Blog Essay

Understanding Our Common Interests in Educational Excellence and Equity

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Today our nation is confronting longstanding educational opportunity and achievement gaps as a global pandemic lays bare these inequities in new ways.  Of the more than 50 million school-age children who will begin school this fall, many in minority and low-income communities will be unable to return to school in substantial part because of the decades of neglect of the facilities in which they are forced to learn.  Too often these facilities have poor ventilation, unworking bathroom sinks, and substandard infrastructure.  As a result, trying to create the conditions that would make it safe to return to these buildings during a pandemic has proved impossible and has been one of the reasons that many districts are forced to rely on virtual learning.  Although virtual learning can reduce exposure to the coronavirus, it is increasing educational opportunity and achievement gaps.  Why?  Many minority and working-class families have less access to technology, the support at home to help children navigate online learning, and the time and resources to supplement educational opportunities when schools fall short.  In addition, online teaching varies in quality, and studies confirm it does not consistently deliver the results of in-person instruction.

In his widely read Harvard Law Review Comment, Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma, the esteemed scholar Professor Derrick A. Bell, Jr. contended that “the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.”  As a result, remedies to violations of the Fourteenth Amendment will only occur when they advance or do not undermine whites’ societal interests.   He argued that the Brown decision outlawed segregation because of the economic and political advantages that it brought to whites.  He pointed to desegregation decisions such as Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974), and Dayton Board of Education v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406 (1977), as revealing a divergence between black interests, which sought access to desegregated schools, and white interests, which sought to return educational governance to local control in ways that too often limited desegregation and reinstituted superior educational opportunities for whites.  He highlighted the Court’s willingness to create barriers to school desegregation as confirmation that whites no longer viewed their interests as protected by school desegregation.

Bell’s theory undoubtedly names one important driver for the Court’s decisions and those who were charged with implementing them.  Support for school desegregation arose in part from middle-class whites who viewed school desegregation as a superior alternative to school closures initiated by those who staunchly opposed desegregation.  Similarly, the pushback against desegregation in the courts and local communities undoubtedly arose, in part, due to some whites viewing their interests in superior schools as threatened by an influx of poor students as well as black and brown schoolchildren.

However, Bell’s theory acknowledges, but in my view underemphasizes, the shared interest of all Americans in racial equality and an excellent education for all schoolchildren.  He notes in his Comment that “over time, all will reap the benefits from a concerted effort towards achieving racial equality.”  Yet this acknowledgment does not adequately emphasize that when whites oppose school desegregation and racial equality, they miscalculate their own interests to the detriment of our nation.  Some whites misconceive education as a zero-sum game in which improving educational opportunities for minority children means harming their own children.  This alleged harm might be fewer resources for white children as well as greater competition for seats in gifted and advanced coursework or admissions to selective higher education institutions.

This viewpoint overlooks the fact that our democracy is most effective when it runs on the fuel of an educated citizenry in which people of all races have equal access to the ballot box.  Our economy as well as our economic competitiveness relies upon educated workers and is undermined by the substandard educational opportunities that are provided to too many poor and minority students, as well as many white students.  Our societal fabric depends on children educated in the equal moral worth of every human being regardless of race, color, or national origin.

Our current moment of awakening to racial injustice and the need for law and policy reform also builds on the understanding that injustice against our neighbor harms each of us.  Even if we are not the one beaten or killed unjustly, recent protests give voice to the fact that when we turn a blind eye to the evil in our midst, that evil thrives and tears apart our communities.

This truth applies exponentially in education.  Racial injustice in education in particular reaches far and wide in our society and drives inequities in employment, crime, housing, voting, and healthcare.  In addition, when we deny an African American girl an excellent education, we may prevent her from the preparation she needs to be our future president.  When we deny a Hispanic American boy an outstanding coding curriculum, he may not uncover the design flaw within driverless cars that costs many lives.  When we deny an Asian American girl a high-quality education, our nation may miss out on her discovery of a cure for breast cancer that would save many lives.  When we deny a white boy a great science lab, he may not unearth the tools to mitigate the effects of global warming that harm us all.  When we deny a poor child of any race a first-rate education, the vaccine for our next major health threat may be delayed in ways that lead to additional lives lost.

As we aim to build a nation that embraces the racial justice that Bell’s work challenges us to achieve, we must work harder to expand our understanding of our common interests so that we can appeal to the better angels of our nature.  Our common interests in an educated society should insist on new laws and policies that provide every child the building blocks of an excellent education such as equitable and robust funding, high-quality teachers and school leaders, access to a rigorous curriculum and up-to-date technology, and a first-class school facility.  To accomplish these reforms and the just society that Professor Bell strove to create, we must help each person in the United States understand that every child deserves an excellent education and we are all harmed when she or he does not receive it.  Therefore, as we take up the mantle of creating a racially just nation, let us also make sure to build the excellent education system that such a nation demands.  Our future depends on it.