Despite advances by individual African-Americans recently, the health of diversity in America remains imperiled without equal access to quality education.
That was the message of a keynote speech from a representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center on Monday at the city’s free Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Varsity Theatre downtown.
According to speaker Dana Vickers Shelley and statistics from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, more than half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education destroyed the legal basis for racial segregation in America, an economic and demographic segregation is creeping in to take its place.
More and more, students of color are being taught in substandard schools without the means to hire the tutors and equipment to which wealthier students have access, Shelley said.
Because schools tend to be better in wealthier communities, poor minorities end up in lower-performing schools where residents cannot afford parcel taxes and PTA fundraising drives to make their schools better off. Without a good education, the good jobs of the 21st century drift out of reach for many minorities, who end up in poor neighborhoods and the cycle begins again.
“Schools in the United States are more segregated than they have been in four decades,” Shelley said, citing statistics from the Pew Research Center that showed 44 percent of public schools are dominated by minorities and two in five minority students attend “intensely segregated” schools based on income and race.
And according to the center, there is a general sense of a lack of racial progress since King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963; only 45 percent of Americans believe significant progress has been made since then.
That lack of confidence became more pronounced, Shelly said, when African-Americans were polled.
While access to quality education may be the key to solving modern racial woes, it is not a new issue, Shelley said. Slaves risked beatings and worse to learn how to read, then during the post-Civil War era, educated blacks set up African-American schools and colleges to try to attain racial parity with whites. Then, education was a key issue in the modern civil rights movement that saw figures like King arguing for more equal access to learning.
Shelley said more highly educated parents instill those values in their children, while less educated parents tend not to. She said she had no choice but to graduate from college because her parents were a librarian and a high school English teacher.
While separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for whites and minorities may be a thing of the past, equal application of school policies and law enforcement strategies have created a “schools-to-prison pipeline,” Shelley said, where relatively minor infractions are met with excessive legal punishment.
She gave the example of a youth in Florida who ate in the wrong lunch room and was formally charged with trespassing. Children like that often get expelled from school for acting like children, wind up in juvenile facilities or worse, then drop out of school because they lose hope, she said.
This is happening mostly in the South, but also in other states like Colorado.
Shelley also criticized school voucher programs, saying they gave unequal access to education on their face.
“I believe if he were alive today, Dr. King would demand true education for all children,” she said.
A panel of African-American representatives from UC Davis and Winfred Roberson, superintendent of the Davis Joint Unified School District, discussed the challenges facing minority youths in education. They largely agreed that economic forces are primarily blocking minorities from attaining the education they need.
“If you don’t have those resources to aid you and those parents pushing you, you are not going to make it,” said Ken Barnes, program coordinator of the UCD Internship and Career Center. He spoke of the difficulty of university science, technology, engineering and math programs that prepare students to fill the jobs that are most in demand.
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