History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools

Racial biases are not unknown to the history of the U.S. education system. Dating back to the 1800s, Native American children were taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools where they were pushed to abandon their native language and adopt a foreign religion. Education was used to assimilate these Native American children to White culture forcibly. This institutional racism created a belief that White culture was far better than the Native American Way.

These racial biases expressed themselves with the Chinese in a different manner. Instead of forcing them to assimilate into the prescribed White educational system, Chinese-American children were barred completely from going to school. Later legislation stated they had a right to public education but segregated them into Chinese-only schools. Latinos faced the same fate as the Chinese in being methodically shut out from education. Latinos were later granted access to education under the ruling of a judge with a particular belief; the judge asserted that Latinos were of White descent and therefore above other minorities.

In the American South, laws against African-Americans completely obstructed their ability to get an education. By law, it was illegal for an African-American to learn how to read and write. African-American communities had to turn to schools established by Quakers and Christians in order to get an education. But turmoil and violence would always find their white allies, forcing these schools to close their doors. Fear of uprising was palpable in these plantation states, and illiteracy became a weapon used against African-Americans. If African-Americans remained uneducated, plantation owners and Southern Whites believed, they would not revolt, maintaining the status quo of slavery.

Jim Crow laws then made their appearance in 1877. The “separate but equal” doctrine created an educational system of segregated schools (i.e., Plessy vs. Ferguson). Under this doctrine, African-American students had difficulties finding schools in their districts or they were forced into schools that did not meet proper standards. Black schools were also under constant threat of closure in favor of funding for their white counterparts.

In the 1950s, Brown vs. The Board of Education turned the “separate but equal” doctrine on its head by subverting the previous Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling. However, progress was met with violence. Schools effectively became war zones where violence called for military involvement when white protestors and African American students clashed. Photos of students as young as six years old being escorted by U.S. Marshalls to and from school flooded newspapers as the racial bias in the education system fueled the coming Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement brought about legislation that supported and pushed forward what Brown vs. The Board of Education began. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Department Office for Civil Rights were created during this time. Both were enacted to ensure that civil rights were upheld and that federal funding would be distributed without discrimination in the educational system.

Following these tumultuous periods, public school became more integrated from the 1960s to the 1980s, with schools leveling out through the decades. But where does that leave us now?

Institutional Racism today – the “New Racism”

In modern times, “New Racism” arose; concealed, more subtle, and much harder to detect, this New Racism operates deep under the radar. The Black Lives Matter Movement and the looming Trump administration have propelled the conversation of race and racial issues to the forefront of American consciousness. It is argued, however, that while these conversations are crucial, we are not recognizing the systemic racism that has been present in our educational system for decades. Racism is so deeply innate that it is believed that racism no longer exists in our country. But in our public schools, another story is being told.

In this New Racism, blame for underachieving students of color is shifted to their parents, who are portrayed as slacking or uninvolved with their children’s education. This shifts attention away from the policies and structures in action that put a student of color at a disadvantage.

A big contributor to New Racism is the reality of Everyday Racism. This entails smaller interactions in everyday life where racism is almost seen as a knee jerk reaction. In the classroom, it can be recognized in a student of color who is consistently overlooked in class because it is believed that they do not have anything to contribute. In a counselor’s office, it can be observed in a counselor discouraging a student of color from applying to an Ivy League school because they would be “reaching too high.”

Additionally, in the case of African-American families, many have been moving to the suburbs in order to pursue safer communities and better access to education. African-American students sometimes find themselves a minority in a predominantly white school. Studies of such students have shown that while these students understand that they are free to pursue their education in any school, there is still a sense of being an outsider, of not feeling that they belong. The pressure to perform in such a case is a common feeling among these students of color.

Throughout the history of the United States, institutional racism has created an invisible chain holding down students of color in the educational system. Limitations and denial of access to education created a culture where students of color were treated as less than equals, a mindset that is still deeply rooted in our educational system today. While history has offered valuable lessons, there is still more work to be done in order to effect change in our educational system.

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