This week’s Courier Herald Column:
On August 28th, we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech. It is, of course, the one where he told that he had “a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It marked an unbridled hope and optimism for what the civil rights movement could accomplish.
This past Sunday, we marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley Morris, and Denise McNair – did not live to see a world where they would be judged as adults on the content of their character. It was the antithesis of Dr. King’s speech. It revealed dark truths about the organized resistance to the movement. It demonstrated irreconcilable realities that existed between the status quo and the American dream.
A half century later, there is measurable and documented progress. While Denise McNair was denied her dream, an 8 year old friend of hers achieved what would have then been thought impossible. She became Provost of Stanford University, National Security Adviser, and eventually, Condoleezza Rice became America’s face to the diplomatic world as Secretary of State.
There is opportunity for people of color that did not exist 50 years ago. Voting rights are not only available in theory, but according to CNN, African Americans voted in larger percentages during the 2012 election than their white counterparts, 66% to 64.1% respectively.
Where there remains significant room for improvement, however, is recognizing the opportunity that exists in theory needs continued attention to exist in reality. Economic mobility is now possible for those prepared to embrace the challenges that come along that path. But too many Americans – including a high concentration of people of color – have languished during fifty years of Great Society programs locked in neighborhoods of poverty.
The common denominator for those who will spend their lives at the bottom of America’s economic scale is no longer skin color but a failing education system in our poorest neighborhoods. And yet, students in these school systems too often face an education bureaucracy that has given up on those who they are charged with preparing to overcome their surroundings. One teacher implicated in Atlanta’s recent school testing scandal justified her actions with “I had to give them the answers. Those kids were dumb as hell.”
The problem is not simply one of money. After all, the City of Atlanta spends more per student than any system in Georgia. While there are bright spots, the system as a whole continues to produce too many students who are ill prepared to accept the challenge of America’s opportunity.
The children trapped in these failing schools remain there due to those fighting to protect the status quo from the left and indifference from the right. Too many on the left continue to ask for “more money” without being able to quantify “how much” or couple the requested additional investment with systemic change to bring about a different result. The battle seems to be to get others to write a bigger check and hope the problem goes away.
Too many on the right look at the problem from their suburban homes in good school districts and see the problem as one of local control – and thus not of their making. It is a short sighted view that does not account for the long term problems created by perpetuating generations of poverty.
The results of Georgia’s 2012 Charter School Amendment demonstrate that those in the areas with the most troubled public school system understood the need for alternatives. Charter schools can be an effective solution to combat an entrenched education establishment that has given up and believes giving out test answers is easier than educating.
At the same time, those from traditionally white affluent suburbs who are searching for ways to reach out to minority groups cannot sit on their hands in silence when a Dr. Ben Carson tells them that this is a problem which we co-own. The reality is that poor areas do not have the same tax base as wealthy ones, and that it will cost more to educate a student who does not come to a public school prepared to learn or with the home situation conducive to educational advancement. Republicans can no longer be viewed as indifferent to these facts if they are to make electoral progress in these areas.
If we are to improve the dream over the next 50 years, we will have to take a long, honest look at ensuring economic mobility for all. This must start with ensuring that all Americans, regardless of the economic circumstances which they are born into, have access to a quality education.