Left behind in the race for education

By Ronald R. Thomas

Seattle Times Editorial
Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's September and time to go back to school for many Americans. But not for others. The likelihood of a student of color completing college in most states is about half of what it is for whites. In some states, the odds are twice as bad. Clearly, in the race for education, too many of us are caught behind the color line.

From the very beginning, the story of America has been the story of race and its spectacular contradictions: from the fundamental paradox in a Declaration of Independence written by slave owners who called all men equal, to the fight against a racist-fascist regime in World War II when, with supreme irony, we established our own internment camps for Japanese Americans and separated our fighting force into segregated divisions like the Tuskegee Airmen.

Today, debates about affirmative action, racial profiling, structural discrimination, achievement gaps, racial preferences, secure borders and illegal immigrants continue to teach us about racism and to remind us that race is still at the center of American life. We usually think of race in America as a social problem, a controversial issue, something of a scandal or an embarrassment. Even more often, we prefer not to think about it at all.

Rather than engaging the tough issues about race in our society, we like to selectively quote from Martin Luther King Jr. and dream of a day when we judge people "by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin." We prefer to ignore the fact that our young black men are more likely to go to jail than to complete high school, or that the children who are left behind in our educational system are disproportionately people of color.

When we do, we forget that King was speaking of a dream, not the reality, in that speech. He knew all too well how powerfully race figures in judgments that are made every day in this country. Race, and even racism, is something that is subtly taught to all of us every day. It is part of who we are as Americans, built into our everyday experience, sometimes invisibly and unconsciously, sometimes with startling explicitness.

How do we get from the conditions of today's reality to the content of the dream? We will not do it by not thinking about race. Our only hope is to think about it very hard, to learn about it as much as we can, to become more conscious about how and what we teach about race every day.

Teaching and learning make up the art and science that is at the heart of our mission as educators, and the contested subject of race provides an urgent opportunity for us to teach and to learn something fundamental about ourselves as Americans. And if we take it seriously enough, it offers the prospect of doing something constructive about it, too. It's time for all of us to go back to school.