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.)
These schools practice corporal punishment, unlike the white academies and unlike most white schools in this country. Some of my students are punched in the face until bleeding, whipped with keychains and paddled with a plank for such violations as talking out of turn.
Outside the schools, their community is one where child poverty topped 50 percent in 2000, according to census and state health data; that is four times the national rate for white children. Here, third-grade test scores are used to project future prison capacity when prison contractors lobby the state for funds.
This is a place where what some have titled the “end” of the civil rights movement is a sort of grotesque illusion.
Categorically, black students in the Mississippi Delta are growing up in a region with the nation’s highest rates of child mortality, obesity and poverty. Consider that Vondrel and Bianca are going to schools that drill sets of standardized test questions for the entire year — and that encourage only the sort of menial dreams Newt Gingrich championed in a speech about janitorial work. J’Arrious and Tiana are not engaging in the arts, discussion, research or current events analysis — opportunities that affluent, white schools offer every day. Federal estimates suggest that one in three black men in the United States will end up in prison or on probation, in a country where less than 1 percent of the population is incarcerated; authors such as David Cole (“No Equal Justice”) and Michelle Alexander (“The New Jim Crow”) say the rates are much worse in the South. And even in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, students such as Destiney and Kevayon will be unable to afford college, are unlikely to vote and will not leave Mississippi. In other words, despite what I know to be their enormous imaginative potential, and despite rhetoric about equal opportunity in the Age of Colorblindness, my students do not have the same practical opportunities that young, white Americans have to succeed.
That’s why it is incorrect, irresponsible and counterproductive for so much of our national political dialogue to be dominated by a consensus that continuing civil rights activism is like singing “Kumbaya.” In fact, folk music historians note that the word “Kumbaya” mispronounces a blues lyric — one popular in the Delta — that urged listeners unaware of injustice to “come by here” and see it. Like the civil rights movement, the original song was far more serious and ambitious than what it has been made out to be. And I, like that song, challenge politicians and the media to come by here and see boarded-up storefronts and failing schools before you talk about jobs, revel in the successes of the past or declare victory in this country’s long pursuit of fairness. I challenge you to follow the example of Robert Kennedy, who visited the Mississippi Delta in 1967 in anticipation of a presidential election that would address Lyndon Johnson’s poverty programs. When one official from the Johnson administration told Kennedy, “There’s nobody in America who is still that poor, Bob,” he responded: “I’ve met them.” If conservative activists and Republican presidential candidates shed their notions of this country’s racial history and came by here themselves, they would probably say that too.