Despite the many gains that African-Americans and other minorities have achieved in the last fifty years as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, there are still a vast number of issues that remain incredible struggles for blacks seeking equal treatment in the United States. One of those is the issue of education; despite initiatives such as affirmative action, minority scholarships and college prep programs, there are still systemic inequalities that take place within the US educational system. Investigating the concepts and ideas behind these issues and the efforts to change them (e.g. order theory), it is clear that many steps still need to be taken in order to allow African-Americans a more equitable sense of access to education.
The History of Black Educational Civil Rights
Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans had a very limited access to education. In the slave era (before the Civil War), only a fraction of blacks were even marginally literate. Other important black figures, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, were some of the few to achieve sufficient literacy to write slave narratives and tell the black story to the Civil War-era United States, making themselves substantial examples of the ability for African-Americans to become well-rounded, educated individuals on par with whites (Washington). Even as far back as the 1780s, free-black schools were in place, set up by abolitionists to allow freed slaves to learn reading, writing, arithmetic and more – mostly framed by daily exhibitions to demonstrate to the white public that blacks have the ability to function freely within American society (Polgar 251).
During Reconstruction after the Civil War, Booker T. Washington provided further evidence for the need to education African-Americans with the Tuskegee Institute – the school that provided vocational skills to the influx of newly freed slaves who required purpose and direction. According to Washington, the venture was fraught with risk: "I knew that, in a large degree, we were trying an experiment--that of testing whether or not it was possible for Negroes to build up and control the affairs of a large education institution. I knew that if we failed it would injure the whole race" (Washington 70). However, his thoughts were still incredibly pertinent to the role of education in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond – because of the pernicious impact of slavery, African-Americans would always be playing catch-up with whites in the realm of education, leaving them with the need to work harder for the right to gain an education in the first place. These principles followed African-Americans as a people up to and through the Civil Rights Movement, and are still true today.
One of the most important milestones in modern civil rights education history was Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools in the Jim Crow South in 1954. Overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown permitted African-Americans a similar opportunity to achieve a comparable education to that of whites. This had incredible implications for the United States as a whole; many in the South opposed the ruling, with many legislators hoping to create legal barriers to the desegregation laws in order to overturn it. This made it a controversial ruling, but one with a strong moral framework already in place: the belief that all people, regardless of race, had the fundamental right to the same level of education. In this respect, the outcome of that Supreme Court case was the first major step in the continuing quest for African-Americans to gain equal rights in the classroom just as they sought them everywhere else.
Current Obstacles to Substantive Education for African-Americans
However, even with these major strides, there are still a number of obstacles that African-Americans must be able to overcome in order to achieve civil rights within education. Public education, as with many other aspects of public life in America, is rife with racial inequalities that inherently prevent African-Americans from receiving the same level of education as whites. Schools in black areas are historically underfunded, poorly located and staffed, with flawed curricula and ineffective disciplinary measures as compared to more well-off white schools (Rendon 3). Because of the historic bars to education, these schools simply cannot provide the same education a white school can, which leads to these continued disparities in white and black education.
On the whole, poor and minority students are the most underserved in the United States due to a number of cultural factors, most dealing with socioeconomic inequalities. Black students often come from the poorest families, have the least amount of health care, and have a higher risk of enduring physical harm or being killed while walking to or from school (Rendon 3). These factors and more often lead to high dropout rates, many black students leaving school prior to graduation, with those remaining still being relatively unprepared for the workplace and/or college, if they are given the chance to attend (Rendon 3).
This is a particularly damaging cultural trend, due to the increased need for a college education to receive a well-rounded education and increase one’s chances of finding gainful employment. Factors contributing to black students’ lack of a college education are more than economic: immense self-doubt and pressure from the higher likelihood of being a first-generation college students can bring about an anxiety about failure or being perceived as ‘lazy’ or ‘dumb’ by other college students (Rendon 10). The lack of experience many poor black students’ families have with college can make this situation worse, as this leave students with a lack of clarity about their academic goals, which can then lessen their ability to commit to them. All of these attributes and more can lead to a comprehensive set of barriers that prevent black students from achieving the education they deserve.
