Until the 1950s, racial segregation in public schools was the norm throughout the United States.
In Topeka, Kan., a black third-grader named Linda Brown had to walk one mile to get to her black elementary school, even though a white elementary school was only seven blocks away. When her father attempted to register his daughter at the white elementary school, the principal refused to admit little Linda.
The U.S. District Court for Kansas heard Brown’s case June 25-26, 1951. The school argued that because segregation in Topeka and elsewhere pervaded many other aspects of life within the United States, segregated schools simply prepared “colored” children for life in America. Losing the case in the District Court, it was appealed to the Supreme Court which did not rule until 1953.
That ruling is today known as the Brown v. Board of Education. Although the Court did not abolish segregation in public areas, nor did it place a time limit as to when schools needed to be desegregation, it did declare segregation to be unconstitutional.
In spite of the Court’s decision, most public schools simply ignored the ruling and continued racial segregation. It would take four years, and the dispatching of federal troops to Little Rock’s Central High School, to provide a few black students access to a white school. Through the ’60s and ’70s, a battle raged throughout our nation’s public school systems which fought tooth and nail the will of the Supreme Court.
Ever wonder what role most churches played during these tremulous times? Did the Christian churches, who preached that the saving grace of God is for all people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, stand tall as the beacon of moral guidance for a nation gripped in the thongs of racism?
I’m afraid not. Some of the churches responded to the moral crises of segregation by establishing so-called Christian schools. White members could now send their white children to a school where they would not have to sit next to black or brown children.
Many Christian schools established in this nation during these times, were founded for the sole purpose of providing a loophole to the Supreme Court’s mandate of desegregation. How deplorable to use the guise of a so-called Christian education to maintain such a sinful social structure.
But do you know who are really the first victims of racism? White children. Ever notice children in kindergarten? They play, fight, eat, talk, share and bully each other regardless of race. Yet something profound occurs by the time they get to Middle School. They sit at different tables in the cafeteria.
Why? White children are taught what it means to be white. And what these Christians school taught white children through their deeds is that to be white meant the privilege of not having to sit next to children of other races.
When teaching undergraduates at a predominantly conservative Euroamerican college, I had them write a socio-political autobiography. Among the many questions, they were asked to describe the racial and ethnic composition of their neighborhood, their school, and their church. A question further on asked them to describe what they learned from their parents about people of different races and ethnicities.
The overwhelming majority of the white students wrote that they lived, worshiped and were schooled in an environment void of racial and ethnic diversity. Most repeated the “politically correct” line about how they felt cheated by not experiencing diversity, and how they truly wished to interact with those who were different.
However, when they later described the lessons learned from their parents about people of color, they usually made comments like “My parents taught me to treat everyone the same,” “I was taught to be color-blind, just like God,” or “I was taught that we are all God’s children and we should therefore love each other.”
The students failed to notice the link between the color blindness taught by their parents and the segregated life in which they were raised. Their parents must have been aware of color, because they have chosen predominantly white neighborhoods.
But given the claim of color blindness, they could not be bigots. In addition, they felt righteous indignation when hearing bigoted comments. These students had no need to believe in white supremacy, because the racist social structures surrounding them, including there so-called Christian schools, protected their white privilege even as they lamented a lack of diversity.
Now, I am not saying that all Christian schools today, especially those founded during the ’60s and ’70s, continue to support its “original” sin of racism. Some schools have found redemption by moving beyond their racist beginnings by operating learning institutions which reflect the rich diversity of our nation and our faith.
Such examples should be a source of pride for the entire community. Yet unfortunately, there are still many “Christian” schools that still have a faculty, administration and student body that is predominately white (with the exception of non-white children adopted by white parents). How sad to see the consequences of that “original’ sin still being manifested in the new millennium.
While I’m sure no school administrator would advocate segregation, nor would I ever imply such a charge, no doubt you’ve heard parents say, as I have, things like: “There are too many Latinos in this school. I’m placing my daughter in a Christian school next year.” Or, “My son was in a fight with a black boy. That’s it, I’m pulling him out of public school and putting him in a Christian school.”
Frankly, I would never send my precious children to a school, no matter how much they proclaim their Christian faith, that refuses to celebrate and/or learn from our ethnicity. The ones I truly pity are those students who are denied a full education because they are forced to go to a school where everyone looks like them.
Any educational system, devoid of diversity, incapacitates the ability of its student body to function or succeed in the new global marketplace. Whether you like it or not, this new world order means that our present generation would have to deal with, purchase from, sell to, negotiate with, work for, supervise over, and profit along side people from different races, cultures, and ethnicities.
As you come across schools which proclaim to provide a Christian education, I suggest you ask two simple questions. Do the faculty, staff, and student body proportionately reflect the community’s diversity? If not, why?
Maybe not much has changed for some “Christians” since the days of segregation.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.