Mother and activist Jamaica Miles has been acutely aware of the double standard facing black and white schoolchildren since her oldest daughter was in elementary school. In third or fourth grade, a white boy punched her daughter in the stomach. But instead of getting punished, he was given second chances. Teachers described his behavior as “horseplay” and said he was just goofing around.
Her daughter was not given the same benefit of the doubt. When she later wrote a story for class based on episodes of the daytime soap opera “General Hospital,” which she’d watched with her grandmother, school administrators insisted the story was inappropriate and perhaps the result of serious, underlying issues. Innocence and goofing around were suddenly not acceptable excuses for what they considered bad behavior.
Miles pledged to stay vigilant to make sure her children did not face further prejudice.
“From there it was a mission of mine to be even more attentive than I already was,” Miles told HuffPost. “To learn more, to be able to educate myself about what’s happening in our local schools and how can things be different, so that all children are being treated the same.”
Miles’ experiences with educational inequality is representative of the experiences of many other families of color, according to a new national survey of black and Latino parents. The second annual survey from the The Leadership Conference Education Fund ― which measures the opinions of 1,200 black and Latino parents on issues of education ― paints a grim picture of a school system that is systemically failing black and brown families. The situation is especially bleak for black families, who report holding more unfavorable opinions of the education system than their Latino counterparts. Nearly three-quarters of black families think that white students receive a better education than their children.
The facts are on these families’ sides. In many states, school districts that serve minority populations receive less state and local funding. These schools tend to have less-experienced teachers. Students of color face disproportionately tough discipline compared to white students.
“It’s racism, it is. People can deny it, or try to explain it away, or say slavery ended, but that doesn’t mean that with the snap of a finger, peoples’ attitudes, policies and procedures did not continue to perpetuate the same cycle that oppresses black and brown people,” said Miles, whose children currently attend or have graduated from schools in Schenectady, New York. Miles is an organizer for Citizen Action of New York, and has worked around issues of school funding inequities.
The survey asks parents their general feelings about education as well as more specific questions related to teachers and school funding. Overall, a majority of black and Latino parents indicate that systemic issues, like funding disparities, hold their children back. Ninety percent of black parents and 57 percent of Latino parents say their schools receive less funding than those in white communities. Both black and Latino families report seeing these funding disparities as the biggest driver in the achievement gap that exists between students of color and their white peers.
Probably the first thing I expected to see was the racial disparity that is experienced by people of color.
However, many families also report viewing racism as a culprit for racial inequities in education. It’s a sentiment that appears to be on the rise ― 10 percent more black parents and 8 percent more Latino parents reported feeling this way compared to last year.
What’s more, many black and Latino families report feeling like schools aren’t even trying to educate their children. This feeling was particularly acute among black parents, whose kids attend schools with mostly white teachers, with 50 percent reporting feeling this way. At the same time, parents are more likely to positively rate their child’s school if it has mostly white children.
These two somewhat contradictory ideas suggest that parents are willing to endure racist structures if it will give their children access to social and academic advantages, according to New York University urban education professor David Kirkland.
“The contradiction is the idea that racism exists, but also the notion of social and economic capital exists. So access to the more affluent, more advantaged spaces [white schools] provide, even given the consequences of racism, is far more advantageous to parents of color,” said Kirkland.
An overwhelming majority of parents indicate that they prioritize tough, challenging academics and that they want their children to be challenged more in school.
Report authors say they hope that policy-makers will take these new revelations into account when making education-related decisions. But for people like Miles, the survey results seem like business as usual.
“Probably the first thing I expected to see was the racial disparity that is experienced by people of color,” said Miles.