In order to combat these concepts, integration is the most prevalent measure of the education system attempting to provide better education for blacks. Efforts like the aforementioned Brown v. Board of Education are meant to remove black students from the inherently disastrous nature of underfunded schools and uplift them to get the chance at a ‘white’-equivalent education. However, these have had some unintended side effects, which came about as a result of neoliberalism and the deregulation of education. Because public schools were becoming desegregated, white students just moved to public schools – the education equivalent of the ‘white flight’ to the suburbs (Education and Racial Discrimination lecture). Public school funding across the board began to receive cuts, and even efforts to turn the desegregations laws around proved to be even more obstacles for blacks hoping to receive an education. The standardized test movement of public schools has also made the regimented nature of school difficult for minorities, as the SATs and No Child Left Behind have left schools to restructure themselves to prepare students for the tests in question rather than giving them a full, holistic education (Education and Racial Discrimination lecture).
Lowered Expectations as Deliberate Educational Barrier
One particular example of racial stratification is the cultural notion that blacks are simply not as inherently intelligent as whites – this is a tactic deliberately used to lower the importance or discredit the relevance of minority concerns, dehumanizing them. In 2013, one Florida initiative set by the US Department of Education perpetuated this concept by giving black and Latino students “severely lower expectations” within their student achievement goals, basing these metrics on race (Reuters, 2013). What this amounted to was a race-specific series of student achievement goals released by the DOE, implicitly stating that whites and Asians have the best expectations for academic performance, moreso than other minorities. Among these goals were getting 90% of Asian-American students at grade-level reading ability by 2018; for Latinos, this was 81%, and for blacks the expectation was just 74% (Reuters, 2013).
These expectations provide a naturally upsetting set of goals for African-Americans, as no evidence exists that race or genetics are a major determiner of intelligence or level of education. To that end, the implication itself is fairly racist, assuming that blacks cannot learn as well as whites or Asians. Rather than promoting a sense of equal achievement, expectations are set lower for students of particular races (Reuters, 2013). This has a vicious cyclical effect for African-Americans; this sets up the expectation that they are not as intelligent, while also lowering the bar for acceptability and thus making fewer incentives for them to get better grades and fight for the same levels of literacy. In essence, society does not expect them to be as smart as whites, and therefore they do not have to work to surpass those expectations. This is a discriminatory practice that speaks to the heart of the social inequalities present in African-American education issues: black students get in a vicious cycle where resources are not allocated to them because of these lowered expectations, which then are projected onto themselves, which they then fulfill by not working as hard at school.
These lowered expectations are, sadly, in line with historical data on SAT scores stratified by race, parent education and more. Historically, African-Americans and individuals who were raised by parents with no high school diploma (again, historically black) received the lowest SAT scores of any other group. Other factors disproportionately attributed to blacks also play a part in low SAT scores, including low income, directly connecting the social factors most associated with African-Americans to low intelligence or ineffective education (Education and Racial Discrimination lecture). This has had substantial effects on blacks’ ability to improve on those figures; the dropout rate of California is 21%, according to the Department of Education, with more than one-third of that being African-Americans (Education and Racial Discrimination lecture). This is a disproportionately high dropout rate, most certainly due to the aforementioned social, cultural and economic factors that simply make it harder for black students to get a quality education.
It must also be noted that the punitive approach of standardized testing legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act has a distinct impact on minorities, moreso than white students. The inherent flaw of NCLB is buried within the punitive measures taken by the Department of Education to those schools who do not pass the annual tests – those schools are given less funding, which has a cumulative effect on their ability to keep qualified teachers, maintain the school, and facilitate the same level of resources they had previously (Education and Racial Discrimination lecture). While this seems like an effective tactic in theory, all it does is punish failing schools by lessening their ability to do better in the future. To that end, the students who attend these schools (historically black given the inherent social obstacles the have to overcome) are less equipped to receive a quality education.
The Role of Order Theory in Black Education
However, it is precisely because of these past injustices that order theory is shown to be an inadequate model for examining this issue of equal rights in education. The institutional and structural nature of racism within many social structures (including education) were precisely what required the institution of affirmative action in the first place. In the context of education, the use of affirmative action in places like higher education and universities is an attempt to combat the historic ostracizing of African-Americans from education; while it is only meant to be a short-term, stopgap measure, it is still important as at least a mildly effective means of fighting this injustice (Order Theories lecture). Affirmative action allows African-Americans to combat, in some small way, the entrenched privilege that is automatically extended mostly to rich whites to attend college and get an education. Education is the most powerful tool for gaining social capital and advancing one’s station in life, making it doubly important that African-Americans get the opportunity to benefit from its virtues.
