Racial Inequality and Education:
Patterns and Prospects for the Future
by Pedro A. Noguera, PhD
Los Angeles, California
This article was previously published 01 March 2017 in The Educational Forum as: Introduction to “Racial Inequality and Education: Patterns and Prospects for the Future”
American society is in the midst of profound economic and demographic changes. By the year 2043, demographers project that the United States will become a minority-majority nation -- a country where those currently categorized as racial minorities will comprise the majority of the U.S. population (Taylor, 2014; for the purpose of this article, minority backgrounds will include individuals identiﬁed in the U.S. Census as anything other than “White” Americans). In a major report issued by the Pew Research Center entitled The Next America, author Paul Taylor (2014) wrote,
For a nation that once restricted citizenship to “free white persons” -- thereby denying basic civil rights to indentured servants, free Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians (Schultz, 2000, p. 284) -- it is hardly surprising that reactions to changing demographics could be unsettled. In fact, there is considerable evidence that anxiety related to the shifting demographics played a role in tilting the recent presidential election in favor of Trump (Agiesta, 2016). Yet, despite the angst and the apparent backlash against minorities and immigrants, the changes described in the Taylor report have already occurred in four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Florida) and will soon occur in others (Maciag, 2015). Moreover, not all of the change in demographics can be attributed to immigration. In 2008, 14.6% of marriages in the United States were between individuals from different racial backgrounds, and births of children of mixed-race and minority backgrounds have outpaced White births for several years (Wazwaz, 2015). Since 2014, children from minority backgrounds have constituted the majority of children in our nation’s public schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016, Table 203.50), and since 2014 they have constituted the majority of children in the United States under the age of five (Wazwaz, 2015).
At the same time that the racial and ethnic composition of American society is changing, disparities in income and wealth have grown wider and more pronounced than ever before. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz,
Beyond income and wealth, inequality affects many aspects of life in American society. From access to transportation and health care to Internet services, employment opportunities, and education, inequality is shaping the character and quality of life for most Americans.
In the last few years it has become increasingly clear that broad analyses of the growth in racial and economic inequality often do not accurately capture the picture of what is happening to poor and working-class Whites across America. In many parts of the United States, the incomes of non-college educated Whites have been in decline (Pew Research Center, 2015). Furthermore, working-class Whites constitute the only segment of the U.S. population that has experienced a decline in life expectancy and a rise in suicide rates (Chen, 2016). While incomes and employment rates for Whites, particularly White men, continue to be significantly higher than those of Blacks and Latinos, it is important to recognize that economic inequality is a problem that affects all racial and ethnic groups.
The Impact of Racial Inequality on Education
As has been true throughout much of America’s history, public schools are the institution where the dramatic changes occurring in society are being experienced first. As poverty rates rose dramatically during the Great Recession of 2008, the percentage of children from families in poverty climbed to a high of 22% (Putnam, 2015). Today, 1 out of 2 students in American public schools (approximately 52%) come from low-income homes -- the highest percentage since the National Center for Education Statistics began tracking this figure decades ago (Southern Education Foundation, 2015).
Not surprisingly, growing poverty and economic inequality are having an impact on education and the opportunities available to children. Writing about the detrimental effects of inequality on future generations in his book Our Kids, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam (2015) observed,
Race figures prominently in the opportunity gap mentioned by Putnam, and evidence shows that widening gaps in wealth and opportunity have a profound impact on educational achievement. For the last 16 years, federal education policy has been focused on reducing racial gaps in academic achievement; however, closing opportunity gaps has been a much lower priority in the educational policy agenda. A report by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education documented widespread disparities in access to preschool, college counselors, and college prep and advanced courses (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). While both Democratic and Republican politicians have asserted that education can be used to reduce inequality, it has become increasingly clear that deeply entrenched economic and racial fault lines that have widened and become even more pronounced in recent years cannot be ameliorated by education alone. Recent results from the Programme for International Student Assessment, an international academic assessment used to compare educational progress in a number of wealthy nations, show that American education continues to be characterized by distinct racial inequities in academic outcomes and, most importantly, opportunities (Yu & Cantor, 2016).
Disparities in educational performance are especially pronounced in the hypersegregated Black ghettos that dot the urban landscape throughout American society. In such communities, schools generally perform poorly and are typically grossly underfunded (Orfield, 2013). Segregation by race and class continues to prevail even in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver, which have experienced dramatic shifts in demographics as the number of middle-class Whites has increased as a result of gentrification. Again, the connection between racial disparities in academic performance and growing economic inequality between racial groups should not be lost. The gap in median household income between Whites and African Americans is now the widest it has been since 1989; in 2013, the median household net worth for Blacks was $11,000, as compared to $141,900 for non-Hispanic Whites (Kochhar & Fry, 2014).
Latinos and Native Americans are less likely to be concentrated in urban areas, but their economic status and the performance of the schools that serve them are equally grim. For Latinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. population, gaps in income and wealth are nearly as wide as those experienced by Blacks, and increasingly Latino children are more likely to attend segregated schools than any other ethnic group. According to a 2014 report by the Civil Rights Project (Orfield & Ee, 2014), Latino students in California were more likely than any other ethnic group to attend a school where the majority of students are non-White and with high rates of concentrated poverty. Gary Orfield, the codirector of the Civil Rights Project (and a coauthor of one of the articles in this special issue) explained how these patterns are playing out in California, the state with the largest Latino population:
The playing field in California is profoundly uneven. How can a student who grows up in a family with fewer resources, in a neighborhood that has fewer educational activities, attends a less demanding school with fewer teachers and students who are well prepared, and a more limited curriculum have a fair chance to compete with students who face none of these inequalities? (Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, 2014, para. 14)
As public schools attempt to respond to the demographic and economic changes occurring in the nation, more often than not they have been forced to do so without adequate guidance or resources. Today, even as policy makers debate immigration policy and battle one another over how to deal with the millions of undocumented people already living in the United States, public schools are denied the luxury of time to figure out how to serve the social, educational, and linguistic needs of the immigrant children. U.S. courts have consistently ruled that immigrant children, including the undocumented, have the right to a public education, and that right has been upheld even when states have attempted to deny it; in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that states cannot constitutionally deny undocumented immigrant students free public education (American Immigration Council, 2012). Although many schools lack the space, trained teachers (and other personnel), or even translation services to meet the needs of these newcomers, policy makers have for the most part not modified the accountability demands placed on the schools that have been most impacted by the increased presence of immigrant students.
Likewise, policy makers have done relatively little to help schools or provide guidance in how they should address rising poverty, homelessness, and hunger. Recognizing the impossibility of separating a child’s educational needs from their social, psychological, and emotional needs, public schools are forced to devise strategies to address the social needs of children who arrive at school poorly nourished, in poor health, lacking adequate housing, and in some cases suffering from various forms of trauma and toxic stress. That they often respond inadequately is as much a testament to the difficulty of the responsibility that has been placed on them as it is to a lack of competence or commitment.
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