Charles Clifton

Growing up in the 1940s, I attended Ludlum Elementary School in Hempstead, Long Island, named after Charles E. Ludlum, a civil war doctor and educator.

Ludlum School was 100% white and Prospect School, a few miles away in the black section of town, was almost all black. As a little kid, I thought this seemed weird and wrong.

Some children went to Our Lady of Loretto, but I knew them. They were Catholic and went to parochial school and bragged about how mean the nuns were and complained about not learning science.

But we were aliens to the black students and the black students were even more alien to us. Even the words and phrases to describe structural racism were not there.

What did us kids know about redlining, covenants to sell to whites only, and mortgage agreements not available to black buyers? If you can’t say it, you probably can’t think it. Part of the problem with racism today is that many white people can’t acknowledge it because they are unable to think it.

Once racism is structural, it becomes invisible. But like the air you breathe, it’s still there.

As Thurgood Marshall said, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together, and thus understand each other.”

Public education is a crucial pillar of democracy. That is where our equality begins, with equality of opportunity.

The unequal funding of American public schools urgently needs to be corrected.

The federal government had a chance to ensure funding equality, but in a disastrous Supreme Court decision in 1973, it abandoned its responsibility and left funding to local jurisdictions.

Then, in 1974, the Supreme Court (with four Nixon appointees) ruled 5-4 that local school district lines, often racially gerrymandered, could not be crossed. So much for Brown v. the Board of Education.

But desegregation has always been thorny. It’s very tough to ask a few black students to leave their neighborhood and attend a hostile white school. Students who do this and who have done this are heroes. But I think Marshall is right.

As Gerald Zahorchak pointed out in his excellent column for The Tribune-Democrat on unequal education, Greater Johnstown High School is one of the 50 most poorly funded public schools in America.

And it shares borders with much wealthier communities and much better funded schools – Richland and Westmont.

Despite the enthusiasm of teachers, students, workers, foster-grandparents and others, it is hard to overcome funding gaps of thousands of dollars per student.

Ludlum School is now Obama School (2008), the first American school to be so named. But integration efforts in Hempstead have only led to white flight, and now Hempstead is a poor black town next to a rich white town, Garden City. In fact, Long Island is a patchwork of poor black towns and rich white ones.

And America is a patchwork of unequal education.

The COVID-19 crisis has shined a light on racial inequality in America.

Unequal wealth, inferior medical care, more pre-existing conditions have led to more blacks suffering from this pandemic.

Education represents a first step toward equality of opportunity. Will we take that first step? Perhaps this time of disruption could lead to a better, more Democratic, America – one that has not yet existed, but calls to us from the future.

Charles Clifton is a Pitt-Johnstown professor emeritus and a member of the NAACP Executive Committee.

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