Just a couple hundred years ago, in much of the United States, teaching African Americans to read and write was illegal. In the antebellum south, this was part of a strategy to maintain racist, unjust systems. There was good reason for white enslavers to see Black Americans' literacy as a threat. Inspirational abolitionist texts brought uprisings to the Caribbean, and deep biblical readings led Nat Turner to revolt in Virginia.
Slavery ended well over a century ago, so the slave codes that outlawed teaching African Americans to read should be relics of the past. However, as a woman of color and educator, I see that their spirit lives on today.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fewer than one in five African-American 12th graders reach reading proficiency, and Black students fared far worse than all other racial and ethnic groups that NAEP tested. The percentage of white seniors "at or above proficiency" was nearly three times that of Black seniors. Despite the immensity of African-American teens' literacy crisis and its role in their oppression as adults, we're doing little to address it.
A recent court case in Detroit was a small step in the right direction toward change. This midwestern metropolis has the highest proportion of Black residents of any U.S. city. Over 80% of its population is African American, and 97% of its public schools' students are people of color. These kids don't have access to adequate education. This may be caused by structural racism, or mismanagement, or both. In 2018 seven Motor City students looked to the law for help. They brought a class action suit charging that the state of Michigan, which manages the city's schools, was violating their constitutional right to an education that provides basic literacy. The case points out that reading and writing competency, which most Detroit students lack, is required to participate in society.
After being dismissed in a lower court in 2018, a few months ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with the students and asserted that they do have a right to literacy. This is a great first step towards educational equity, but the court's ruling doesn't go far enough in its assertion that public education must "provide access to a foundational level of literacy." It needs to do a lot more than that. "Foundational literacy" won't suffice for participation in our democracy and 21st century economy. Much higher reading levels will be necessary.
In the fall, then presidential candidate Andrew Yang warned that the robots are coming. They're only coming for some of us, though. The first jobs to get automated won't be those of lawyer or executive—they'll be those that don't require complex reading and thought, jobs like driver and cashier to which nonreaders are relegated. Thus, a Brookings report that Black workers' jobs are at higher risk from technological advances than those of whites isn't surprising, given the state of Black students' literacy and their subsequently limited career opportunities. Brookings' Automation and Artificial Intelligence found that African-American "workers are concentrated in more automatable occupations."
Yang dropped out of the race months ago. He won't save us from a jarring Fourth Industrial Revolution or unequal education. It's unclear if the current democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, can either.
In February, the New York Times reported on Biden's commentary on African-Americans' literacy. He noted the problem that Black "parents can't read or write." I'm still waiting to hear his solution.
Expecting politicians, and even education leaders, who are overwhelmingly white, to take up this issue without external pressure is unrealistic. It's taking weeks of daily protests to force us to reassess law enforcement's policing of Black bodies. Similarly, it will take our persistent pressure on government and school-district heads to push them to reexamine the education of young Black minds. Equal schooling and, thus, equal opportunity are an integral component of antiracism.
As the rallying cry that Black Lives Matter grows louder and louder in diverse communities around the country, it needs to be amended. It's time to demand that Black education matter too.
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