After the events in St. Louis County of Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a surge of increased concern and awareness regarding the problems of racial inequality and prejudice in America — institutionally, unconsciously, and otherwise. It’s a conversation that, for some, never stopped being important, but there’s no question that the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown reopened the topic for discussion on a lot of platforms — though only a few of the ones that matter. Fox News talks shows aren’t the right mechanism for an intelligent and measured conversation about race. They also aren’t a good mechanism for change.
Policy and Institutionalized Problems in the U.S.
In addressing the equal opportunity, bigotry, and systematic problems the United States faces, there are a few different conversations worth being a part of. There’s the policy conversation, obviously, which Attorney General Eric Holder and the President alike have made good efforts toward adding to in recent months. Holder, who just announced his eventual departure from office, was very active in the post-shooting crisis, working to restore some measure of public trust with law enforcement and to address institutionalized racism in the United States by changing prison sentences and opening up safety and educational goals and opportunities for young people of all races with Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program.
There is also the law enforcement-specific conversation that was badly needed in Ferguson, but is also vital in other cities in America. The demographic majority of civilians are African American, a fairly recent change, but the law enforcement power structure remains largely white. Since events spiraled into heavy protests and police backlash, many, including the president, have addressed the weaponization of police and the need for better training and relations.
Brookings, on the other hand, opened up the floor for a more general conversation about divide and inequality in America, addressing one specific question: “Why does racial inequality persist long after Jim Crow?” Many of the guest speakers addressed policy as well as the financial side of politics, claiming politics today have placed power in the hands of the wealthy and thus away from important issues. They also spoke about the need to handle the “overreach of the criminal justice system,” as per Adam Serwer, national editor of BuzzFeed.
Education and Inequality
Perhaps the most vital argument was made by Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown Law School. Cashin spoke of the “lottery of birth,” i.e. the chances that as a child, your parents could afford a home in the right neighborhood. Now, obviously, this applies to a lot of issues; presence of gang violence, drugs, and general safety issues are one. However, Cashin was referring to the public education supplied within your district.
“You say we don’t have Jim Crow anymore,” said Cashin during the Brookings group panel. “But we have a lot of the enduring structures of Jim Crow … So we have persistent racial inequality, in large part because of these enduring structures, often tied to where you live.” She discussed the need for zoning reform policy and the need for an “incredible school of the future decoupled from where you live.”
Overt and unconscious racism are both problems the United States needs to handle, and will likely be contending with for decades still to come. But the best way to help combat institutionalized, structural inequality in America as it’s divided by race — with African Americans and non-white Americans far more likely to be beneath the poverty line and in lower socioeconomic demographics — is to strike it early on with equal education opportunity. As has been emphasized by equal rights activists from across time and race, from Martin Luther King to Malala Yousafzai, education is one of the most important levelers.
Studies and the Cycle of Poverty
Right now, it’s not a tool that students across America have equal access to, because public education in one region may be drastically different than it is in another. Studies have conclusively found lower levels of education for Hispanics and African Americans in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also reports studies that correlate additional years of schooling with increased earnings, and that some studies show “that socioeconomic differences explain all or at least a portion of the gap in college attendance.” A study from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 34% of African American children are living in poverty, compared to 10% of white Americans and 27% of Hispanics. What this shows is a cyclical failure, wherein lower socioeconomic groups are less likely to attend college and higher education institutions, are subsequently paid less, and ultimately raise their children in a similar socioeconomic situation. Poverty is cyclical, and the ability to escape it isn’t universally available via a strong educational system.
The U.S. Department of Education also released a very telling report on Civil Rights Data and College and Career Readiness. It reports that only 50% of high schools offer calculus, and only 63% offer physics, while 10% to 15% don’t offer other vital courses like algebra, geometry, biology, and chemistry. These numbers are especially relevant in schools with the highest percentages of African American and Latino students.
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