School Starts as “Separate, But Still Unequal

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By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith

For many, the Back-to-School season is a source of pride. It serves as a reminder of our historic national commitment to education for all. This commitment has contributed to the vision of a civil democracy that advances moral leadership and civility. The great African-American educator and faith leader Nannie Helen Burroughs said, “Education and justice are democracy’s only life insurance.” It was with this in mind that Burroughs, with support of the National Baptist Convention USA, began creating a trade school for Black high school- and junior college-aged girls.

While African-American leaders like Ms. Burroughs were advancing education for all, they were also directly affected by a contradictory policy of “Separate but Equal,” which was, in reality, an inequitable system that prevented African Americans from an education. This policy limited job choices and the ability of African Americans to put food on the table.

Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith (Courtesy Photo)

Heather L. Taylor reminds us of this policy in this month’s Pan African devotional. She states this policy was a part of the disenfranchisement that was done through a discriminatory legal system. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jim Crow laws of the South mandated racial segregation thereby laying the foundation for institutionalizing separate and drastically unequal public school facilities and other resources for Black Americans. This was true even after the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that public facilities and services may remain separate but equal. The advocacy of our ancestors finally ended racial segregation in public schools in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

The long-term effect of this court case has been mixed. Today many students find themselves in schools that are re-segregated and unequal despite the hard-fought battles to not only integrate schools but to appropriate equitable resources to insure an education. In a recent {Atlantic} article Will Stancil pointed out that “racially divided schools are a major and intensifying problem for American education—maybe even a crisis.” The article cites the National Center on Education Statistics, which discovered that the number of segregated schools approximately doubled between 1996 and 2016. In that same span, the percentage of children of color attending such a school rose from 59 to 66 percent. For Black students, the percentage in segregated schools rose even faster, from 59 to 71 percent.

The past and present failure to end “separate but equal” in practice, rather than only in law, has led to today’s cycle of underinvestment in many students of color. The devotional points out that the higher school spending is associated with a significantly lower risk of students facing hunger and poverty as adults. In a rapidly changing information-based economy, education is more important than ever to students’ ability to compete for jobs that will support a family.

Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World.

By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith