Education, Racial Disparities

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Education, Racial Disparities

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, and other international agreements make plain that education is a fundamental and universal human right. To achieve this right for all people, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has affirmed the principles of nondiscrimination, equality of opportunity and treatment, universal access to education, and solidarity. Further, UNESCO considers it the responsibility of states to advance and implement these principles, and disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes along ethnic or racial lines is considered to be a violation of this fundamental right to education. Nevertheless, such disparities are widespread in the United States and elsewhere. This entry will explain why these disparities continue to exist despite the fact that most nations profess a commitment to racial and ethnic equality.

In many cases, racial and ethnic inequities are a consequence of the legacies of colonialism and slavery. In the North American colonies, for example, slavery created a racial order with whites at the top and nonwhites at the bottom of the hierarchy. Poor whites were encouraged to find common cause not with their class allies across racial lines, but with the ruling whites. As Howard Zinn points out in A People’s History of the United States (2003), when and if blacks and whites did join together to rebel, these rebellions were met with very harsh punishment for both parties.

Under slavery, Africans and their descendants were forbidden to receive any sort of education. After emancipation, the doctrine of “separate but equal” ensured that the education of blacks continued to be inferior to that of whites. It was not until 1954, in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that school segregation was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, while this was an important step towards equality in educational opportunity in the United States, it left much to be desired. Moreover, a 2003 study conducted by Jaekyung Lee reported that some of the gains made in the 1970s in terms of diminishing the achievement gap between blacks and whites were lost as the gap widened again in the early 1990s.

The United States gained its independence from Great Britain following the American Revolution, but most Latin American countries had to wait until the early nineteenth century to achieve their independence, and many African countries remained European colonies up until the twentieth century. However, many of these former colonies won their independence from Europe only to become dependent on the United States or the Soviet Union for survival during the Cold War. The dismantling of the Soviet Union and the consequent abandonment of client states after the Cold War led to economic crises and ethnic strife in a number of African and East European countries. This had, among other things, negative repercussions for access to education for ethnic minorities.

The 2001 UN Report on the World Social Situation reported that in sub-Saharan Africa teacher’s salaries had decreased since the 1980s, and that the civil war in Rwanda resulted in more than 60 percent of its teachers either being killed or fleeing the country. The aftermath of the Cold War also wreaked havoc on the educational system in the former Yugoslavia. The withdrawal of autonomy in the province of Kosovo resulted in 300,000 children of Albanian origin being removed from school. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, at least one-third of the school buildings were destroyed during the war. In addition, Gladys Mutangandura, Vicki Lamb, and Judith Blau reported in 2002 that structural adjustment programs in Africa and Latin America negatively affected schooling because countries were required to curtail educational programs to comply with International Monetary Foundation mandates. In each of these cases, large-scale crises ended up causing the most harm to the most vulnerable populations—the poor, women, children, and ethnic and religious minorities.

While many experts predicted that globalization and the spread of capitalism would be beneficial across social classes and for rich and poor alike, it is hard to ignore the figures that demonstrate that inequality has increased since the 1980s, both within countries and between countries. The 2001 UN Report on the World Social Situation declared that, in many developing countries, this has meant that children are obligated to work and forego their education. Roughly 250 million children worked in 2001, and many of them did not attend school. One report found that more than 30 percent of fifteen to eighteen year olds in Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, and Venezuela who were not in school reported that it was their need to work that kept them out of school. A 1998 Inter-American Development Bank report found that in El Salvador, 50 percent of fifteen-year olds in the poorest 30 percent of the population were not enrolled in school, while 50 percent of the richest 10 percent were still in school at age twenty-one. In addition, the top 10 percent of Salvadorans completes an average of six more years of schooling than the poorest 30 percent. In many countries, children are not able to attend school because their families cannot afford the direct costs associated with school attendance. In Indonesia, for example, direct costs for attending a primary school, such as school fees, uniforms, and books, are 38 percent of the per capita income of the poorest 20 percent of Indonesians. In Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, a set of new books for a student entering the seventh grade costs twice as much as the average worker makes in a month. Worldwide, children that are from ethnic, religious, racial, or linguistic minorities are often more likely to be poor, and thus less likely to be able to attend school for these reasons.

Racial and ethnic inequalities exist around the world, despite the fact that most governments profess agreement with international conventions that decry discrimination and advance universal education as a human right. Leaders of countries utilize distinct discourses to talk about the racial and ethnic discrimination and inequality that exist in their respective countries. Joe Feagin argues in his book Racist America (2000) that, in the United States, representatives of the government are willing to recognize that racial inequality exists, but that they are frequently not willing to admit that racial disparities are the result of past or present racial discrimination. In Brazil, on the contrary, the government not only attests a commitment to racial democracy, but also claims to have achieved it, thereby curtailing any possibility of discussions of eliminating disparities. This has begun to change, however, and the top Brazilian state universities have begun to implement affirmative action programs.

Many Brazilians uphold this ideal of a racial democracy, although studies show that most recognize that this is an ideal, not a reality (Bailey 2004). Robin Sheriff’s 2000 ethnographic study of a favela in Rio de Janeiro demonstrates that the prevalence of this myth makes Brazil a candidate for achieving racial equality insofar as most Brazilians do see this as a desirable goal. In her book, Racism in a Racial Democracy (1998), France Twine argues that the lack of an antiracist curriculum in schools in Brazil inhibits Brazilian children from developing an understanding of racism and leads them to believe that a racial democracy does indeed exist.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant have described the distinction between the United States and Brazil as the difference between a racial dictatorship and racial hegemony. Similarly, Anthony Marx has argued that apartheid

and legal segregation in South Africa and the United States encouraged black solidarity and opposition, while the ideology of racial democracy in Brazil elicited more muted racial identity and mobilization. In the United States, black solidarity brought about the civil rights movement, while Brazil has not witnessed a movement of such strength. When legal apartheid existed in the United States and South Africa, Brazilians could compare themselves to these two countries and claim that their government at least did not endorse apartheid. In a similar fashion, Joe Feagin points out that U.S. government officials have argued that now that racial discrimination is no longer legal, it is not the responsibility of the leaders of this country to ensure that racial equality is achieved.

Capitalism generates inequalities, and these inequalities are superimposed on racial and ethnic divisions. In the United States, despite legal measures taken to ensure equality of opportunity across ethnic and racial lines, nonwhites continue to be disadvantaged in the educational system. In her book, Bad Boys (2000), Ann Ferguson demonstrates how institutions such as elementary schools devalue black culture, and thus black children. She explains how teachers and administrators interpret black children’s behavior with a different lens than that used for white children, which leads to black boys getting into much more trouble, and thus getting behind in school. In Race in the Schools (2003), Judith Blau discusses how schools racialize opportunities and the educational process, to the advantage of white children.

In Brazil, Peru, and the United States, illiteracy and low literacy are more prevalent among nonwhite populations. Weiss et al. (1995) reported that about 10 percent of the adult population in the United States lacks basic reading skills. Further, ethnic and racial minorities and inner-city residents are overrepresented both in terms of illiteracy and low literacy in the United States. In Brazil, one quarter of African-descended people have no schooling at all. Overall, they have about two-thirds of the level of education of whites. In addition, Patricia Justino and Arnab Acharya (2003) report that Afro-Brazilians who do graduate from high school are only about half as likely as white Brazilians to go on to university. In Peru, the overall illiteracy rate is about 13 percent. However, 33 percent of the indigenous population is illiterate, and 44 percent of indigenous women in Peru are illiterate.

Anthropologist Marisol De la Cadena describes how Peruvian educational reforms of the 1950s were designed to culturally whiten indigenous Peruvians by teaching them to no longer wear braids or traditional dress and to speak only Spanish, and that the curricula devalued indigenous customs and values (De la Cadena 2005). These sorts of assaults on indigenous cultural forms contribute to educational inequality, because by devaluing indigenous culture the schools deprecate indigenous people, making them less inclined to complete their schooling. Sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza has described how the globalization of capitalism and the end of protectionism for internal markets in Peru have led to extreme poverty in indigenous and Afro-Peruvian farming communities. In these isolated communities, the availability of qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks, and even school supplies is much more limited than in the larger cities where whites are concentrated.

Another factor working against minority youngsters is the digital divide. Modern technology brings great opportunities for expanding educational materials, even to those not attending school. Many children in developing countries are unable to do well in school because they cannot afford textbooks, while textbooks have become somewhat obsolete for children with access to the Internet. The sort of basic information held in textbooks could easily be made available over the Internet, but unfortunately the children who most need textbooks are also the ones with the least access to the World Wide Web. This problem is not restricted to the developing world. In the United States, Mexican Americans and African Americans are only about half as likely as white Americans to have a computer or Internet access in the home (Fairlie 2004).

A world in which racial equality of opportunity and of outcomes in education exists is still a long way off, despite the fact that most countries not only profess a commitment to education, but also invest in it. The poorest and very poor countries spend about the same percentage of their country’s total Gross National Product (GNP) on education as do the rich countries, roughly 5 percent. The staggering obstacle worldwide is poverty. Poor people in rich and poor countries simply do not share the same educational opportunities as their richer counterparts.

A world where pluralism prevails and where universal human rights take precedence over ethnic and racial interests is far from being achieved. Basic human rights are not met in many parts of the world, much less social, cultural, and collective rights. In line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is the responsibility of international organizations as well as individual states to ensure universal access to quality education, regardless of gender or racial, ethnic, national, or religious background.

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education; Capitalism; Education, Discrimination in Higher; Social Problems.


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Tanya Golash-Boza