An American Dilemma

“The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status. Therefore, as Negroes have struggled to be free, they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education….” 

– Martin Luther King, Jr. March 14, 1964 (King, 1964)

            There is an array of literature on potential causes for education disparities in the United States. Although it is impossible to cover all possible explanations, it is helpful to begin with an examination of the historical causes and their impact on more contemporary economic explanations. It is because of the United States’ slave narrative, which fed economic markets, that historical explanations are provided and linked to current economic disparities.

The United States and its democratic system were in many ways, and ironically, built on oppression. The impact of this legacy remains today in innumerable aspects of the social, political, and economic spheres[1]. One possible explanation for the black-white test gap is the immense history of oppression and brutality faced by blacks in the early years of America and well past Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Sociologist and New York University professor emerita Caroline Persell, in her 2005 contribution to The Blackwell Companion to Social Inequalities argued, “racial variations in educational achievement exist in countries with histories of racial domination or slavery and an enduring legacy of racial stratification” (Persell, 2005: 286)[2]. Social constructions like sharecropping and Jim Crow, or a series of state and local de jure racial segregation laws enacted after the Reconstruction period that continued formally until 1965, can certainly attest to this. In short, blacks have lived a history of marginalization and categorization, one that continues to be written today.

As such, the United States certainly fills the criteria laid out by Persell. Under slavery, blacks were not allowed to be educated out of fear that education and literacy would inspire rebellion and therefore pose a threat to white plantation owners’ economic interests. Following the American Civil War was the first time blacks were allowed to be educated, although theirs was one separate and subpar to that of white children. Pamela Walters of Indiana University in a 2001 extra issue of “Sociology of Education” outlines the history of black education in the United States, arguing that “early state educational policies were designed-either implicitly or explicitly-to create racial inequality in education,” and that contemporary public policy “has done just as much to maintain racial inequalities in schooling opportunities as to reduce them” (Walters, 2001: 38). In the beginning, “racial inequality in educational funding and other forms of educational opportunity were explicit policies of the state throughout the country” (Walters, 2001: 35). Now, education is viewed as a social good, one that should be given to every student; however, as Walters argues, “the more common pattern…is for some groups to have access to more or better educational opportunities- even in the public sector- than others” (Walters, 2001: 35). Hence, the ways in which these inequalities are maintained in contemporary American society are through access to quality schooling, an opportunity many blacks are not privy to because of the neighborhoods they tend to be “segregated” into. In this instance, “segregation” refers to the residential segregation that has occurred as a result of economic inequality and is critical when understanding difficulties in access to quality education. Although the United States, to an extent, has a compensating system of finance meant to address economic discrepancies, most funding to American schools is determined by local property taxes, which means that a poor area by definition has poorly funded schools; this will be referred to again in the next section.

Based on this historical narrative, it is critical to recognize that even though the oppressor-oppressed relationship between whites and blacks may have legally ended after the Emancipation Proclamation, cultural, social, and political power dynamics did not dissipate with it. There is a certain amount of debt that has been accrued by blacks because of the history they have been subjected to. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education and researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, discusses this debt and maintains its importance in understanding constructs like the black-white test gap. For Ladson-Billings, “this debt comprises historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral components” (Ladson-Billings, 2006: 3). The historical narrative of African Americans in the United States has been written such that they are now left with an overwhelming socio-cultural and economic debt; from this the “achievement gap” is born. The phrase “achievement gap,” from Ladson-Billings’ perspective is almost an overused and meaningless term, it is well understood on all sides of the political spectrum and yet is rarely addressed in a meaningful way. This terminology overuse alludes to the process of normalization and regularization that will be developed later in the theoretical chapter of this paper.

The apparent contradiction between a democratic society that promises equality and its blatant disregard for certain human life can be perplexing. Swedish Nobel laureate economist, sociologist, and politician Gunnar Myrdal who published in 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Democracy calls this situation, as the title suggests, an “American Dilemma.” Colin Leach of the University of Connecticut psychology department, in his analysis of Myrdal’s work, which received criticism for its apparent lack of faith in American society, extends this contradiction to a more general dilemma of democracy. For Leach, An American Dilemma and many more recent historical analyses show clearly that democratic egalitarianism has never guaranteed opposition to racial inequality. From the earliest stages of the state, democratic egalitarianism has had a complicated relationship to racial inequality… egalitarianism did not necessarily oppose inequality and racism. Indeed… egalitarianism could itself require racism as an explanation of its shortcomings” (Leach 2002: 693). Leach, in his examination of Myrdal, suggests that An American Dilemma offers an analysis useful for predicting the “increasing demand for racism in the wake of de jure attempts to eliminate racial inequality” (Leach, 2002: 681). Myrdal’s work remains salient, and his belief that “the American nation will not have peace with its conscience until inequality is stamped out, and the principle of public education is realized universally” can still be seen in today’s debate about the effectiveness of the current public education system in providing equal opportunity to every child (Myrdal, 1944: 907).

[1] In fact, Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the US national anthem and well-known supporter of slavery, included in the Star Spangled Banner: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” (Key, 1999). These lines have been kept intact and symbolize the extent to which the remnants of slavery permeate society.

[2] “After emancipation we saw the development of freedmen’s schools whose purpose was the maintenance of a servant class. During the long period of legal apartheid, African Americans attended schools where they received cast-off textbooks and materials from White schools. In the South, the need for farm labor meant that the typical school year for rural Black students was about 4 months long. Indeed, Black students in the South did not experience universal secondary schooling until 1968” (Anderson, 2002). “Why, then, would we not expect there to be an achievement gap?” (Ladson-Billings, 2006: 5).

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