, pop-up schools may be aesthetically pleasing, attractive at first glance, but in the wrong hands, are easily destroyed.
More specifically, pop-up schools are schools that were designated as failing and closed down to prevent state takeovers, only to be given new life, if not a new name, with many of the same problems. Students in these pop-up schools (e.g. Charter Schools, Magnet Schools, Gifted and Talented Programs,) still lack access to the levels and types of resources readily available to more affluent and predominately white schools.
School administrators, at these pop-up schools, are forced to take on the role of used car salesman. They are expected to sell students, parents, teachers, and the community, a bill of goods. They promise higher test scores, a new approach to instruction, etc. In reality, students, parents, and teachers encounter new schools that are often hastily put together. The consequences are varied and quite severe.
Pop-up schools, particularly during the first few years of their existence, may lack the basic infrastructure to handle critical activities, such as schedule changes, leaving many bright students in courses that lack the academic rigor advertised.
Estimated initial enrollment at pop-up schools may be inflated to show school boards and state education departments that they are viable. The inflation of initial student enrollment has led to the transfer of seasoned teachers within weeks of the start of the school year. A consequence of this “overstaffing,” is the severing of the teacher-student relationship at one of its most critical moments. This may also result in the transfer of highly qualified teachers who are passionate about what they do, for inadequately trained teachers who lack the passion, but possess requisite certifications to teach multiple subjects. This new breed of teachers can be shuffled from one grade, or one subject matter to the next, which results in a staff that could best be described as “jacks of all trades and masters of none.” Reports of this are evidenced throughout the country. This is not just an issue that is facing children of color, and low-income children, in America’s inner cities. It is a cancer that is eating away at educational systems in America’s mid-section and in the Deep South.
Those with the means, most of whom are white, along with many public officials, who understand the way in which in the political wind is blowing, have in far too many cases, wholeheartedly, abandoned the public educational system. They have abandoned the public school system in at least one of the following ways: 1. They leave the central city and create their own public school districts, which are predominately affluent and white as a result of residential, not self-segregation. 2. They take their students out of public schools and place them in private and parochial schools with tuition rates that often exceed the tuition at most state universities. 3. They create an illusion of inclusion by offering a relatively small portion of the economically disadvantaged students, and students of color, the opportunity to attend private and parochial schools, and at the same time, divest in the public school system where hundreds of thousands of children must remain. 4. They create public schools that are seemly open to the general public, but charge tuition. 5. They create pop-up programs within abandoned schools where the Savage Inequalities Jonathan Kozol wrote about are highly visible. 5. They resort to blaming the victim, as opposed to, addressing the structural inequalities underpinning the entire educational system in America.
This has got to change. While the King’s speech is remembered by most as a vision for America’s future, we must also remember that the speech was about much more. The struggle for social justice is about much more.
At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, King brought the issue of social inequality to the forefront and called upon all Americans to work towards the creation of a more equitable society. Sadly, persistent disparities, particularly in education, provide some of the most convincing evidence of the enduring divides in this country, one that is only exacerbated by the scapegoating of students, parents, and teachers, while the real culprits, those with power and privilege, (e.g. so-called educational reformers, disinterested legislators, etc.) get a pass.
Our children, all of our children, deserve better.
Lori Latrice Martin
Associate Professor of Sociology and African & African American Studiesop