Separate and unequal
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day always reminds us that members of the civil rights movement sacrificed their time and safety for their belief that an integrated society could and should prevail, but now re-segregation is threatening the fruits of their labor.
Last summer I participated in a Freedom Rides tribute, traveling to historic sites in order to celebrate the civil rights movement. These places were known for their racial triumphs, accomplished through sit-ins, marches and civil disobedience. However, some of the areas still seemed stuck in an era of racial tension and economic depression. A local woman in Selma, Ala. told me about how schools, churches and neighborhoods of the town were all divided along racial lines, and that there is a fear of being ostracized if one were to challenge those societal boundaries.
The issue is not only contained to Selma or the Deep South. When I reflected on my public school experiences in Greensboro, N.C., only an hour away from Duke, I saw the same society-induced segregation. My high school had predominantly white students, but just a few miles away, other high schools’ student populations were almost entirely black.
In 2004, my county’s school superintendent proposed the “High Point Choice Plan,” a policy that would have several effects, one of which was a racial diversification of three area high schools. The parents of students in the majority white high school revolted with such intensity that the policy was rescinded and the superintendant’s public approval plummeted. Opponents of his plan rejoiced when he eventually left Greensboro to take a job in California.
The culprit of re-segregation is economic inequality, because neighborhood selection is often driven by income level. It is well known that American economic inequality has increased since the 1970s. Economic inequality is even more deleterious given its relationship with race, which is exactly how we have found ourselves in this uncomfortable situation of segregated neighborhoods, schools and other societal institutions. Because these separations are not government rulings, we have convinced ourselves that they are not enormous setbacks to equality.
I thought the Supreme Court made it quite clear in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that “separate but equal” was impossible and that segregation had to go. Separate is still unequal, regardless of why it exists or who implemented it. No wonder educational achievement gaps are increasing—segregation remains.
We are allowing society to construct walls between people who have so much to offer one another. We are participating in educational systems that reinforce barriers, when we should instead be cleansing our minds of pre-existing boundaries. The cycle of uneven playing fields is the opposite of the American ideal, but if our focus returns to the causes of things, there is a way out.
Our current affirmative action policies factor in race, but if we are going to re-integrate on a large scale, then these affirmative action policies must also factor in economic status. It is necessary but insufficient to consider race, when the patterns of societal segregation are entrenched in economic inequality. We speak the rhetoric of education being the bona fide path to long-term societal change, yet educational admissions do not uphold this fundamental promise. A true commitment to providing equal opportunity would recognize economic conditions as correlated to resource access. Moreover, this commitment would be reflected in admissions policies, not only within financial aid considerations. That is how we can rebuild our institutions into ones in which “separate” becomes “diverse” and “unequal” transforms into the “equal opportunity for all” that the American Dream so proudly symbolizes.
There is no place for segregation or separate, unequal institutions in our country today. Diversity of perspective is how we can birth new ideas, understand one another and get closer to the truth. Duke is a wonderfully diverse setting, and many of us are gaining a heightened sensitivity and richer perspective, but until we fully challenge the re-segregation of society at large, and the economic underpinnings of this unequal separation, the world is missing out. Until then, we are still segregated, and the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. is one to keep striving for.
Rajlakshmi De is a Trinity junior and is studying abroad at the London School of Economics. Her column runs every other Friday.