Equal Is as Equal Does

Back in the early nineties, I taught English 101 for college freshmen for a couple of years. Besides covering the basics of composition and introducing students to the university library, English 101 was also supposed to present certain common topics of “scholarly discourse”—including gender issues and racial equality.

Having just come out of a fledgling career in nursing at the time, I was pretty familiar with how low pay was for that traditionally female occupation. In fact, I’d been told more than once that as a male I stood a better chance of advancement and higher pay even in nursing than most women did. So much for gender equality. As for the issue of race, having been born into a family with working-class roots in the rural South, I also knew something of what overt racial bias looked like. I was eight when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and I grew up hearing grumbling about his “betrayal” of the South. (Prior to Johnson, “Southern Democrat” was a byword. Consider how different the case is today.)

My childhood public schooling and church attendance were in the North, however. “Red and Yellow / Black and White / They are precious in His sight” was simply a given in my young heart and mind. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would don a KKK robe and hood, nor why Malcolm X wanted to fight.

Little did I understand just how deeply unequal things were—in the North as well as the South.

That English 101 course provided a first clue, when one of my students presented a paper arguing “reverse discrimination” concerning college quotas. Unable to conceive that equality must include equal opportunity, and that impoverished neighborhoods do not provide the same opportunities that middle- and upper-class neighborhoods do, all my student could see was that some White males were being passed over by Black males with lower entrance-exam scores. I’ve heard that “reverse discrimination” argument many times since (including a recent Supreme Court ruling), and it’s always difficult to reason against, because it focuses on a couple of scores that are easy to see, rather than a broader social situation that is harder to grasp.

So let’s look at another couple of scores that are easy to see. According to recent national testing, while both Black and White students at fourth and eighth grade levels have made some gains in math and reading scores, the gap between Black and White students at both grades remains virtually as wide as ever. This is true in every state for which results are available, regardless of geographic region.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. I live near Milwaukee, which among its many ethnic groups has a considerable population of impoverished Blacks. One of my daughters teaches in an after-school reading program there, trying to help second through fourth graders catch up to the national standards. Many of her students are children of single-parent homes. Many live in buildings that have the windows boarded up. Street crime is ever present. From an early age, these children learn as a survival skill “Don’t let anyone diss you.” It’s difficult for them to focus on traditional learning with that mindset, especially when the career paths available seem to be either minimum-wage job (for the girls) or street gang (for the guys).

Lest you think I oversimplify the difficulty of overcoming such a background, let me repeat something I’ve mentioned in previous posts: Because of my own lower-middle-class blue-collar upbringing, I couldn’t even conceive of college until age 30. It might as well have been Shangri-la. Once I finally found the path, however, my all-White Midwestern public schooling had prepared me to succeed. On the other hand, for far too many impoverished Black students, even once they’ve found the pass through the mountains into the fabled valley of higher education, it is only to discover that the language they speak doesn’t mean the same thing here, and that they simply haven’t been prepared to survive.

This is racism.

Those fourth and eighth grade test scores say more about our civilization than about the students tested. Those scores say that we do not provide equally for all our children. They say that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: America is still in default on its promissory note to the people it once enslaved.

—Les

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