Equity & Diversity

The Origins of Racial Inequality in Education

Columbia University report examines the origins of racial inequality in the United States
By Ileana Najarro — March 20, 2023 4 min read
In this May 13, 2014, file photo National Education Association staff members from Washington joining students, parents and educators at a rally at the Supreme Court in Washington on the 60th anniversary Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down "separate but equal" laws that kept schools segregated.
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To understand and address educational inequality today, everyone involved in public schools must first be aware of how inequality has been embedded in the foundations of the country’s education system.

That’s the premise of one of five reports from Columbia University on the origins of racial inequality in the United States, published on March 20.

Uncovering Inequality” is a research-based project spearheaded by Jelani Cobb, dean of Columbia Journalism School, and the university’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights. Conceived in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the project covers housing, criminal justice, health, economics, and education, highlighting how public policies have, by design, created and furthered racial inequality.

The main goal is to ensure that media conversations and coverage on these topics are rooted in historical context, with the hope that such information could move the needle toward addressing systemic inequality, whether through policy changes or more nuanced conversations, Cobb told Education Week.

But those working in K-12 education could also benefit from the education report in this project by seeing how topics intersect—such as the relationship between inequitable housing policies and educational inequity—and diving deeper into the origins of the work they do, said Juontel White, senior vice president of programs and advocacy with the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and co-author of the education report.

“I think having that historical grounding is helpful in the engagement with multiple stakeholders that educators face in their day to day work,” White told Education Week.

What the report offers

The education portion of the project covers a chronology of education policies following the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 and how their foundations and implementation created or contributed to racial inequalities. That education analysis includes an acknowledgment of how schooling during the pandemic shed light on this history.

“In more ways than one, the schooling experiences of students of color during the COVID-19 pandemic have illustrated that contemporary educational inequality is inextricably linked with the history of education, and other sectors such as public health and housing in the United States,” the report reads.

It covers the early days of schooling, roughly starting with the 1800s “common school” system of universal schooling funded by local taxes—and the disparate experiences among various racial/ethnic groups at the time when it came to education access and quality.

From there, the report explores the national patchwork of desegregation court orders following Brown; the resegregation that emerged years later, and the topic of school choice in the 1990s; the relationship between school and neighborhood segregation; the role federal funding policies and high-stakes testing play in furthering racial inequities in education; and the question of inequalities in terms of school curriculum—namely whose history is taught in class, and whose is excluded or sidelined.

That last topic, curriculum, is particularly pertinent to educators facing legal restrictions in teaching about certain aspects of U.S. history. In at least 18 states, educators are banned in how they can discuss topics of race and racism.

This reality is not lost on the project writers.

“One of the highlights of the report is that the very content that is being politicized currently has never, in its totality, been a part of the fabric of public education curriculum,” White said.

It’s partly why researchers such as Eric Duncan, director for P-12 policy at The Education Trust, praise this report for offering teachers context they lack from their own experience as students.

“You can’t expect that our teaching population who have gone through schooling in America would understand this context, because it’s not taught in traditional settings,” Duncan said.

Why educators need to know education history

For years now, school districts, education researchers, and nonprofits have devoted time, money, and personnel to highlighting and attempting to dismantle inequalities in public education.

The historical context of how systems were created, for whom, and by whom, is key to this work, Duncan said.

For instance, debates around affirmative action in university enrollment need to factor in the issue of legacy admissions, in which the children of graduates are given preferential treatment. Because of past laws banning admission to Black students’ ancestors, these descendants are limited in their eligibility for legacy consideration, Duncan said.

And research has shown that “raising awareness of systemic inequities and their effects can foster empathy and lower explicit and implicit biases toward marginalized groups, whether among school administrators, teachers, or others,” said Felice J. Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association, or AERA.

“Every individual involved in public education—as a teacher, administrator, parent, or taxpayer—should be fully aware of the history and persistent ramifications of the racial inequity ingrained in our system,” Levine said.

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