I remember very clearly when I first became aware of educational inequity and structural racism. Just before I entered middle school, our family moved to the suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland, which boasted one of the top school systems in the nation. I tested into a STEM magnet program and was excited for all that 7th grade would bring. As a naïve 12-year-old, I assumed my school experience would mirror the vast cultural and ethnic diversity of my new neighborhood that I loved. I was in for a huge surprise.
While my school’s overall enrollment was very diverse, the magnet program was filled mostly with White students. As the students in this elite program housed within the school, we had separate classes and totally different educational experiences than the other students. In those two years, I saw over and over again how my opportunities were vastly different from that of the other students of color in my school. Back then, I didn’t know the desegregation policy requirements placed on school districts or their implications. I didn’t know that this program was designed to integrate our schools according to the letter of the law, but not the intent. All I knew was that it didn’t make me feel good.
I guess I was supposed to feel “lucky” or “fortunate” because I got to be one of the few Black students participating in the education that White students were receiving. But, even as a 12-year-old, it didn’t feel right. I was getting a great education, but I felt isolated. I remember being voted “Most Likely to Succeed” as an 8th grader, but it didn’t feel like it was an accomplishment at all. Because although I was excelling academically, I didn’t have a connection or real friendships with the kids who looked like me — or the White kids in my magnet program either, for that matter. I wanted to be Black and gifted, not gifted and isolated. But my school did not offer the opportunity to embrace both my Blackness and my genius at the same time. I’ve carried that experience with me for decades, and it angers me that Black children are still struggling with the dehumanizing, hurtful experience of structural racism in our schools.
“I wanted to be Black and gifted, not gifted and isolated. But my school did not offer the opportunity to embrace both my Blackness and my genius at the same time.”
Nowhere in the United States do students feel this struggle more deeply than in the South. The dark history of deep-seated racism and violence over the integration of Southern education serves as a backdrop for the problems that continue to have impact today. Schools are mired with issues of structural racism and inequity. This affects Black people deeply, as this is the region of the country where the majority of Black children live. According to NCES, in 2015, 59% of Black school children were enrolled in school in the South. The United States is also experiencing a reverse migration, as many Black families are returning to the South. Ironically though, it’s not a region of the country often studied for the impacts of education on its residents.
Since the 1990s, the South has rapidly returned to the segregated, unequal schools of its past. Fully half of Southern comprehensive high schools are extremely segregated, with enrollments either being more than 75% Black or more than 75% White. Nearly 60 percent of White public high school students in the South attend an extremely segregated White school, while more than one-third of black high school students attend an extremely segregated Black school. To be clear, this does not happen without intentionality on the part of policymakers that draw school district boundary lines and establish school feeder patterns.
A look at these segregated Black Southern high schools reveals several key disparities. In these schools, 1 in 14 teachers are not certified, as compared to White high schools where the ratio is 1 in 100. These schools are less likely to offer algebra 2, advanced math, calculus, chemistry, and physics classes. According to the United States Department of Education, there are approximately 5,000 secondary schools with high Black and Latinx enrollments that offer mathematics and science classes at a lower rate than the overall population of high schools. Nationally, only 57 percent of Black students in all types of schools have access to a full college preparatory curriculum. In the South, less than one-third of Black students enrolled in these segregated Southern high schools have access to a full college preparatory curriculum. And beyond the issue of access is the matter of opportunity to actually participate in these courses, which was the struggle of my childhood school. Research tells us that having certified teachers and participation in a rigorous college preparatory curriculum in high school impacts whether a student enrolls in college, requires remediation, or completes their degree.
“Less than one-third of Black students enrolled in segregated Southern high schools have access to a full college preparatory curriculum.”
Our current education system places Black students in the South at a clear disadvantage. Southern education in many states, as currently constructed, is either maintaining or widening the educational and economic divide between Blacks and Whites. This is supported by the persistent gaps in college matriculation and completion, as well as household income between Blacks and Whites in the South. And we are kidding ourselves if we think that Black students don’t see these inequities and internalize the horrible message that it sends, just like I did in middle school— “Black students are not valued. We are not good enough to be invested in equally. Our education matters less.”
Black students internalize a horrible message: “Black students are not valued. We are not good enough to be invested in equally. Our education matters less.”
A quality education is touted as the great economic equalizer, providing everyone access to the American Dream. But what happens when structural racism takes hold and the education isn’t high quality for every child? What happens when the vestiges of a Jim Crow era maintain a chokehold on the educational structures of an entire region of the United States? What happens when those in power put all their weight behind preserving the status quo because they want their children to maintain advantage, to the detriment of Black children in their communities? Then education is not the equalizer, but instead it is the preserver of white supremacy.
The ability to move from poverty to the middle class in a single generation, build wealth, and change the trajectory of the family is denied most Blacks in the South, and it begins with inequities in how we teach the children. The solutions to this problem exist — and have existed for decades. What does not exist is the real will to change.
Those who hold the purse strings of education and make decisions about policies and practices implemented in Southern schools must care about what happens to Black students and Black families. This caring must be demonstrated in the form of real action — a commitment to true racial equity analysis of school and district structures, a timely plan for implementation of just and fair policies, and true accountability for making Southern schools equitable for Black students.
It is the absolute right of Black students to have a quality, equitable education.We cannot continue to allow the majority of our nation’s Black children to be neglected by an education system that only pays lip service to equity and academic progress for all. We must fight to end the unchecked systemic racism in Southern education.