Excerpted From: Janel George, African Americans' Pursuit of Equal Educational Opportunity in the United States, 44 Human Rights 11 (2019) (Full Document)
Education has long been recognized as a mechanism for upward social mobility and full citizenship in American society, which is in large part why Africans enslaved in America were denied access to education--particularly reading instruction--during the slave era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many slave owners feared that if enslaved individuals learned to read, they would seek their freedom. Opposition to enslaved individuals obtaining literacy was enshrined in law in many states and enforced through violence, imprisonment, and fines. And those who taught enslaved individuals to read were likewise penalized. Despite the threat of punishment, many enslaved individuals covertly learned how to read, and others risked reprisal by seeking to educate enslaved individuals. They recognized the value of education, including the value of literacy, as intrinsic to self-determination and the full citizenship denied to them under slavery.
Chief Justice Earl Warren would later declare in the seminal case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), that “education is the very foundation of good citizenship,” but many African Americans recognized the truth that education was elemental to full citizenship long before the legal victory in Brown would invalidate the “separate, but equal” doctrine that relegated them to second-class citizenship. Enslaved Africans' pursuit of literacy was the first in many attempts by African Americans to pursue educational opportunities in America. These early pursuits would be followed by struggles for access to educational opportunity that changed the landscape of public education.
Recently, African American students in Detroit's public schools filed a claim, Gary B. v. Snyder, asserting that the state of Michigan denied them access to literacy in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Their claim echoes the same aspirations of enslaved Africans in America in the not-too-distant past who simply sought the right to read as elemental to participation in society. Although the Detroit students' claim was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, it underscores the persistence of educational inequities stemming from the original sin of slavery and its progeny that continue to impact the educational and life outcomes of African Americans.
Today, inequities impacting African American students' educational experiences at the k-12 level include school discipline disparities, persistent resource inequities, and the trend of resegregation of public schools. Although slavery has been abolished, these inequities are the remnants of inequality rooted in slavery and institutionalized in systems, policies, and practices that perpetuate disparate educational experiences and outcomes for many African Americans. Tracing the origins of these inequities to their roots in slavery is central to addressing and remedying them. One venue for seeking relief for educational inequity has been the legal system. At times, the legal system has served to deepen inequities, and, at other times, it has helped to dismantle them. In examining the roots and current manifestations of educational inequities impacting African Americans, it is vital to also examine the efficacy of the legal system as a tool to help eliminate discrimination and promote policies and practices that improve the educational experiences and outcomes of African American students.
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The pervasiveness of racial disparities in school discipline practices and resources, as well as increasing resegregation of public schools, is undermining the promise of equal educational opportunity for African Americans. While many African American students succeed despite pervasive educational injustice, others experience compromised life outcomes, including limited opportunities to pursue higher education as well as diminished employment prospects and lifetime earnings. Too many African American students continue to confront very the educational injustices litigated in Brown. And polarizing political rhetoric that criminalizes and pathologizes African American students only diverts attention and resources away from the work of remedying disparities. Some argue that students should practice “grit” and achieve in spite of deplorable conditions. This argument discounts the import of resources, like qualified and experiences educators, on student outcomes.
The hope of Brown is the potential to eradicate a public education system that differentiates educational opportunity by race. Our nation's public schools still hold the potential to realize Brown's promise, but continued vigilance, including court oversight and enforcement of civil rights laws, and refusal to normalize inequality are necessary fulfill this promise to future generations.
Janel George is senior policy advisor with the Learning Policy Institute's Washington, D.C., office.