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  • Nicole Doyley

Why Does Racial Progress Stall at Education?

Updated: May 7

Ask any two people if there has been racial progress in America and you’ll get two different answers.

On one hand, of course there has been progress. When my father was born, sixty percent of Black women (including my grandmother) worked twelve hours a day as maids. Today, two percent do.  While my dad attended elementary school in Harlem, most Black people lived in the South and worked as sharecroppers; only five percent held white-collar jobs. By the time my parents married in 1962, almost a quarter of Black men held skilled jobs. Today, the majority of African Americans have left poverty behind and over sixty percent enjoy middle class life.

Thanks to the Civil Rights Act racial discrimination is illegal. Though a person may be a racist, it’s illegal for him or her to bar someone from a job or a mortgage because of race. And as much as some immigrants may want to distance themselves from Black activists, they benefit from the legislation won by Black activists. It is now also illegal to withhold a job because of national origin. Schools can’t turn away my kids; restaurants have to serve my family. The children of Southeast Asian immigrants can amass wealth and run for president.

Black people are slowly entering STEM fields. We dominate in most sports and Black women are among the most educated people in the country.

All signs of progress.

And yet when I turn my attention to American schools my ebullience fades. Suddenly I’m not sure if we’ve made any progress at all. A hundred years ago, white teachers unapologetically taught Black kids that they were inferior. Children all over the nation learned that Black people were once savages, that slavery elevated them and that they were incapable of anything but menial labor. They were told that they would never achieve anything great, that white people were intellectually, physically, and morally superior.

In response, Black historian, Carter G. Woodson, advocated for Black History Week, which later became Black History Month. He made the case for one week commemorating noteworthy Black people because he knew it was crucial for Black kids to know that people who looked like them influenced the development not only of our nation but also of human civilization. He wanted no pity, just that we would be given our fair due in school curricula. The facts would speak for themselves. Learning about the kingdoms of Kush, Mali and Songhai and people like DuBois and Booker T Washington, Bethune and Colvin, Carter and Wells, Hughes, Marshall, and Truth would dethrone white supremacy in the minds and hearts of Black and white kids. He looked forward to the day when these lessons would be enfolded into curriculum proper, taught as Black people in history, and not segregated into a separate week or month.

One hundred years later, this has still not happened. I can count on one hand (and even have fingers left over) the number of noteworthy Black people my children have studied and the number of books by Black authors they have read in school. The message is clear, “White people and white civilizations are noteworthy; Black people and Black civilizations are not.” Some school districts have gone a step further and removed Black authors from library shelves. Now kids can’t read about Ruby Bridges even if they tried.

Is it any wonder then that racist incidents in schools across the nation have increased? White kids have no idea that they are not at the center of the universe.

Ours is a nation of white teachers, and if given the choice, some will assign books about the Black experience, but many will not. They will avoid potential discomfort and opt out of teaching the text.  Progress stagnates on their watch.

There was a false expectation that racism would die out with the Archie Bunker generation. Yet children today are taught, or not taught, the same things as children seventy years ago. Why should we expect different results if we continue to do the same thing? The message may be more tacit today, but it is still the same message. No wonder the myriad white supremacist groups are comprised of twenty and thirty-year-olds and not old men.

And that is why Black parents are tired. We’ve been fighting this battle for a long time: begging for more than one book, one hero, one nod in our direction. I’m not surprised that the Black homeschooling movement is growing. If I weren’t so tired, I’d be tempted to join it myself.

Also published in Kinsman Quarterly online magazine.



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