The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. . . ‘The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
-Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967
Two articles in the Washington Post last Friday, January 16, point to the chronic challenge of poverty in the quest for equality and justice, a challenge that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly understood. “Majority of U.S. Public School Students are in Poverty” read one headline in a story citing a report of the Southern Education Foundation that also reveals that 61% of D.C. Public School children live in poverty. “Young parents still more likely to leave D.C., tax data shows” read the other. Both stories are, implicitly, about social class and educational opportunity, with the latter story pointing to the quest for better schools as a major driver of middle class family migration to the suburbs.
Equality of educational opportunity is not just “the civil rights issue of our time” as leaders like President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been fond of saying. Equality of educational opportunity has been a central issue since the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement. The landmark Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, but now 60 years later, racial segregation in public schools remains a significant fact of life for millions of children. The State of New York has the most segregated schools in the nation, but segregation remains an intractable problem in many if not most large urban school systems.
Economic segregation of poor children is the mirror image of racial segregation since poverty disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic children. It’s simply impossible to consider achieving racial justice without also achieving economic justice for all, and both economic and racial justice must start in the condition of schools.
While overt race discrimination is accepted as taboo in most of American society today, behavioral discrimination on the basis of social class shapes all kinds of institutions, from the kinds of stores available in different neighborhoods to the location of hospitals and healthcare providers to taxis to schools. Middle class parents want their children to sit alongside similarly upwardly mobile children in their classrooms, and upper class parents will pay just about any price to make sure that their kids don’t rub too many dirty elbows. (See The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden that illustrates why elite colleges and universities are likely to remain so.)
Social class discrimination certainly crosses boundaries of race and ethnicity, so it’s quite likely that parents of all races with the economic means to get their kids into better schools will do so. Yet, the fact remains that poverty also disproportionately impacts children of color in ways that limit educational attainment for many African American and Latino children.
School reformers have spent entirely too much time beating up on teachers and not nearly enough time and talent addressing the issues of poverty that block educational attainment for poor children. While claiming the rhetoric of “the civil rights issue of our time” they have not truly understood the fact that civil rights is not just an issue of race but truly about the ability of a human being to enjoy all of the benefits of a free society, which has a large dimension of economic justice.
When President Obama gives his State of the Union message tomorrow night, Tuesday, January 20, he will talk about initiatives to change the tax code to redistribute some wealth, to make more college opportunities possible, and other ideas to address economic injustices. Some opposition leaders are already criticizing the proposals as “class warfare,” but I wish President Obama would be even bolder. This nation needs a new War on Poverty, an unabashed and full-bore program to close the wealth gap.
Martin Luther King understood the critical relationship between poverty and racial injustice. He knew that true equality was impossible without economic justice as well as eradication of racism. President Lyndon Johnson also understood these issues and both Dr. King and President Johnson (notwithstanding the current controversy over the portrayal of their relationship in the movie Selma) worked together to address both social problems by forming an alliance that led to the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other historic measures promoting justice for all.
May today’s leaders be even half so bold. We don’t need more wonkish tinkering on the edges of policies. We need a much greater measure of undaunted courage and conviction in the absolute necessity of pursuing policies for economic and social justice for all. Those are the leadership qualities that we celebrate and yearn for today on the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.