In a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, author James Baldwin unleashed a strikingly eloquent monologue that is still celebrated today as one of his most powerful. He was responding to a claim by another guest on the show, Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, that some of Baldwin’s earlier comments in the episode exaggerated the impact of race on a person’s identity. Weiss specifically asked Baldwin “Why must we always concentrate on color?” a question that closely resembles the alleged principles of those who claim to be racially “colorblind,” suggesting that they are simply too virtuous to ever take stock in a person’s race.
Baldwin countered sharply by explaining through personal experience that Black Americans have no choice but to concentrate on color and that their perception of the world around them is largely predicated on its reaction to their being Black. “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” said Baldwin, “but I can only include [sic] what they feel from the state of their institutions…I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against Black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates Black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to.”
To this day, it remains painfully obvious how little consideration America’s institutions have for the nation’s least privileged classes. There are few institutions in which this has been more obvious than in education.
American educational inequity has existed for as long as American education has. Fifty-five years after Baldwin’s monologue and sixty-nine years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, predominantly Black and otherwise nonwhite public schools are critically underfunded, a disparity that revitalizes most of the issues school desegregation was meant (or appeared to have been meant) to do away with. A 2019 report found that the gap in funding between predominantly white school districts and predominantly nonwhite school districts totals a staggering $23 billion.
The factor most concretely responsible for this disparity is property tax, as every school district is funded at least partially by property taxes. A high-income neighborhood, then, is typically serviced by a high-income school district. Naturally, low-income neighborhoods are serviced by low-income school districts, and low-income school districts are disproportionately populated by nonwhite students since nonwhite students and their families face more obstacles on the road to economic sustainability.
It needn’t be pointed out that substandard quality of education is often both accompanied and succeeded by substandard quality of life. To historian and author Carter G. Woodson – the “Father of Black History” – “real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to begin with life as they find it and make it better.” If we take this to be true, then we cannot improve the quality of our future without first improving the quality of our schools. All begins with education, and education for nonwhite communities continues to be at risk.