ACLU director talks race and education in America

Melissa Stamp
Contributing Writer

School segregation and unequal educational opportunity were issues at the heart of a talk given by Dennis Parker on Tuesday, which was attended by a crowd of more than 200 VCU students, faculty and educators from the Richmond area.

Dennis Parker is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union racial justice program and a professor at New York Law School. He has studied and advocated for civil rights for more than 30 years working with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Parker was invited to speak as part of VCU Libraries 13th annual Black History Month program, partnered with the School of Education.

Before Parker began his commentary, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley of the School of Education went over the racial statistics of elementary schools in the Richmond metro area.

Siegel-Hawley said schools in Henrico and Chesterfield are still segregated because of economical gaps. Overall, more white students are enrolled in gifted and talented programs even in schools where they are not the majority. In addition, black students are more likely to be suspended or punished for their behavior than white students.

Parker commented on these statistics, citing racial bias for authority figures targeting black students.

“White students are disciplined for the undeniable violations and blacks for behavioral issues that inhibit the teacher,” said Parker.

He said this racial bias is not limited to authority figures, but even members of the same race can feel uncomfortable or threatened by each other. Parker admitted that after taking the Harvard implicit bias test, the results revealed he himself was biased towards people of color.

Widespread racial bias is directly related to outlets such as television and movies where African Americans are frequently portrayed as criminals. One hundred years after D.W. Griffith’s, “Birth of a Nation,” a movie that makes a horrific portrayal of African Americans, the media still struggles to show all races in a positive light, Parker said.

As a result of their negative portrayal, black youth are more likely to be insecure and seek approval from their teachers. However, black students are still 3.5 times as likely to be suspended than white students. Parker said that the education system is failing to show black students their potential and that punishing them unjustly contributes to the school to prison pipeline.

In California, when determining how many cells to build in the new prisons, they looked at reading test scores for third graders.

“This example suggests the idea that there is a connection between our failure to provide educational opportunities for children of color and their being sent to jail is very real,” Parker said.

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, school segregation was in great decline, especially in the South. Now, Parker said, it is on the rise because of the widening wealth gap in the United States that leads to housing segregation. This is not just a problem faced in Virginia; New York has the highest school segregation rate of any state.

School segregation means that students of color have less resources, inexperienced teachers and high poverty rates. It’s also proven that it is more difficult to learn when everyone in the room shares low economic status.

“One of the most basic principles of Brown v. Board of Education was that it recognized the importance of education for everyone’s success and their participation in society,” Parker said.

Parker said he feels that 60 years after the separate but equal doctrine was overturned, America has forgotten how critical education is for advancement in our society.

His speech ended on a high note, as Parker mentioned ways that schools are attempting to desegregate. Slowly, schools are recreating their racial composition through magnet programs and inter-district transfer programs. Parker received applause after answering a few questions from the audience. The event was followed by a reception, where audience members could speak with Parker personally.

“The subject really intrigued me, it made me think a lot about my own biases about race and what I have to overcome. I want to start thinking about race in America as a whole,” junior social work student Angela Ward said.

On Thursday, March 5, VCU Libraries will be hosting a follow up event with Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education James Ryan, in the Student Commons.

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