Nicholas Kristof: If only there were a viral video of our Jim Crow education system

Local financing of education ensures that poor kids go to poor schools and rich kids to rich schools.

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 1957 file photo, members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The troopers are on duty to enforce integration at the school. Officials said Wednesday, July 26, 2017, that newly unveiled plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of nine African-American students desegregating Little Rock Central High School will reflect on the progress made in educating students of diverse backgrounds. (AP Photo, File)

We in the commentariat have leapt at covering police violence against Black citizens since George Floyd’s murder a year ago, but I don’t think we’ve been as good at responding to other inequities that cost far greater numbers of lives.

Even if Floyd hadn’t been murdered, he still very likely would have died prematurely because of his race.

There would have been no headlines, no protests, no speeches. But the average Black man in America lives about five fewer years than the average white man. A newborn Black boy in Washington, D.C., has a shorter life expectancy than a newborn boy in India.

One of the challenges for those of us in journalism is to do a better job highlighting these inequities that don’t come with a viral video.

Since Floyd’s death, we’ve focused on racial inequities in the criminal justice system, and it has been easy for liberal white Americans — my tribe — to feel indignant and righteous while blaming others. But in some areas, such as an unjust education system, we are part of the problem.

At the very time that America was having a racial reckoning about criminal justice, Democratic states were closing in-person schooling in ways that particularly harmed nonwhite students. Race gaps increased, according to research by McKinsey & Co., and a Federal Reserve study suggests that higher dropout rates for marginalized students will have long-term consequences.

More broadly, we in the United States embrace a public education system based on local financing that ensures that poor kids go to poor schools and rich kids to rich schools.

Yes, it’s a “public” school system with “free” education. So anyone who can afford a typical home in Palo Alto, California, costing $3.2 million can then send children to superb schools. And less than 2% of Palo Alto’s population is Black.

Rucker Johnson, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that since 1988, U.S. public schools have become more racially segregated. Roughly 15% of Black and Hispanic students attend so-called apartheid schools with fewer than 1% white students.

In 1973, the Supreme Court came within a whisker from overturning this system of unequal school funding, in the case of Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District. Lower courts had ruled that profoundly unequal school funding violated the Constitution, but by a 5-4 vote the justices disagreed.

This was the Brown v. Board of Education case that went the other way. If a single justice had switched, America would today be a fairer and more equitable nation.

Educated white Americans are now repulsed at the thought of systems of separate and unequal drinking fountains for Black Americans but seem comfortable with a Jim Crow financing system resulting in unequal schools for Black children — even though schools are far more consequential than water fountains.

Perhaps that’s because we and our children have a stake in this unequal system. Similarly, we accept that elite universities offer legacy preferences that amount to affirmative action for highly privileged children, with bonus consideration for big donors. This is one reason some universities have more students from the richest 1% than from the poorest 60%.

Likewise, wealthy white Americans benefit from single-family zoning laws in the suburbs around those fine “public” schools. The effect of this zoning is to freeze out low-income families and keep neighborhoods more segregated.

Then there’s our skewed tax system: The IRS is more likely to audit impoverished Americans who use the earned-income tax credit and typically earn less than $20,000 than it is to audit people earning $400,000. The county in the United States with the highest audit rate, according to ProPublica, is Humphreys County, Mississippi, which is impoverished and three-quarters Black.

So, how do we address these root inequities?

We don’t have perfect solutions, but many programs promote opportunity and reduce race gaps over time. The time to start is early childhood, with home visiting, quality child care and prekindergarten. Baby bonds can reduce wealth gaps, and child tax credits cut child poverty. Job training and a higher minimum wage can help families. Many of these elements are in President Joe Biden’s three-part proposal to invest in America and Americans, with the goal of reducing child poverty in America by half.

One paradox is that while liberals often advocate such measures as ways to reduce racial inequality, polling suggests that this framing actually reduces public support. The best way to win support for these progressive policies, research suggests, is to frame them as reducing class gaps, not race gaps.

Back in the early 2000s, white Americans sometimes said in polls that anti-white bias was a bigger problem than anti-Black bias. That was delusional, and the tumult following the Floyd case increased the share of whites who acknowledge that discrimination persists.

So the Floyd case may represent a milestone of progress in criminal justice. Now can America leverage this recognition of unfairness and inequity into other spheres, such as our still segregated education system?

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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