Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Schools and the 5 Inflection Points of Race in America

It’s shaped politics, government and culture throughout our history. Schools may not be teaching critical race theory as such, but today’s students — tomorrow’s leaders — need to explore why these disparities continue to exist.

School deseg.VA.jpg
School desegregation underway in Prince Edward County, Va., Sept. 16, 1963. (Thomas J. O'Halloran/Library of Congress)
Virginia’s Republican governor-elect, Glenn Youngkin, made critical race theory a centerpiece of his campaign against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Critical race theory has moved into our school system, and we have to remove it,” Youngkin told Fox News back in August.

His charge galvanized a national debate about teaching about race in schools. That charge, and the follow-on punditry, has three big problems, though. First, Youngkin’s claim that critical race theory — the notion that race is embedded in the nation’s structures and processes — “has moved into all our schools in Virginia” was not true, according to PolitiFact; local school districts said that they just didn’t teach it. Second, the evidence that the issue swung the election is weak. It was, quite simply, a bad day for Democrats, and Youngkin swept in on an anti-Biden wave.

The third problem, though, packs a more powerful punch. As I examined in my book, The Divided States of America, it’s impossible to escape the painful reality that race has been woven through American history since the very start. We can certainly debate how best to teach it, but we can’t escape its long shadow.

A Nasty Compromise

In fact, there have been five big inflection points that trace the role of race in shaping American politics and government. The first came with the writing of the Constitution and, especially, that notorious part of Article I, Section 2, that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of political representation. That part of the Constitution is excruciatingly painful reading even today, with the recognition that the nation’s founders decided explicitly to count one in every six Americans as a fraction of a white individual.

Why did they do that? The new United States was not very united. Northerners were deeply suspicious of Southerners, and vice versa. The founders decided to create a Senate, where each state had equal footing, but the House, designed to reflect the population, was much trickier. If every individual, including slaves, were counted the same, the Southerners would get a big advantage. If slaves weren’t counted at all, the balance of power in the House would swing to the North. So they developed a nasty compromise to produce an even balance between Northern and Southern representation in the House.

James Madison, the great architect of the Constitution, frankly acknowledged the distasteful solution in Federalist 54, but he said that it was the best solution the writers of the document could find to prevent the sectional divisions from tearing the country apart before it could even get started. It’s impossible to understand where “we the people” have come from without understanding the role that race played in launching the republic.

The second inflection point, the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, seemed to put the problem behind us. The Civil War had ended the debate over slavery, and the amendment enshrined the principle of “equal protection of the laws.”

At the time, that seemed to have settled the question of race in government. But the abolition of slavery and enshrinement of “equal protection” not only did not resolve the country’s deep racial schism, it set the stage for state and local creation of “Jim Crow” laws, which wove racial discrimination deeply into the fabric of American society.

In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was one-eighth Black, attempted a challenge of a Louisiana law requiring Blacks to ride in separate railroad cars. He was arrested, and in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Louisiana law was upheld in an 1896 ruling holding that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. That decision licensed a pattern of segregation that dominated American life for more than half a century.

Then, at the third inflection point, in 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education knocked the legal underpinnings out from the “separate but equal” doctrine. Linda Brown and a dozen other children had been denied the right to attend their neighborhood schools in Topeka, Kan. Instead, she was forced to travel several miles to a segregated school that was separate but certainly not equal. In a revolutionary 9-0 decision, the court held that such provisions were patently unconstitutional.

Deeply Ingrained Outcomes

But as has always been the case throughout American history, saying so didn’t make it so. In many southern states, lunch counters and other public accommodations remained segregated. Literacy tests, poll taxes and outright intimidation prevented many Blacks from voting. During the Johnson administration, at the fourth inflection point, Congress passed a blizzard of civil rights, voting rights and housing anti-discrimination laws.

These provisions, at long last, wiped away the legal foundations for discrimination in the United States, but they scarcely wiped out deeply ingrained outcomes based on race. Consider, for example, the impact of COVID-19 on different parts of American society. Although the vaccination gaps between racial and ethnic groups have narrowed over time, Blacks remain less likely to have received the vaccine. And as the Kaiser Family Foundation documented, “Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, analyses of federal, state, and local data have shown that people of color have experienced a disproportionate burden of cases and deaths.”

That puts us at the fifth inflection point. Neither law nor policy account for these disparities. In fact, in fighting the pandemic, there has been an explicit policy to narrow the racial differences. However, trying to explain the deep, continuing problems of race in fighting the pandemic is a very tough job. The best that the politically neutral Kaiser Family Foundation could suggest was that “the underlying structural inequities in health and health care and social and economic factors that placed people of color at increased risk at the outset of the pandemic remain.”

The source of and the solution to these underlying inequities are extraordinarily difficult to sort out. But, at this point, two things are clear: One is that big differences in important policy issues unquestionably vary by race. The other is that these differences are subtle and are woven into the very fabric of the nation.

Critical race theory is so complicated that it doesn’t flow down from the researchers who write about it to elementary and secondary schools. Across the country, school administrators say that they don’t teach it. Yet if we are to pursue the goal of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” we have to spend more time understanding where and why these fundamental racial impediments continue to exist.

That, in turn, is something that high school students in particular, as the nation’s future leaders, need to explore. If Madison could struggle with the question — as indeed he did — we ought to be able to do the same.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
From Our Partners