As we make our New Year’s resolutions and measure how we have done on the prior year’s resolutions, we also celebrate January as the birth date of a great man who had high hopes and new resolutions for his beloved but flawed country.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made some powerful and everlasting resolutions for this vast land of opportunity, fear, and the partially fulfilled promise that a person’s achievements were only limited by their hard work and desire.
Dr. King was able to see this nation with eyes of love and hope, even though the reality that he often saw was the swinging billy club and the crushing force of an unleashed water hose upon defenseless people who were only asking to be treated equally. Dr. King was able to set aside the words of hate uttered angrily by segregationists and he was able to push past his own fears for his physical safety to utter words so glorious and so profound, “I have a dream…”
Certainly, some of Dr. King’s resolutions have been achieved, such as the end of government-sponsored segregation of people of different races. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 and Brown v. Board of Education were the beginning of the end of enforced segregation in class and at work, and many people of color benefited from those open doors.
Many of those who long trumpeted “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” recanted their words and asked forgiveness from the many that they harmed.
Has our nation, our leaders and we ourselves, done all that we could to make Dr. King’s dream a reality? Answering these questions truthfully requires us to reach past our own silos of self-complacency and speak truth to the power of our own demons and limitations.
The discussion about race often rings hollow as people speak past each other. Many white citizens are tired of “the blame game” and want the oppressed to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. They say, we are suffering too, our children have less opportunity now than we did and we do not like that change. This angst and frustration are real.
Still, today on average a white family with a high school graduate head of household earns 25 percent more than a black family with a college-educated head of household. In addition, the median wealth of black American family is still only approximately $13,000 compared with $125,000 for a white family. These numbers show that there are still so many disparities that are tied to race. Yet many Americans reject these facts.
Is racial inequality like the recent broad exposure of sexual harassment of women? Many good men have said say they are amazed that this gender-based mistreatment was still going on, even though many women experienced sexual harassment and many people watched their work neighbor endure such horrors. Like racial discrimination, sexual harassment is something too long tolerated until it was made public so that action had to be taken.
Like sexual harassment, the tangled web of racial intolerance and injustice is often hiding in plain sight.
What would Dr. King see if he looked around the nation to our school systems? Today, for many reasons, many public schools around the nation are struggling and failing. Children often arrive unprepared for school, often coming with so many problems from their home environment that learning is a challenge.
Charter schools are proliferating uncontrollably, taking public dollars without real accountability. Many charters are failing and closing with the organizers keeping the buildings and real estate to sell to friendly investors. Other charter schools collect the cream of the student population and aggregate and accelerate the economic and racial segregation, often claiming that they offer a private school atmosphere with a public-school price.
At the same time, newly created tax credits allow corporations to skip paying government taxes and instead send their dollars to holding companies that then send the money to private schools that have no accountability to anyone. The unfettered process of “school choice” has led to almost complete racial and economic segregation in many schools across the country.
There are so many ways that we can work on ensuring that more of Dr. King’s resolutions are obtained. We need to make engagement in our local schools one of our personal annual resolutions, and make school fun and engaging again with inspired and committed teachers. That means not pushing out the senior teachers because they cost more.
These silver-haired purveyors of knowledge often understand students the best and can communicate with and motivate them.
We need to bring back fun and fulfilling areas of learning, such as music and band which elevates math understanding and performance on standardized tests. We need to bring back studio art which stimulates higher learning. We should bring back theater which provides opportunities to read and discuss literature, and provides deeper understanding of historical events.
And of course, we need our children to learn civics again and how our great democracy works in order to be enchanted and anticipate their first day voting at the polls or to announce their first candidacy for an elected position.
This means we should hold all schools accountable — traditional public, charter, and private receiving tax credits — and ensure that all schools that receive government resources or tax credits take an equal share of students from homes that are struggling financially, and that the racial and economic ratios remain close to the actual ratios in the larger community.
Many studies have shown that this economic, racial, and ethnic integration develops the best educational environment for all students as they learn from each other and learn to strive for the best together
There is so much work to be done, but if we commit our resources and our imaginations — if these concepts could become our New Year’s resolutions for our communities, then many of Dr. King’s resolutions about equal education and equal opportunities for all students — and ALL people — in our great nation could be closer to being achieved.
Cecile Scoon is second vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.