I’m Only Trying to School You: Public Education and Non-White Students

September is, for people like me, one of the best months of the year. As a child, I preferred the scent of new notebooks to the summertime smell of Sea’n’Ski and swimming pool chemicals, and the promise of a new teacher was more exciting than the promise of the ice cream man (although maybe this was because I always got a new teacher, but I didn’t always get ice cream!). Even now, September feels like a time of new beginnings and new hopes. But I know that this is not true for everyone. For anyone who has to negotiate America’s (and possibly other nation’s) publicly-funded school systems, September can be a reminder of all the things that are unfair, unjust, and downright wrong about the country.

In Buffalo, New York, for example, about 47% of the 47,000 school children live in federally-defined poverty—and over 70% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (in my daughter’s middle school, they gave up counting and allowed any child to have lunch without charge if they wanted it). In nearby Amherst, New York (home, ironically, of the University at Buffalo—although it is not located in the city), the poverty rate is only 7.7%. Unsurprisingly, the racial demographics are very different as well, with about seven times as many nonwhite students in the Buffalo Public Schools as in the Amherst Schools. And typically, those nonwhite students are in schools with other nonwhite students. Segregation in schools was meant to be a thing of the past, but it is alive and well in many places, at least unofficially. The school with the highest graduation rate in the district is the least racially diverse (and it is majority white; see http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/buffalo-public-schools/segregation-in-buffalo-schools-has-returned-to-early-1970s-levels-20140405 for more statistics—or better yet, find out how segregated or diverse your own district is).

Statistics like these have prompted at least one author, Duncan Tonatiuh, to remind readers what segregation means for whole communities. In his author’s note to Separate is Never Equal (New York: Abrams, 2014), he cites a 2012 Department of Education report that “reveals that Latino and black children are twice as likely to be in school where the majority of the students are poor” (36). Tonatiuh wants young people to “realize that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country” (36).

But voices are only meaningful if they are heard, and Tonatiuh recognizes this in his choice of subject matter for the book. Separate is Never Equal is not, as many people might expect, about the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 which desegregated the schools nationally. Instead it is about an earlier case that paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education: the 1947 Mendez vs. Westminster School District case in California. Many Americans have never learned about this case in school, but Tonatiuh’s book highlights why this case was so important. Mendez vs. Westminster brought the convoluted prejudices of many Americans out into the open.

If you're white, you're all right?

If you’re white, you’re all right?

Sylvia Mendez was seven years old when her family moved from Santa Ana, California to Westminster, California, where her father could farm his own land rather than harvest for other farmers, and where they would be near Sylvia’s cousins who were of similar age. But when Sylvia and her lighter-skinned cousins tried to register for school, Sylvia was told she would have to go to the “Mexican” school. (Her cousins would have been allowed to register, as they were white enough, but Sylvia’s aunt refused to enroll them if Sylvia could not also enroll.) Sylvia protested that she was not Mexican, she was American, but it made no difference to the school district. Rather than the pretty, well-equipped school building she had looked forward to attending, she was sent to a “clapboard shack” (15) with no lunch facilities, surrounded by an electric fence.

Sylvia’s family filed a lawsuit, and when it came to court, the superintendent of the district testified that the Mexican children needed an inferior school because they were inferior, in language-ability and in personal hygiene. White students, said the superintendent, were superior to Mexicans, and therefore segregation was necessary. The Mendez family’s lawyer brought up to the stand several children from the Mexican school who spoke perfect English (because English was their first language, in many cases). The judge eventually ruled in favor of the Mendez family, but the case was appealed up to the California Supreme Court. Tonatiuh highlights two aspects of the US Supreme Court case: one, that several other minority ethnic groups supported the case (including the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizen League, and the American Jewish Congress); and two, that the then-governor of California, who signed desegregation into law in that state, was Earl Warren—the man who would later preside over Brown vs. Board of Education seven years later at the US Supreme Court.

Sylvia Mendez

Sylvia Mendez with her presidential medal of freedom.

As students all over the country go back to school, we need to remember that our past history of racial segregation still haunts us now. We need to look to the root causes of inequity and make sure that every child in the country has a fair shot at a decent education. In doing so, it will be important to remember the lessons of Separate is Never Equal: first, that segregation is not just a black-white issue; second, that different groups of people need to come together if injustice is to be conquered; and third, and perhaps most important, that all kids need diverse environments in which to learn and grow. Because, as one witness for the Mendez family put it, “In order to have the people of the United States understand one another, it is necessary for them to live together, and the public school is the one mechanism where all the children of all the people go” (29). So here’s to a school year that brings a greater understanding of the past, and with it a unified push for excellent education for all children.


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