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- The Case of the Shrinking Education Department - November 12, 2017
- We Must Teach the Worst of our History; Not Glorify It - August 14, 2017
- Transgender Student Rights are Human Rights - February 23, 2017
- Why “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Still Matters in 2017 - January 16, 2017
- No Right to an Education: Detroit Schools and the Secretary of Education Nominee - November 29, 2016
- I Think I Failed You – A Civics Teacher’s Letter to her Former Students - November 16, 2016
- Transforming the ‘Trump Effect’ in Schools - October 27, 2016
- Implicit Bias: The Missed Post-Debate Discussion - October 4, 2016
- 15 Years after 9/11: Days of Infamy & Memory as History - September 12, 2016
This year begins with a very significant anniversary in the United States. One hundred fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was probably one of the most significant documents ever entered into our Congressional Record based on the change it incited. As we return to school this new year after a well-earned winter break, let’s take a few moments to remember that who we are in the classroom and who our students are has a lot to do with that document that turns 150 this year. This year will also mark a significant decision that the current Supreme Court will make regarding Affirmative Action, and that will be an indication of how far we have come since that Proclamation was signed.
A brief review of history reminds us that the Emancipation Proclamation was not a universal end to slavery. It only applied to the states that had seceded from the union. Nevertheless, it made a powerful statement about the direction the Federal Government was headed in with regard to slavery. The Radical Republicans in Congress, combined with the social and political pressure of the abolitionists had created an environment in which the conversation completely changed from merely maintaining the Union to maintaining it slavery-free. The Proclamation paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which did universally end slavery in the United States. However, that wasn’t the end to the story. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were all part of the Federal Reconstruction plan for the South following the war, and the Southern States did not take kindly to such a radical shift in their culture and economy.
Slavery became illegal, but the practices of sharecropping, the new Jim Crow laws and the onset of hundreds of discriminatory laws and practices around the country (not just in the South) led to a hundred more years of institutionalized segregation and racism following the end of the Civil War. It was only in the middle of the 20th Century that the federal government began to apply that Fourteenth Amendment as it had been intended. The Fourteenth Amendment was written by a lawyer and Republican Congressman named John Bingham, who inserted language that specifically counteracted the language of the Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. He and his fellow Radical Republicans in Congress, purposely intended the Fourteenth Amendment to undo that terrible precedent set by the Court three years before the onset of the Civil War. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees – and specifically refers to the new citizens of the United States (former slaves) by use of that specific language – that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
This Amendment was finally applied in the spirit it was written by the Warren Court in the 1950’s to desegregate public schools. The Court went on to order schools to equalize not only opportunity, but results. That is the basis for the idea of Affirmative Action. “Affirmative” means “positive” and of course “action” means to actually do something — It is a call to actively reverse the trend created after the Civil War of simply doing nothing, which allowed racism and discrimination to infest and germinate within every institution in the United States. Our schools are home to not only a mix of Caucasian and African American children, but we now have a vast mix of children from all ethnic heritages, backgrounds and cultures. However, we are only 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So if we do the math, our country built itself on 300+ years of legal slavery, 100+ more years of legalized segregation and racial discrimination, and has only pocketed 50 years of intentional effort to turn that history around. Those are the odds into which our students are entering school and then graduating from school. Affirmative Action aims to give them a platform to overcome these odds the US has created for itself.
Earlier this session, the Supreme Court heard the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, and will set out its decision later this spring. Once again, a white student is challenging the practice of universities that consider race as part of admissions practice in order to equalize results of admissions. The Supreme Court has already refined what Affirmative Action means in previous decisions, but this case seeks to do away with it altogether in college admissions. What so many Americans fail to understand about Affirmative Action is that it deals with the difference between opportunity and result. We have improved in leaps and bounds across this nation when it comes to opportunity (anyone can apply to college now, for instance). There is more opportunity for people of color and for women than there ever has been. And that is a good thing. But there is still a massive gap in results (who actually gets accepted or goes on to leadership positions).
We cannot claim to be a country that aims for justice while at the same time puts a stop to equality just after someone takes advantage of opportunity. We can’t claim equality if the person who gets through the front door is never allowed a seat at the table. This is what Affirmative Action does. It acknowledges a door is open, but it also clears seats at the table where there is still an imbalance of entrenched white privilege. Those who live with the advantage of privilege sometimes claim they are experiencing diminished opportunity. That is not the case; it is merely the movement of a leveling playing field. Having to share not only opportunity, but also results is an unfamiliar practice to those who have never felt the legacy of legalized and practiced discrimination.
Our students of all races and creeds need to know that this can be the land of opportunity. They can achieve what they dream of, but we still need to support the efforts that will help them reach those results in our still imbalanced society. We have begun to see new results that will hopefully become a trend: more women and more people of color than ever before were elected to Congress this last election. The business community is slowly recognizing the imbalance that exists among CEOs and owners of companies. And schools and colleges are becoming more and more integrated with students from all backgrounds. Affirmative Action is designed to work itself out of existence. We won’t need it forever. But we still need it now. The legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation is in our hands, and we cannot afford to let the progress of justice fail. The more our students begin to see a balance of results in our society, the more they will feel themselves a part of the system that will one day be their path to success.
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