Publication of this week’s edition of the Alexandria Times falls in between two significant dates: Memorial Day and the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The two days are definitely linked.
On Monday, we remember the soldiers — from all our nation’s wars — who paid the ultimate price fighting for our country. They fought for freedom; they fought for democracy. And even if they weren’t conscious of it, in defending our Constitution they fought for equality.
Though the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all men are created equal” in 1776, millions of black Americans continued to be opressed almost 200 years later. Discrimination occurred in every realm: the workplace, in residential neighborhoods, in restaurants and hotels, in the voting booth and in schools.
The Brown decision didn’t instantly fix all of that.
But the Warren court’s unanimous ruling was an essential first step, because in one fell swoop it overturned the noxious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, in which the court had ruled that “separate but equal” schools were acceptable, and it ruled that segregation did violate the equal protection clause in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Acknowledgement that the equal protection clause did, in fact, mean racial discrimination was illegal paved the way for everything that followed. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus, the civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and ultimately our own “Remember the Titans” all flowed from the Brown decision.
Sixty years after Brown, legally sanctioned segregation is, thankfully, a thing of the past in America. But de facto segregation persists, driven in some cases by choice and in some by economics.
In 2010, Alexandria’s non-Hispanic white population was 53.5 percent, our black population 21.8 percent and Hispanic 16.1 percent. Yet, in the 2013-2014 school year, the racial makeup of T.C. Williams High School was dramatically different, with blacks making up 36 percent of students, Hispanics 34 percent and whites only 21 percent.
While some of this difference could be attributed to differing birth rates among the three groups, it is clear that many whites opt out of Alexandria’s public school system.
Just as troubling is a persistent achievement gap between the three groups. In the 2012-2013 school year, 88 percent of Alexandria’s white students passed the English portion of the state Standards of Learning test while 85 percent passed the math section. Among blacks, 58 percent passed the reading portion and 53 percent the math. Among Hispanics, only 55 percent passed the reading and 52 percent the math.
The good news, 60 years after Brown, is that a black or Hispanic child can look to leaders in all walks of life, including our city’s mayor, Supreme Court justices and even the president, as examples of what is possible.
The bad news is most black and, increasingly, Hispanic children have significant obstacles they must overcome. Their path to success remains more difficult than that of their white counterparts.
Brown was a necessary beginning, but we still have work to do.