Skewed Ideas About Education and Minority Groups

A recent article in Washington Lawyer magazine, which is sent to members of the District of Columbia Bar, discussed what it said was ongoing segregation in public schools six decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Brown declared de jure racial segregation in public schools an unconstitutional violation of equal protection; the decision reversed the Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of almost six decades before that, which had given a constitutional imprimatur to forced segregation so long as a standard of “separate but equal” was upheld. The article followed the typical narrative of today’s political left regarding racial questions, education, and economic disparities, and embraced confused notions about education found even more broadly in society.

The article claimed that since Brown “the roots of racial prejudice … have worsened due to poverty and class divisions.” It said that “de facto segregation … regularly operates in lockstep with racial discrimination.” It claimed that school districts with substantial minority student populations faced “inequitable funding” and therefore a lack of equal opportunities for their students. It quoted a recent report of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—most of whose current members are somewhere on the political left—that contended that students in these districts “lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and technology support, critical facilities, and physical maintenance.” It cited a book that claims that the one key to improving schools is integration—even while never saying why that would be so. But—despite the seeming implication here—elsewhere the article quotes a source at a leftist think tank who emphatically makes clear that this does not mean that minority students in any way “need” white students.

The upshot of the article was that income inequality—which it said has a substantial basis in racial prejudice—is the culprit in lagging minority educational results. It asserted that “a comprehensive, national commitment to dismantle racial and socioeconomic disparities” is needed and suggested that part of the solution will involve legal coercion: what is needed is “integrating housing markets and redrawing school districts” and what amounts to forced integration by assigning students to public schools by lottery and setting quotas for the number of students in schools from different income levels. This sounds like something similar to the forced busing of the 1970s.

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Many comments can be made about what was said in the article. The first is that it curiously nowhere addressed the most basic question that needs to be considered whenever one considers education: what is its purpose? One readily and clearly gets the sense that the writer had no idea that education ultimately is about discerning truth, which traditionally was the purpose of the liberal arts. In fact, the article didn’t say anything about what education is supposed to do, except to refer to Chief Justice Earl Warren’s statement in the Brown opinion that it’s necessary for a child to be able to go on to “succeed” in life. Unsurprisingly, it never told us what it means to succeed.

Second, the writer almost reflexively seemed to buy into the current leftist narrative that race prejudice is pervasive in America. The problems identified are caused by income inequalities between the much better-off (Caucasian) population, ensconced mostly in the suburbs, and minority populations—and race prejudice in some fashion is behind this. I always think that the people making these claims about racism—which they seem to see around every corner—should take the time to read the abundant literature of the past and historical accounts of what the racial situation was like in the Jim Crow South. Their claims of racism today seem to trivialize the genuine race prejudice and maltreatment of blacks that existed at that time.

Third, the article could not get past the claim that supposedly insufficient funding of schools in minority districts was the sole reason for inadequate education. It went on to contradictorily acknowledge that, according to recent data, per pupil expenditures increased in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. If one were to look further into it, he would find that some of the highest per pupil spending in the U.S. tends to occur in urban, heavily minority districts. In fact, more money started to flow into some of these districts around the country in recent decades because of various state courts’ decisions requiring more equitable funding. Still, much commentary over the years has pointed to the fact that even though more funding has been provided, student achievement has continued to lag and research has often disputed the connection between funding and academic achievement. Interestingly, the article admitted that minority students are doing better today academically than their parents’ generation, but still claimed that “opportunity gaps persist.” Therefore, according to the article, minority students are doing better but they’re not doing better.

Money was apparently the issue, as far as the article was concerned. It nowhere mentioned the fact that a student’s family situation is a major factor in academic achievement. It seemed oblivious to the reality, for example, of the over 70 percent illegitimacy rate nationally in the black community (even higher in some major urban areas). It said nothing about the massive, corresponding problem of fatherlessness. It said nothing about the quality of instruction, about good teachers and teaching. As mentioned, it referred to the Civil Rights Commission’s claim of “equitable access to teachers,” but didn’t say what that meant. Did it mean that the schools didn’t have enough teachers? That seems odd, since, as mentioned, so much funding is poured into big urban districts. If these schools are understaffed, could it be because of top-heavy administrative spending or poor administrative decision-making? This, too, has often been commented on in writing about education, but the article had nothing to say about it. If it meant that the quality of teaching was poor, it didn’t say that either.

It rattled off the Civil Rights Commission’s claims of “low-quality school facilities,” including the particulars already mentioned. There was never any further exploration of these, nor even an explanation of what such things as “critical facilities” are. Of course, none of these things guarantee or are necessarily even central to learning and, in truth, many urban districts abound in brick-and-mortar facilities. The article seemed fixated on the appurtenances of education. Perhaps the writer should have paid some attention to the successes of the one-room schools of the past or the homeschooling of today.

The article didn’t even mention student commitment and motivation as a factor in academic achievement. Every instructor at every level of education will readily tell you that this is at the crux of learning. This is perhaps the most central factor in the problems of minority student achievement—but it’s something that I’m sure was nowhere on the writer’s radar screen, and probably wouldn’t even have occurred to him. I am referring to poor personal formation, what the great classical philosophers would have called the right ordering of the soul. This takes us back full circle to the raging problem of illegitimacy and the poor family situation in the black community and certain other minority communities. In an era when our opinion-makers don’t even want to consider that there may be such a thing as sexual morality and, in fact, make sexual liberation the centerpiece of their thinking, minority communities have experienced its disastrous consequences.

It has been noted that even in bad neighborhoods, that is, those riddled with crime and a range of immoralities, children who grow up in intact families, where they receive a solid personal formation, are likely to thrive. An intact family also means a better possibility of religious formation. There was a time, for example, when the black church was at the center of that community and its membership was made up mostly of intact families where religion was strongly stressed in the home. And, by the way, the pastors were devoted to their flocks and were not racial opportunists for whom politics crowded out religion.

Speaking of religion, I’m sure it didn’t in the least occur to the writer to consider whether the legally-imposed official neutrality between belief and unbelief in public schools—which has actually meant a rigid regimen of secularism, and a resulting atmosphere (in varying degrees) of moral relativism that necessarily affects the way students think and act—may have something to do with educational failures.

Education is not just or mostly about funding and facilities, and minority students will not be helped by a continuing—and largely false—leftist narrative about racism. It’s not possible to think about education without thinking about its purpose and how this is intrinsically tied up with human ends. Nor is it possible to talk about solving the problems of minority education without objectively looking at the problems and pathologies that grip those communities. 

Editor’s note: Pictured above, an activist holds a sign during a march onto Chicago Dan Ryan Expressway to protest violence and education standards in the city on July 7, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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