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.

“Will these children ever get what white kids in the suburbs take for granted? I don’t think so,” says the principal. “If you ask me why, I’d have to speak of race and social class. I don’t think that the powers that be in New York City understand, or want to understand, that if they do not give these children a sufficient education to lead healthy, productive lives, we will be their victims later on. We’ll pay the price someday—in violence, in economic costs.” (p. 89)

Several years later he visited a number of schools for his book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005). He describes some schools in New York:

I had also made a number of visits to a high school where a stream of water flowed down the main stairwells on a rainy afternoon and where green fungus molds were growing in the office where the students went to counseling. A large blue barrel was positioned to collect the rain-water coming through the ceiling. In one make-shift elementary school housed in a former skating rink next to a funeral parlor in another nearly all-black-and-Hispanic section of the Bronx, class size rose to 34 and more; four kindergarten classes and a sixth grade class were packed into a single room that had no windows. Airlessness was stifling in many rooms; and recess was impossible because there was no outdoor playground and no indoor gym, so the children had no place to play.... A friend of mine who was a first year teacher in a Harlem high school told me she had 40 students in her class but only 30 chairs, so some of her students had to sit on windowsills or lean against the walls. (p. 41)

Conditions like those described by Kozol and in the California report can be found in urban and low-income schools across the nation. These are examples of systematic, structural racism. Children in some areas are getting a significantly unequal education—and it has continued for at least the last 40 years.

In 2007, the U.S. government spent over $656 billion for the military, plus over $43 billion for spying and covert operations. How is it that we do not have enough money to fix the broken windows, repair the buildings, and hire teachers for our inner-city schools? And who makes this decision in a democracy?

Our country’s history of race relations has been mired in tragedy, including the enslavement of Africans, the murder of Native Americans, and the seizure of one-third of the arable land claimed by Mexico, in addition to all of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, making these people domestic, conquered, subjugated minority groups. We must recognize that, despite decades of resistance and struggle, only limited progress has been made toward ending racial stratification and oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr., a major campaigner for human rights and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, commented on the centrality of the struggle against racism in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, then the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered” (1986, p. 629).