It is now apparently a given in American civic dialogue that racism no longer exists in America … if indeed it ever did.
If a minority group member asserts that racism still exists in this country, that incautious soul will immediately be lashed for “playing the race card” and all further rational discussion of the topic will cease.
In fact, the minority group member who rashly points to some tangible bit of evidence that a heck of a lot more than “vestigial” racism persists here will almost certainly get slapped upside the head and charged with being a “reverse racist” … whatever that means.
So vehement is the reflexive denunciation of anyone who dares to question our national record on race that it has succeeded in silencing much of the discussion on this issue. We are laboring under the impossible delusion that “race is not a factor” in our society, that we have become truly, monumentally “colorblind.”
Don’t believe any of it. We continue to drag around an enormous ball and chain firmly attached to our collective ankle, the legacy of pervasive racism. It is still easier for a white ex-con in the United States today to get a job than it is for a black person without a criminal record. And when it comes to education, the notion of racial parity increasingly sounds like nothing more than a joke.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, as recently as the early ’80s, data showed we had made some amazing gains in closing the gap between white student achievement and that of minorities. Parity in literacy, high school graduation rates, college admission and even college graduation seemed tantalizingly within our grasp. We were close to having created a society with true equality of educational opportunity.
Then, maddeningly, it began slipping backward. With the Reagan administration, the two lines charting whites and non-whites in our schools, which had been converging slowly over a 20-year period, began drifting apart. They continue to diverge today, with nothing to indicate that the disparity has even made it onto the national radar, let alone sparked any outrage.
In a recent article, Jonathan Kozol notes that American public schools are today, in 2006, more racially segregated than they were at the time of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court Decision of the mid-'50s that supposedly ended our “separate but equal” public school systems. That’s an incredible indictment.
Worse, all the numbers are shocking. Minority students drop out of high school at a higher rate than whites, graduate at a lower rate, get suspended more often than whites (even for identical offenses), and have a harder time getting into college, especially the elite upper-echelon schools that for a time actively courted minority students.
What happened? For starters, the courts have backed away from affirmative action programs in university admissions, with the consequence that fewer blacks, Latinos or Native Americans are getting in.
And in a particularly insidious move, Congress has gradually but inexorably, ever since Ronald Reagan, been “trimming” social programs for the poor. "After all, the numbers were getting better all through the ’60s and ’70s," so the rationale went, "so we can afford to start paring back on the props that made those improved numbers possible."
Scholarship programs were turned into loans … or into nothing. Tutoring and mentoring supportive efforts were morphed into “volunteer faith-based initiatives” … or completely wiped out. Job programs like summer youth employment, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Youth Tutoring Youth—were all axed after being labeled “ineffective.”
Democrats like Bill Clinton jumped on the bandwagon, too. The carnage created by his so-called Welfare Reform and Workforce Investment legislation cannot be ignored when you start totaling up the causes for our current malaise in minority education.
In exchange for losing billions of dollars in supportive assistance programs, minorities got a “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law that has further widened the gap between the educational haves and have-nots. (In a future column, I’ll share some specific case studies that identify how NCLB is failing minority youth.)
Instead of the straight-forward traditional indicators of how we are doing educationally (drop-out and graduation rates; college admissions; literacy levels), NCLB has substituted a nightmarish complex of tests and comparisons that seem exquisitely designed to ensure that white student success will not be challenged in any way and that minority students will be kept in their place.
NCLB is up for re-authorization by Congress this year. It would be altogether appropriate for the issue of parity in public education to be raised during that crucial debate, but to do so would first require an acknowledgment that we still have a vast amount of work before us if we have any hope of converting this into a truly colorblind society.
Meanwhile, looming on the horizon, waiting its turn for our attention, is an even more difficult educational challenge: the assimilation and education of the 11 million predominately Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants already in this country.
Healing the wounds of racism; assimilating and preparing undocumented workers and their families—these are not minor bumps in the road to be dealt with through casual indifference or as an afterthought. We need to get to work. Both Congress and the president should be digging in for some heavy lifting. Instead, they piddle around. I’m getting very worried.