A consistent feature of racists through history is that they have fully understood the power of education, or the lack of education, as a tool of oppression. Extraordinary efforts were taken to keep black slaves illiterate, including killing those who deigned to learn to read. After the Civil War, black schools were frequent targets of attack. It should be no surprise that the longest and hardest fight in the Jim Crow South was over public school segregation. Segregationists worked to keep African Americans from lunch counters and in the back of city buses, but they fought like hell to keep black kids out of white schools.

As our nation convulses with discussions of systemic racism, nearly all of the focus has been on questions of policing and the use of force. This is appropriate, of course. But I’d like to highlight a less discussed institution for which a strong case can be made that systemic racism prevails: public education. 

An accepted definition of “systemic” or “structural” racism is as follows:

“A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with ‘whiteness’ and disadvantages associated with ‘color’ to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.”

Brown v. Board of Education put to bed the lie that separate could somehow be equal, but it killed only formal segregation in our public schools. De facto segregation persists to this day, and it’s no more “equal” than it was when Brown was decided. More than half of American schoolchildren attend “racially concentrated” schools, meaning schools in which over 75 percent of students are either white or nonwhite. Given the weak public schools black students are trapped in, it is not hard to make the case that public policy and institutional practices “work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.”

The so-called “achievement gap” between white and black students has gotten worse in some ways, not better, in recent years according to NAEP, the nation’s report card. Only 15 percent of black eighth graders in public schools nationwide are proficient in reading. Meanwhile, the federal government has reported that more than 70 percent of incarcerated adults are illiterate. If an institution that is supposed to be educating children consistently fails 85 percent of black children in this most basic life skill, and there is a strong correlation between the lack of that skill and incarceration, when is it appropriate to inquire whether the institution itself is advancing racist ends, even if not overtly motivated by prejudice?

In places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin the difference in how you are served by the government school system depends largely on your skin color, and the gap could not be more stark. White students attend some of the best public schools in the country with high school graduation rates consistently above 90 percent. Black students, meanwhile, attend schools where one in three students do not graduate high school, at best. At worst, students are trapped, by virtue of their zip code, in places like Milwaukee North Division High School, where they suffer statistics like this: daily attendance rate, 62.3 percent; four-year graduation rate, 31.7 percent; ACT language proficiency, 7.5 percent; ACT math proficiency, 0.0 percent; average ACT score for the school, 13.3.

In Oklahoma, government schools fail African American students in much the same way, despite being well-funded per pupil compared to the average across the state. In 2018, for example, Tulsa Public Schools spent $14,248 per student when accounting for all revenue sources, compared to a state average of $10,793. But for kids on the North side, this above-average funding must be cold comfort. Take Central High School, for example, where around 87 percent of students are nonwhite. The school has an F-rating from the State Department of Education, and the 4-year graduation rate is only 69 percent. More astonishingly, according to the school’s report card, 0.0 percent of African American students achieved a grade-level proficient score in state testing in 2019. Yes, zero.

This should go without saying, but in case the point isn’t clear: it is extremely unlikely that in a school with 70, 80, or 90 percent of students underperforming the problem is with the students. By and large, the kids in these schools are not failing, they are being failed.

The statistics are grim, and we could slice them six ways to Sunday to make the point. But perhaps more illuminating is an exercise in common sense. Ask yourself this: if given the choice, would you rather send your kids to McClain High School or Jenks? Capitol Hill High School or Deer Creek? For that matter, is there a metro area in the United States where the urban school district is consistently the first choice of parents over the outlying suburban schools? We don’t need statistics to watch parents vote with their feet.

But only if they have the financial means to do so, and the ones left behind in failing schools almost universally do not. The sad reality is that white students in the United States in 2020 have access to better public schools than do black students because we assign kids to schools based on where they live. This largely shakes out to a question of family income. If your parents can afford a house in a “good” school district, you aren’t forced into a failing one. If not, you are out of luck.

Every few years someone proposes a school choice measure to offer children an escape, and they are batted away by mostly white adults invested in the status quo. Most recently in Oklahoma, a fairly modest expansion of the successful Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program was shelved at the behest of teachers’ unions who see public education as a jobs program for adults and an education establishment that cannot tolerate any school choice program that makes it look bad, no matter how many children benefit.

Systemic racism? The state of public education seems to fit the definition. Whatever we call it, the result is black children languishing in failing schools, enduring something akin to mass incarceration. A failed school system may be less obviously oppressive than mass imprisonment, but it is no less consequential, and one exacerbates the other. When will we empower black children to escape?

Benjamin Lepak is Legal Fellow at the 1889 Institute. He can be reached at blepak@1889institute.org

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.