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Racism and Schools

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Students of different ethnic groups (Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, African Americans, and European Americans) learn to read at dramatically different rates in our schools.

The ethnic group you belong to makes a substantial difference in school achievement. Mexican Americans leave school at a higher rate than other Hispanics, and Hispanics drop out at a higher rate than do non-Hispanic Whites (Ramirez & de la Cruz, 2003). There has been a dramatic increase in the rate of segregation of Black and Latino students from White students in the nation’s public schools (Frey, 2006; Orfield & Lee, 2007). We are becoming a more divided nation. The reason for this is relatively straightforward: Schools for poor children and children of color are inadequately secure, staffed, and funded. Economic choices—for example, to unequally and inadequately fund schools—produce most of the differences in achievement that are used as evidence of racial superiority and inferiority.

In May of 2001, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit (Williams v. California) that documented the deplorable and even unsafe and unsanitary conditions in many of California’s schools that serve large numbers of students of color. What causes these unequal conditions? Among the causes is a sustained pattern of underfunding of these schools. These are deliberate decisions to maintain some schools well and other schools in below-humane conditions. The fact that these racial and class disparities exist must be explained.

In 2001, after years of trial, a New York judge, Leland DeGrasse, found that New York State’s school funding system denies students in New York City the opportunity for a “sound basic education.” Justice DeGrasse ruled that the system violated the state constitution and that the funding system was discriminatory against minority students in violation of the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Later the decision was overturned by a higher court.

In 2006, the Chicago school district was required to make a list of its failing schools (as now required by new federal law). In Chicago, 365 out of 596 schools, and predominantly African American and Latino schools, were on the list. A 2007 report by the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California at Los Angeles described how California’s schools in low-income and heavily Latino and Black areas are significantly more overcrowded, have more substitute teachers, have fewer prepared math teachers, and lack college preparation courses in comparison to similar schools in mostly White areas (Oakes & Rogers, 2007).

If you were a parent of school children in New York, Chicago, or California, would you have confidence that your children were being treated fairly? How do you think such a consistent pattern of underfunding and school failure develops across the nation?

For over 40 years, Jonathan Kozol has been describing the severe inequality of opportunity in many public schools. In 1991, he described school conditions that would never be accepted in adequately funded European American schools:

The school is 29% black, 70% Hispanic.... We sit and talk in the nurse’s room. The window is broken. There are two holes in the ceiling. About a quarter of the ceiling has been patched and covered with a plastic garbage bag.

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