I hear a lot of rhetoric about how education is my generation’s Civil Rights issue. It’s a nice thing to say and hear and it makes elite graduates feel good about their two year commitments. And the thing is, I won’t use the rhetoric because of what it says about affiliations, but I do agree that it is a huge Civil Rights issue, one that deserves a good deal of attention from my generation. Here is the problem though: Brown v. Board was passed in 1954, schools are now just as or more (in some areas) racially and socio-economically segregated as they were in the 1950s. Laws requiring equitable funding and busing were enforced in the 1960s, and are no longer enforced today because white people don’t like them. Schools that have legal restrictions because of the rights gained during the Civil Rights movement are now losing funding to schools that have no such restrictions and expel, abuse, and ignore the most disadvantaged children among them. The issue is that this isn’t a new Civil Rights movement. You can’t call it a new Civil Rights movement when we still haven’t finished the one that got started 6 decades ago. This isn’t a new Civil Rights movement so much as this is a fight against newly sophisticated methods of keeping the same social order. We aren’t post racial, we are just racist.
It is really awkward for me to teach Civil Rights to the kids, because even in the liberal bastion that is California, it doesn’t take them very long to look around and figure out that several provisions of that movement have failed because they aren’t enforced. It is even more awkward when I have to explain that the schools aren’t integrated because white parents said it was unfair. But the most awkward thing of all is being in the Silicon Valley where so many of my peers benefited from a system that gave them every advantage at the expense of the lives of kids who never had a shot. If you think the poor kids in Silicon Valley can’t see what is happening here, you are either really naïve or don’t know anything about kids. In some ways it was better for me, given these circumstances that I grew up in an isolated poor neighborhood, because by the time I got to Stanford I had a strong working class identity that they couldn’t pry from my cold dead hands.
For my friend’s with parents who were around in the 60s, it must be really uncomfortable to look around and see their own parent’s failures. And it is those parent’s failures. It is the peers they went to college with, the kids who didn’t want to deal with the trouble, the kids who wanted to remain comfortable and watch the dogs and hoses take down children from their middle class existence. The kids who through the 70s and 80s decided that their own comfort and advantage were more important than the things that were fought for a decade earlier. I know this is angry and cynical, but it is nowhere near as angry and cynical as our continued system of racial and class-based oppression. You don’t know what anger and hate is until you are dehumanized by a system. You should be sad. You should be angry about this. I am not a cynic. I don’t write to release my anger. I write because I believe my generation can be the one to do the right thing. But we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to give up our advantages. We have to love freedom so much that we feel chained while others are chained. And I want to make something clear, chaining black boys to desks is not really different from the chaining of the past. There is nothing new about this. This is as old as our Constitution. This is as old as slavery. This is older than America itself.