Great America

Let’s Talk About the ‘Systemic Racism’ of Public Schooling

If you care about this thing called systemic racism then demand K-12 public schools be fixed and fixed right now.

Something called systemic racism has been ubiquitous in the news recently. Now, I don’t really know what “systemic racism” means, but if you want to talk about the biggest driver of harm to people with dark skin, one need look no further than the K-12 public school system.

The schools kids in poor, urban, and largely minority neighborhoods are forced to attend are a national disgrace. It is not uncommon to find schools where more than 90 percent of all students are not proficient in any subject. 

There can only be two explanations. Either these kids are simply too dumb to learn much of anything or they are getting screwed by the education system. 

And since the first explanation is preposterous, the evidence is overwhelming that it is the second. 

Just think of language and speech. Imagine that years ago, the public school system effectively decided “those Irish or Italian immigrants are too stupid to learn to speak and write proper English, so we’ll just accept this and teach them a dumbed-down version.” 

Might that have had an effect on these children once they became adults? Do you think it might have branded them and their children and tied them to the lowest economic rungs in the country? Possibly forever?

Yet we all know this is exactly the situation that has been inflicted on poor kids across this country in the name of compassion—and far too many of these poor kids have black and brown skin. 

This misguided destruction of young lives before they even get a chance to start has been accepted as normal—generation after generation after generation. If that does not scream “systemic racism,” what does? 

And what about the realities these children face as they grow up? What exactly does the future hold for a 14-year-old with little to no math skills, no knowledge of science, history and much of anything else and poor reading, writing, and speaking skills? 

Where all this leads should come as a surprise no one. The entire process, and our sad acceptance and normalization of this savage destruction of young lives, is the definition of systemic racism. It’s assuming they can do no better.

How many of the problems of the inner cities in general and of black Americans in particular find their roots in generations of failed education and the shrugging it off that accompanies neoliberal compassion? How many of the supposed drivers of systemic racism are actually rooted in these failed education systems?

Why do people often treat young black men as criminals? Because a shocking number of them, unprepared or motivated by better prospects, are criminals. 

Do stores not open in certain areas? Do taxis not stop? Do pizza delivery services refuse the order because of their racism or because rational decision making takes into account a very real fear for one’s life and property? 

To solve this we need to fix what drives it in the first place; a failed education system that often acts as a direct pipeline to prison or the cemetery. Where even the best performing students are often woefully unprepared for a successful life, the systemic racism that accounts for low expectations is very real.

Some will claim that the parents have the responsibility to fix many of these issues and that blaming the failing schools misses the point. But let us never forget the “economic racism” unleashed on poor families almost 60 years ago. This impacted all poor folks but it was especially hard on—and, sadly, intentionally so—black families. These policies all but destroyed those families.

This systemic racism allowed our government purposely to attack the family structure of poor people. It was no accident that the “War on Poverty” included incentives for women to have more and more children, but only if no father or man lived with the family. They would send case workers out to ensure no man was present in these homes. If one was, the welfare checks stopped coming.

It was their goal to destroy the family to ensure poor voters and their offspring would be dependent on government forever. This was no accident. Policies provide incentives for the things they want to perpetuate, after all. That which is rewarded is repeated.

Now some 60 years after this on-going assault on the black family, it seems unfair to blame the victims. 

“The function of education,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

But the public education system is doing neither for young students forced to attend these life-destroying institutions.

We will never address the bogeyman of systemic racism and the issues of race, crime, poverty, and the pathologies they unleash until we at least provide an opportunity for every child in America to attend a quality school where his or her intelligence and character are developed in a way that unleashes his or her potential.

Will every parent or child take advantage of this opportunity when America finally affords it? Of course not. But until everyone who wants it is given a true opportunity to send their kids to quality schools, this country will fail in its basic commitment to those poorest among us. These failures are the foundation of anything we might rightly call systemic racism and these failures are a result of decades of neoliberal policymaking.

If you care about this thing called systemic racism then demand K-12 public schools be fixed and fixed right now.