How a History of Systemic Racism Has Impacted the U.S. Education System

Though we have seen the passing of landmark legislation for civil rights, such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the effects of racism continue to run deep in our education system. Segregation still exists, though it may not be as obvious as before Brown vs. Board of Education. Resources tend to be scarce in schools with low-income students, which are many times those of color. On top of these symptoms of racism, overt racism in education and the classroom happen every day. While many teachers strive to provide a safe learning environment, valuable education, fairness and guidance to students, everyday,  some teachers practice discrimination in the classroom. A further examination of these issues is required to understand how systemic racism has infiltrated our education system.


This case study of modern-day segregation of schools in Charlottesville, VA illustrates the effects of racial inequality within school districts. Two students of color grew up with each other in the same town, but are sent to different schools based on their addresses. They go on to have vastly different experiences in their schools, and perceptions of education. One student, who attends a school with mostly white students, has the opportunity to take AP courses and college-credit classes. She applies to and is accepted into the county gifted program. The other student, attending a school with a high percentage of minority students, is not afforded these same opportunities.


When discussing racism in education, we cannot ignore the intersection of income inequality and minority groups. According to a recent study, “in some of the states with the worst funding disparities, teachers have gone on strike in the past year. In Arizona, poor,  primarily white school districts get about $19,000 per student — while high-poverty, nonwhite districts get about $8,000”. An often overlooked minority, we see inequality in education on Native reservations. In a report by the Arizona Department of Education, just 13% of Native students were deemed proficient in ELA, compared to 41% of white students in the same school.

Some states, like New Mexico, own the land and operate the schools that teach student populations of 99% Native students. These schools struggle recruiting teachers, which at times leave entire subjects, such as math, untaught in schools. The land around the schools make it difficult for students to even get to school in the first place, as some bridges are made from old WWII scrap metal and cannot hold the weight of school buses. This means students sometimes have to walk 1 mile to get to the nearest bus stop. Resources for the whole student, such as guidance counselors, SPED resources, and social workers are spread thinly across the entire school district.


When considering overt racism in the education system, we cannot ignore that the obstacles discussed earlier make it challenging for members of these communities to position themselves as decision makers in their local education system. This leads to less minority representation in the school district, in both administrative and teaching positions. While the majority of educators work to combat the racism in the education system, there are those that project their prejudices directly onto their students. This includes teachers labeling minority students as “lazy” or “stupid.”

We have made great strides as a country to create equal opportunity for all Americans, but the state of our education system illustrates that we have a long way to go. The first step to understanding just how deep these issues run is by recognizing them. We can do that by participating in open and honest conversations about our own experiences, and finding organizations to support that help to make quality education a right for every student, no matter their skin color.

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