WASHINGTON — With Attorney General Eric Holder personally overseeing the investigation into what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, the wheels of justice have begun to move, however slowly. The underlying problems remain of an African-American population that feels neglected and marginalized, and not just in this suburb of St. Louis, but throughout the country. And it begins in our segregated schools.
We have a black president, and a black attorney general, and a black patrolman heading the police response in Ferguson, yet the disparities persist. President Obama, speaking from the White House briefing room last week, acknowledged that the U.S. has an unequal criminal justice system.
The pattern emerges early with four and five-year-old boys of color suspended far more often than their white counterparts. America’s prisons are disproportionately filled with black men. In the world that most African-Americans experience, they rarely get the benefit of the doubt in any police altercation.
Until we address the smoldering anger that has surfaced in Ferguson, there will be more instances like we are seeing with black lives on the line, and white leaders not knowing what to do. Ensuring justice and keeping the peace are the first priorities, but then we need to get serious as a country about addressing the root causes of the unrest.
The place to start is our schools, and with a commitment to educate the least among us. Obama has tried to equalize the delivery of education through the awarding of federal funds, but he is fighting against an entrenched education system that rivals the criminal justice system in its unfair treatment of the people they are supposed to serve.
Go into any city in America and compare the schools in the white parts of town with those in the black areas, and there before your eyes is the story of two Americas. Indeed, the mere fact that we even refer to white and black parts acknowledges the defacto segregation that is America.
President Obama and President Bush before him have repeatedly said that young African-American children want to learn, they want to succeed, and all they’re asking for is a chance to do that. Bush talked about the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as he worked with the Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to push through “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Obama has his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which leverages private funds and corporate involvement to boost opportunities for boys and young men of color.
“No Child Left Behind” has been criticized for its emphasis on testing, and Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan has worked with school systems to introduce more flexibility. Duncan has also instituted more competition with “Race to the Top” contests that pit school systems against each other to win federal grants. “Race to the Top” gets mixed reviews, but in an era of tight resources, it may be the only spigot available.
Bottom line, however well-intentioned these programs are, they are little more than band aids. As a society, we are not doing what should be done to solve the problem. We need to support, protect and teach the most vulnerable children, and that means schools in black communities that are state-of-the-art, increased pay for those schools’ teachers, and security measures to keep them safe.