This Is Our Right: Equality in Education – BHM Essay Contest Winner

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by David Okocha ‘19

Dr. Martin Luther King once said “An injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere” and no quote can better describe the lack of equality in this country’s history. It can describe the education system in American, the everlasting quest for systemic competence and most importantly, equality. These injustices have changed over time. In the past we’ve had integrating schools and the backlash from that, including entire school districts being shut down than to integrate. In general most of the problems that our education system has faced were caused by race and racism. Now as a country we enter a new age: charter schools and seceding school districts have become new barriers, among other thing, that have prevented an even playing field among our youth in America. As racial tensions in schools and school districts has cooled, it is clear, the wounds of the past still affect the decisions of today. With so much decision and debate over who receives adequate resources for learning and growth over the years, we start to ignore the true victims of inaction, the youth. Everyone has a right to education, and it’s our duty to do everything we can to make sure of that. Because, it’s not really fair to call someone illiterate, when we argued over who should teach them how to read, or where, or with what money. There is a lack of equality in the education system, because we let irrelevant things like race and class become judging factors, when we need to be giving each student his own due. And when the system fails, there is a risk of pushing students away, and into a life without a purpose, or worse.

There are many ways something can be unfair, or unjust, but to figure out if something is in fact, unfair or unjust we must look at the defintion. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word unfair as something marked by injustice, partiality, or deception, and unjust as something characterized by injustice (Merriam-Webster). Based on these definitions, they would make adequate descriptions of the obstacles facing our students today.

Race, without a doubt, as been one of the biggest focal points in the conversation of equality in education, from Brown vs The Board of Education in 1954, to school segregation today. In 1958, Little Rock, Arkansas shut down every school in the city rather than integrate. Rather than to provide education to black students, they decided to deny it for all students (The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture). That was anything but equality, that was institutionalized racism. Black students have historically been denied the same education than their white counterparts, having to settle for less. A New York Times article about the Magnificent Seven chronicles 7 students who were the first to integrate Virginia Episcopal School in 1967, with help from the Stouffer Foundation, who wished “to instill in Southern white elites a value then broadly absent: a visceral and compelling belief in the societal benefits of integration”(Secret). But for the “Magnificent 7” amd other Stouffer students, the road was never easy. For example, one black student who left the program, after being held “outside a third-floor dormitory window by his ankles”, and another member of the 7, Johnny Holloway, who was beaten during the night by his white classmates during his freshman year (Secret). The fact that black students had to not only work two times as hard than than their white counterparts, and face physical violence on the road to equal education, shows a severe lack of equality in our nation’s history. Although, racial problems in schools are less severe, they still exist, and they still affect the education system in negative ways, more specifically when talking about the issue school segregation. This takes place when a city decides to secede from a current school district, in an attempt to form its own, because it might have better resources than the other schools in its former districts, or to better control the composition of its student body. In one case of this, a New York Times article, titled “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” described a community, Gardendale, Alabama, in its attempt to form its own school district. But probably the most striking chord that comes from this article is the story of E.W. Clemon, a lawyer who had to argue against the injustices that he faced when he began practicing law, to almost 40 years later when he had to argue of new ones (Hannah-Jones). This is a clear example that racial problems in our country still exist, and that the progress that happened years ago is still being continuously undone. These school secessions are unfair and unethical, but also recall past racial issues, because in the cases of this happening, including Jefferson County, a majority white city is trying to distance itself from other schools with higher black student populations. If we can believe that equality is a possibility and a necessity, there cannot continue, much like in the past, to have the mindset that black students cheapen a learning environment, they can enrich it because there is just as much inspiration and intelligence in a black student compared a white one, as shown by Marvin Bernard, another member of the Magnificent 7, who was at the top of the class rankings all four years he attended Virginia Episcopal School (Secret). Students are blank slates waiting to learn, but they are separated, they only see one perspective, and are denied a complete growth.

The biggest risks of these obstacles, and a lack of equality, is that we intrench an ideal in our disenfranchised youth, that they are not good enough or worth anyone’s time. According to dosomething.org, 1.2 million students dropout of high school each year (dosomething.org). The growth that they need to become productive members of society isn’t found in school, and they turn to other means and places to find acceptance and meaning, no more bigger and dangerous than the streets and ghettos. Rapper Kendrick Lamar, who grew up surrounded by the streets of Compton, California, famous for its resident gangs, The Bloods and the Crips, speaks on the struggles of black youth and a education system that fails them. “Johnny don’t wanna go to school no mo’, no mo / Johnny said books ain’t cool no mo’ (no mo’) / Johnny wanna be a rapper like his big cousin / Johnny caught a body yesterday out hustlin’ / God bless America, you know we all love him”, is a line from his song XXX, in which he describes a black youth in America, or any youth, dissuaded by the failures of the school system in America, which is supposed to better him, pushes him away, and to the awaiting arms of the streets. (Genius) We read about these criminals and gangsters who commit crimes, and shame them, but the truth of the matter is, we had these kids, this is our fault. We had them in our classrooms, and had our chance to educate them, to shape and mould their minds, but we were too busy about where we were supposed to educate them, whose “problem” it was, with what budget, and if they were worthy of receiving an education at all. By the time we got around to actually teaching them, they were gone. And so begins the cycle, they are in the street, then they are convinced, that this is their true purpose when they could’ve been so much more. That’s what we need to realize, that if we fail one child, we fail hundreds, and the cycle continues.

In a recent Nike campaign, they describe the quest for equality as “until we all win”. (Nike). That statement can be the basis in which we can solve the problems of inequalities in our education system. Much like the Magnificent 7, one can keep fighting and working hard, to prove that they belong, and never quit no matter how challenging it is, and what obstacles they face. Education is a right, and we can’t stop fighting until there is equality for every student in America, no matter who they are, what race they are, and however long it takes, we must fight until we all win.