Education, Institutional Racism, and the Conservative Response to "My Brother's Keeper"

On Sunday, George Stephanopoulos, hosting ABC's "This Week," asked the panel for reactions to President Obama's program for young minority men, "My Brother's Keeper." Heather Mac Donald, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, summed up perfectly the collective conservative response, arguing the theme of the event should have been about the lack of black fathers in the home. "Nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his life. No one is willing to talk about fathers," she said. What the rest of the panel failed to point out was that Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis both had fathers--a fact that did not stop them from being murdered.

For five years, whenever President Obama has addressed predominately black audiences he has focused primarily on behavioral issues in regards to race. Obama has often discussed the importance of growing up in a two-parent household, turning off video games, staying away from drugs, and the need to stay in school. While he still mentioned all of the above, the announcement of "My Brother's Keeper" was one of the few times Obama made clear that structural racism exists and needs to be addressed if young black and brown youth have any way of surviving in this country. That last part of course, is what brought forth the conservative backlash. Those like Bill O'Reilly continued to argue that problems in the black community were mostly linked to personal behavior. If Obama could eliminate gangsta rap, things would certainly improve, he suggested. Yes, because white youth never listen to gangsta rap or grow up in single parent households. Another Fox News regular, Todd Starnes said, "Obama announces a government initiative to help young men of color. Caucasian is not one of the colors getting helped." And of course, multiple conservative radio hosts threw out the dreaded: "Reparations." However, if conservatives really wanted to make sure affirmative action programs or initiatives like "My Brother's Keeper" ceased to exist, then they would start by fighting for something that has never been equal in this country since its founding: education.

Following the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction was supposed to right the wrongs of slavery, including providing African Americans with education. But this never happened. After the Freedmen's Bureau was abolished in 1872, and federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, many schools were never fully built, teachers did not receive pay, white terrorists prevented children from attending, and would-be students worked with their parents as sharecroppers to pay off debts to white landowners, who had once again firmly established themselves at the top of the racial hierarchy.

While schools were desegregated in 1954, (although it took at least another 10 years to fully implement), education in many ways, has become increasingly segregated and unequal. The reality is that throughout the country there are those students, many of whom are white, who get up every morning, eat a healthy breakfast, have a laptop, a cell phone, and personal tutors. They attend schools that are equipped with the best technology available and teachers who are paid 80k a year. On the other side are students, most of whom are black and brown, who rely on the free lunch at school as their only meal for the day, walk to school fearing they may be shot, have no computers, and attend a school in which the textbooks are five years old, mold is growing on the walls, and faculty earn 25k a year. Is the reason the latter students are not as successful simply because they are not studying hard enough or their choice in music and fashion?

If conservatives are determined to resist any programs that combat racism and level the playing field for African Americans, then they must start with education. If every child, regardless of race or class had the same, equal opportunities beginning with kindergarten, then perhaps we could add more validity to the personal responsibility argument. But rather fix our public education system, conservatives and some liberals push school vouchers, which come with their own set of problems and do nothing for those students who are still attending the failing public school. Today, the proper term for this is called the "achievement gap." But let's call it what it is-"institutional racism."

Clearly, making education equal will not eliminate all of the structural racism in our society. But equal education would certainly provide our black youth a better chance at survival and success, which is what President Obama is trying to do. However, opponents of the President and "My Brother's Keeper" know that if our black youth were truly given a fair and equal chance it would begin to eliminate the racial hierarchy in this country, which is, of course, what they fear the most.