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MLK, Education, and Institutionalized Discrimination. Let’s Talk.

Last updated on January 24, 2023

Image by Unseen Histories via Unsplash.

“Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war,” is what legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed as he led a protest down the streets of Chicago against the war in Viet Nam. 

Similar to many others, in recent years I’ve become increasingly concerned with the state of our nation. Consequently, this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day meant a bit more than ever. And as I reflect, I continue to ask the question: if our nation is to overcome centuries of institutionalized injustice, what will it take? What kind of action will be necessitated not only from me but also from our nation at large? 

Put simply, I’m not entirely sure- none of us truly are.

But one thing that I’m positive of is that as the wealthiest 10% of schools continue to spend 10 times more than those less fortunate, all students aside from those at the precipice continue to be limited in their pursuits (Brookings). And as we fail to give proper attention to fighting educational disparities, we are snipping a potential key to unlocking the gates of inequality at the bud. 

Case in point, if we want to solve the problem of institutionalized injustice, we must approach our problems strategically. And given its formative impacts on society, fixing our educational system is one of the best ways to do that.

What’s interesting, though, is that (speaking comparatively) our nation hasn’t always been this way. Throughout the 19 Century, America was leading the way as the concept of free, nonsectarian public schools revolutionized the nation’s social landscapes. And by 1970, America had the world’s leading educational system as the gap between minority and white students was beginning to noticeably decline. 

However, according to Ronald Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, our nation’s growth has hit a plateau for the past 30 years. We suddenly don’t care as much and the positive trends we were seeing previously have come to a halt. 

And according to a 2012 OECD report, the United States has now not only fallen behind the likes of the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Japan but also behind OECD averages by a variety of metrics (OECD).

But given stats such that Black students are three times more likely to be held back compared to their white peers as well as the fact that schools serving low-income students tend to have less-qualified and worse paid teachers, this should come as no surprise (Hamilton, Nelson et al). 

And you may be asking: compared to problems from hate crimes to drug usage, why should we be focusing on whether or not students have equal access to things like proper facilities, materials, and instructors?

Well, the conclusion that studies (such as this one from Stanford’s MAHB) as well as Ferguson have come to is that making structural changes like bettering our education system will make it far easier to solve problems regarding violence, drop-out rates, and more. 

How so?

Well, 75% of new jobs require some degree of education and higher paying jobs are correlated to higher educational levels (TruthOut, US Bureau of Labor Statistics). Thus, providing stable paths for disadvantaged students to avoid turning to crime or falling into poverty would work to prevent so many of our nation’s problems that are traced back to inequality. 

Hence, if our nation is able to improve its levels of education and return to leading the global charge, we’d see lower rates in poverty, violence, and inequity. 

But put simply, within the city that I’ve lived in for most of my life, there are classrooms in South Central Los Angeles which struggle to find enough desks to accommodate their students while no more than 10 minutes away, there are world-renowned private schools featuring state-of-the-art aviation simulators in every physics room.

It’s by being in close proximity to these disparities that I’ve become increasingly aware that although we’re all born equal, we aren’t born in the same environments. More often than not, our zip code is powerful when it comes to deciding out outcomes.

But our education system, the apparatus meant to be the great equalizer of our oh-so cherished American “social mobility”, is incredibly far from being equal in and of itself. And now with every passing second, our world only continues to lose out on more of its ground-breakers, life-savers, and world-changers.

Comprehensively, our education system is broken; it fails in its purpose to provide an equal education as a means of promoting an equal opportunity. So yes, it is important to tackle the flashy issues that populate our headlines and social medias.

But if we can’t even bat an eye towards something as rudimentary as this, on what basis does our ongoing fight against injustice stand?

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