Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, D.C., 48 years ago, in part to end racial segregation in schools. Sadly, despite today's holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader, a less overt but still pernicious form of school segregation—the achievement gap—continues unchecked.
Just how starkly different are the school experiences of black children and white children in America? According to the latest Children's Defense Fund (CDF) research, black students are half as likely to be placed in a gifted and talented class, but twice as likely to be put in a class for students with mental retardation.
Black students are also two and a half times as likely to be held back a grade. Meanwhile, 85 percent of black fourth graders can't read or do math at grade level—no surprise given that they're often taught by the least qualified and experienced teachers.
The statistics are sobering enough. But the words of children resonate on another level altogether. In the short video above, taken from a CDF focus group, black youth share heartbreaking reflections on their school experiences, as well as anecdotes about the effects of violence in their communities.
One teenage girl speaks to the lack of resources and inadequate school facilities too many black children face. "Some of the schools don't have any desks and paper and stuff like that," she says.
A male student adds, "When I walk around my school, I don't see a lot of, you know, teachers trying to help kids."
As a first step toward solving what they say is the worst crisis facing black children since slavery, CDF president and founder Marian Wright Edelman and Harlem Children's Zone president and CEO Geoffrey Canada have joined forces to champion a CDF initiative, the Black Community Crusade for Children. They hope to mobilize school districts, businesses, nonprofits, and ordinary citizens to end the "toxic cocktail of poverty, illiteracy, racial disparity, violence and massive incarceration" facing millions of black children in America.
Leaders in the black community have pledged to answer the BCCC's call and have agreed to recruit allies committed to shutting down what Edelman calls the "cradle to prison pipeline" and replacing it with "an expressway to college and work."
How can you help? A good first step is join the BCCC—and no, you don't have to be black to care about black children and be a part of the efforts to end this crisis.
What you do depends on the particular needs of students in your community, so listen to what they're saying. Let's get America's black children back on the road to racial and social progress—the one that Dr. King envisioned.