I’m a numbers guy so it struck me as newsworthy when two events this week were reported using the same number – 52 years. One was a happy story, at least for fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first time in fifty-two years, a professional sports team from Cleveland won a major sports championship. The other. Fifty-two years after the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, officials in Mississippi are closing (again) the investigation into the civil rights workers’ murders – the event that inspired the movie Mississippi Burning.
The racial implications of these two events are important. In African-American communities, basketball is considered a way out of poverty, and there are many examples in the NBA and NCAA of its power to make that dream a reality. I remember Carmelo Anthony and Jim Boeheim announcing together Anthony’s decision to leave Syracuse after one year to enter the NBA draft. Boeheim expressed his support because it would give Anthony the opportunity to help his mother out of the rough, drug-infested neighborhood in Baltimore where she raised her four children as a single parent following the death of Anthony’s father when Carmelo was two years old.
And then there’s Mississippi in 1964. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed because they were working to equalize the rights of whites and blacks through education, boycotts and voter registration initiatives. It was part of what is now known as Freedom Summer which brought activists from around the country to the Deep South. For many people in those southern states, this was unwelcome interference by people who did not share their values. They felt they were being treated disrespectfully and their whole lifestyle was being ridiculed by the press and these meddlers. To them, the Deep South was being portrayed as backwards and stupid.
This view was not that far off. The lifestyle that the people in those southern states were trying to preserve was one of racism, oppression and unequal rights. People in most of the country felt that it was time for a change, and that the people who did not want change were racists. The press – recognizing a shift in popular opinion – were eager to highlight abuse by local politicians, law enforcement officials and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Many of these officials looked like buffoons to the rest of the country.
Alabama Governor George Wallace’s inaugural address in 1963 sums up these feelings in its most famous line. “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.” And who are “the greatest people that have ever trod this earth?” That is answered earlier in the paragraph when Wallace identifies the Alabama capital as the “very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland.”
As evident from this speech, the people of the Deep South felt the controls imposed by the federal government were an exercise of tyranny, and to most people in the rest of the country, Wallace sounded a bit crazy.
But another line from that speech is important. The previous paragraph, in its entirety, reads, “I want to assure every child that this State government is not afraid to invest in their future through education, so that they will not be handicapped on every threshold of their lives.”
Even though George Wallace had no intention of truly equalizing education for all races, he recognized the importance of education for future success. The wording is quite striking – “so that they will not be handicapped on every threshold of their lives.”
And that is an important connection between these two “fifty-two years” events. Education.
In 2014, 12% of white children under 18 years old lived in poverty while 38% of black children did. That is quite a disparity, and it’s easy to see how this situation developed when we look at where in the United States African-Americans make up the highest percentage of the population. Look at the following map from censusscope.org.
The highest concentration of people who identify themselves and black or African-American, but not Hispanic are found in southern states.
It was in several of those states that barriers to African-American advancement were most prevalent and blatantly racist. Obstacles to equal education, voter rights, equatable treatment in public life, and fair labor laws were fierce and designed to keep black people from rising above a subservient position in the social hierarchy. Elected officials, law enforcement officers and the KKK used any means necessary – including terrorism, torture and murder – to enforce these barriers.
Keeping a black person from getting a good job, voting or drinking from the same water fountain as a white person keeps the status quo for a while. Making sure black children receive a poor education when compared to white children, on the other hand, ensures a multi-generational advantage for white people. It is little wonder why the federal government in the 1950’s and 1960’s considered public school education in the Deep South to be so important an issue that they were willing to sent in the military to enforce change.
So what do we do now with 38% poverty for black children versus 12% for white children?
One of the factors that determines success in school and following graduation is parent/guardian involvement and expectation. When the parent or guardian lives in poverty, they are less likely (or have less opportunity) to be involved in the schoolchild’s education. Sometimes this is a result of the need to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, and sometimes it is due to drug or alcohol addition, or other factors which prevent involvement. Regardless, the schoolchild who lives in poverty is going to have a harder path to a good education. Also, because hunger is often a way of life for children in poverty, success in school can take a backseat to basic survival needs such as finding enough to eat. And let’s not forget crime. Poorer neighborhoods have more gang violence and other crime that the schoolchildren must navigate in their daily lives.
In the United States, school funding is generally effected by the wealth of the surrounding neighborhoods. Children from wealthier neighborhoods almost always have better and newer schools to attend, and more money spent per pupil, than for children from poorer neighborhoods.
Is it any wonder that poor children often struggle in school? And that struggle will affect African-American students more than three times as often as white students because a much higher percentage of black students live in poverty.
So what can we do? More on that next time, but one thing is for certain. There are not enough college and professional sports positions to pull more than a tiny fraction of impoverished children out of poverty. We need a better plan.