Understanding Mizzou and Ourselves

  • November 16, 2015

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Medium

Recent events at the University of Missouri have prompted serious introspection. With the deep hurt and rage caused by the death of an unarmed black 18-year old, Michael Brown, serving as the backdrop to persistent manifestations of racism on Missouri’s flagship campus, young people of color and their allies are demanding more of our education and other institutional systems. They have sounded a cry for justice that rings far beyond Mizzou.

Students are not only speaking out against overt examples of racism. They are saying that the bias they experience is both more subtle and more pervasive. They are trying to tell us that racism simmers constantly beneath the surface of their interactions on campus, even when others do not see it.  Their voices deserve to be heard clearly and taken seriously. Their concerns require our attention because they reflect deep historical roots. Their resolution will have implications far beyond Missouri and the college campus.

Indeed, the structural inequities in society highlighted by students at Missouri exist at all levels of the education system, including K-12 and postsecondary schools. Systemic injustice manifests itself in schools that remain deeply segregated more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education – not only separate but grossly unequal.

This is not an opinion but an unfortunate fact.  We can see this in the huge disparities in school funding and resources; the lack of diversity in our teaching force as well as the curriculum; a disciplinary system that disproportionately punishes students of color, and a raft of other policies and practices that feed racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps and other negative outcomes.

Today, almost three quarters of African American students and eight in ten Latino students attend majority-minority schools. Moreover, roughly four in ten of those students attend schools that are more than 90 percent segregated.  Schools with the highest minority populations are less likely to offer high level science and math classes.  We see that, on average, their teachers are paid significantly less annually than schools in the same district with the fewest minority students.  Their teachers are less likely to be certified.

Achieving diversity in education is critical. Diverse schools are crucial to the development of a society that honors inclusiveness. We need pluralistic educational environments so that students can explore a full range of ideas, perspectives and experiences and to rethink their own premises and prejudices. Testing their own hypotheses against those of people with differing views is the essence of education.

But the solution cannot come merely by creating more inclusive learning environments in higher education.  We have to dig deeper, and find ways to acknowledge and address the underlying structural inequality. Structural racism and unconscious bias permeate so many aspects of American life, not only in our schools, but more broadly throughout our institutions.  This very real frustration is what fuels the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  Dignity, equity and opportunity cannot be abstractions for any segment of our society – they need to be the common denominators of every American dream.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded over 100 years ago to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all. This timeless mission has fueled our constant commitment to stop anti-Semitism and bigotry in all forms and to secure civil rights and social justice for all people.  Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, this mission inspired our dedication to the struggle for civil rights, fighting alongside our brothers and sisters in the African American community to achieve landmark voting and anti-discrimination legislation. We made enormous strides in those years, and those civil rights laws provide important legal safeguards that persist today.

But now, we and other civil rights organizations must address the reality that laws are sometimes easier to change than attitudes, and that both subconscious and overt racism persist in America.  Unfortunately, we cannot just wish away the structural racism and unconscious bias that permeate so many aspects of American life, including our schools and other institutions.  In this moment, we need to acknowledge the realities around us and recommit ourselves to this work.

Of course, the burden of addressing racism and bias must not fall solely on the shoulders of communities of color or other minority groups.  All segments of society have a responsibility to listen carefully to the voices and frustrations of this generation of activists who want what we all want—a more just society. We are prepared to take on this challenge and to renew our effort to ensure justice and fair treatment for all.