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Dr. King, Civil Rights, and Education

Randall F. Clemens

This blog was originally published on January 18, 2011.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that education is the civil rights issue of our time. While provocative and well-intentioned, the Secretary’s sentiment isn’t entirely true. That is not to say I disagree–education is part of the issue–but to target education as the last stand for civil rights is short-sighted. Poor education outcomes are a symptom of insidious, far-reaching, and unequal conditions and government policies.

We now live during a time when the distribution of wealth is astoundingly unequal. Not only do the top one percent control the majority of wealth in the United States, but the top decile of the top one percent, according to scholar David Harvey, are accumulating capital at unprecedented rates. Relatedly, spatial segregation occurs in cities across the United States, a result of changing labor markets as well as government sanctioned initiatives and policies such as freeways and redlining that have caused unfair conditions for specific groups based on race, class, and gender. Couple grotesque class inequality with segregation and government retrenchment regarding key civil rights issues such as education, housing, healthcare, and job opportunities and a more complex picture of the conditions causing poor education outcomes arises.

Since Dr. King’s famous speech, we have progressed. We have laws that ban segregation and discrimination. More people believe in equality and justice for all, so much so that an African American won the popular vote in a presidential election. And yet, as Dr. King noted, progress is not linear: “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Just this year, anti-gay bullying led to the suicides of multiple teens; Arizona enacted stringent immigration laws that have endangered the basic human rights of both documented and undocumented immigrants; a proposed inter-faith mosque and community center to be built in Manhattan caused a groundswell of opposition and anti-Muslim animosity; and, despite comprising a minority of the population, African Americans and Hispanics occupied the majority of prison cells across the country. Indeed, our generation faces new challenges to overcome in order to achieve civil rights and social justice for all. Racism, classism, and sexism have transformed, becoming sometimes overt, sometimes covert, but just as pernicious.

Let’s celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. King and fellow civil rights activists, but also acknowledge that the dream is unfulfilled and we have work to do.