Eli Hager has been a Teach for America teacher in Mississippi.
In our national conversation about race and other forms of inequality, presidential candidates and the media have fostered a consensus that the civil rights movement is finished. The February groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for example, celebrated the “history” of racial injustice. Republican candidate Mitt Romney noted that month that we shouldn’t be “concerned” about economic injustice — by now, he averred, that problem has been solved. Even Martin Luther King Jr. has been widely reimagined as a genial, nonpartisan man who would be satisfied with the legalistic gains black Americans have achieved yet unconcerned about their substandard socioeconomic status. Civil rights activists who disagree are said to be stuck in the 1960s or harbor, as Romney put it, a “resentment of success.” They are accused of playing the “race card,” engaging in “class warfare” or generally disrespecting the sound-bite-consensus that this country has moved beyond the racial and economic complications of its past.
I teach eighth grade in the Mississippi Delta — 20 minutes from the town where Emmett Till was murdered and an hour from where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered a decade later — and I disagree. In fact, my students attend schools that are still fundamentally separate and unequal. The Delta is half black and half white, yet the public schools here that are “failing” and “at risk of failing” are 95 percent black, according to data compiled by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Its white academies are just that: purposely all-white, prestigious and successful. The black public schools, meanwhile, graduate students who are functionally illiterate or who read several grade levels behind those at affluent schools nationally. (Scholastic Reading Inventory test data show that students at some schools in the Delta are eight to 10 grade levels behind their peers; teachers elsewhere have told me of students consistently graduating high school reading at a second- to sixth-grade level.)