Earlier this month marked 162 years since the racist U.S. Supreme Court, once again, loudly and proudly declared white supremacy as the law of the land in their ruling on the Dred Scott case, stating, Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Philly lawyer and activist, Michael Coard rightly notes in the Philadelphia Tribune, “If you don’t believe that ruling [Dred Scott] still applies as recently as 2019, consider the cases involving the following unarmed Black people murdered during the past five years by white cops who were acquitted or never even charged: Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher, Samuel DuBose, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Alton Sterling, and many others.”
The ruling also permeates our schools and school systems. From the funding of Black students’ education to disciplinary policies and practices to graduation rates, access to rigorous courses and effective teachers and school leaders, Black students continue to live and experience the horrid legacy of the Supreme Court’s decision.
And while Brown vs Board of Education supposedly represented the “inevitable” reversal of America’s racist outlook, Black students and their families can tell you from painful experiences that you can’t legislate the biased hearts and racist minds of white America.
And, despite what people believe, even well-meaning policies can get hijacked and disregarded when those who are supposedly in positions to implement said policies, meant to level the playing field and learning areas, use their authority and positions to circumvent the path towards educational equity and justice.
When the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was applied, there was no shock in Black communities about the backlash; white communities reacted with terrorism, dragged their feet in implementing desegregation, and dragged their families to other spaces to avoid putting their kids in mixed classrooms and schools. Some districts shut down completely.
Today, court rulings and legislative action boldly declare that Black students have no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Consider this: In Pennsylvania, the state legislature acknowledged that the school funding formula was racist and decided to fix it by making a mere 4 percent of the school funding equitable.
In Michigan, a federal judge ruled that despite conditions of Black schools (that he described as “nothing short of devastating”), “access to literacy” and “minimally adequate education” were not fundamental rights for Black children.
In Alabama, “A federal judge excoriated Alabama’s funding system in an 800-page opinion. Still, he found the plaintiffs were not entitled to relief from the court. Needless to say, the plaintiffs represented Black students.
And, while these issues have their roots in racism in general, they’re often codified and endorsed by the racism of the US Supreme Court. For example, in 1973, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court ruled that students had no constitutional right to an equal education. You already know those justices weren’t talking about white students.
These examples certainly and explicitly form current renditions of the racist notion that Black students “have no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
We need local legislators and policy makers to disregard federal racism and set the standard for educational justice. If they pretend the policy is for the most affluent white kid and then apply it to all, we might just begin chipping away at the generations of federally and locally endorsed oppression in our public schools. We might ensure Black children have educational rights that all were bound to respect.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.