The minority status of African-Americans is treated with particular disdain when it comes to education, particularly because of the concept of the “Asian model minority” (Li & Lihshing, 2008). While Asians are also a minority, they are treated much more positively than blacks because of their perceived successful assimilation into white culture. As they are stereotypically considered to be smart, they have higher expectations placed on them, and are more highly valued because their values are more directly coded to be white (e.g. do well in school, gain substantive employment, gain a talent). Because of the comparative lack of success of African-Americans as compared to Asians, this is often used as an excuse to believe an inherent flaw in African-Americans’ ability to be educated, which subsequently damages their ability to actually gain said education.
All of these various factors culminate in a vicious cycle for African-Americans seeking an education, as they wish to achieve equal education without having the same resources as whites. Even within the school system, there are substantial barriers to learning, as teachers and instructors fall victim to stereotyping black youths as being unwilling to learn, or believing there are too few qualified black teachers. According to Claude Steele, a phenomenon called ‘stereotype threat’ is a substantial issue among black students, as they must live in constant fear and anxiety that they will fulfill negative stereotypes about black people being unintelligent (Steele & Aronson 797). This is due to the increased anxiety that these students experience in educational situations, as the onus is not just on them to perform well for their own education, but to prove that they do not fit the stereotype. The crushing weight of that expectation can lead to greater stress and anxiety within these scenarios, both on themselves and on the teachers who may believe those same stereotypes about them. As a result, performance gaps occur where even the expectation of performing poorly causes black students to perform poorly, thus further complicating their ability to assert themselves within the realm of education.
Solutions for Facilitating Equal Rights in Education
Because of this marginalization, there must be efforts made to empower these individuals and make school environments more friendly and conducive to overcoming these systemic obstacles. First, schools must make themselves more open to black student success on an institutional level, eliminating unfair student achievement goals in order to limit stereotype threat. Furthermore, parents and other members of the community must become more involved in their children’s education, acting as advocates for their children and facilitating more institutional support for these schools. Competent teachers must be taught how to deal with these issues, and curricula must be developed that does not unfairly advantage African-American students. The most important step, of course, must be to improve the social/cultural capital of schools in which black students learn, and improve conditions by supporting underfunded schools in low-income areas previously (Education and Racial Discrimination lecture). This allows the previously-problematic race-based incentives to become class incentives, fundamentally changing one’s priorities to provide more support for the poor and minorities to gain a good education.
Examining the issue of civil rights in education from a sociological perspective, it is clear that more work needs to be done in order to give African-Americans in particular the full and complete access to education they deserve. Order theory is shown to be incredibly flawed, as it offers a highly-suspect just world theory that presumes everyone is on the same playing field, when institutional racism has made that impossible for minorities. Despite the measured successes of blacks to attempt to educate themselves even as far back as the slave era, these initiatives are marred by their inadequate resources and unequal capability to educate blacks on a substantial level to the extent of education that whites receive. What’s more, modern attempts to address deficits in education access are either done through stopgap measures like affirmative action or minority scholarships, or incredibly misguided education goals that fulfill the tyranny of lowered expectations. Throughout history, African-Americans have been systematically denied the same rights and opportunities as whites when it comes to education, through these factors and more. To that end, efforts must be made to render education a more attainable and accessible civil right for everyone.
Li, Guofang; Lihshing Wang (July 10, 2008). Model Minority Myth Revisited: an
Interdisciplinary Approach to Demystifying Asian American Educational Experiences. Information Age Publishing.
Polgar, Paul J (Summer 2011). "To Raise Them to an Equal Participation". Journal of The Early
Republic 31 (2): 229–258.
Reiman, A. (2015). Education and Racial Discrimination lecture.
Reiman, A. (2015). Order Theories lecture.
Rendon, Laura I. "A Systemic View of Minority Students in Educational Institutions." National
Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment (1994).
Steele, Claude M.; Aronson, Joshua (1995). "Stereotype threat and the intellectual test
performance of African Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811.
Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. Dover Thrift Edition, 1995.