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Dr. King would have shined a light on the shame of ‘progressive’ cities. So should we.

On the day that the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was taken in 1968 he had become increasingly focused on the least of these, the poor, people suffering in the margins, families left behind as the country’s economic prosperity boomed and the U.S. found it easy to fund its war machine.

Today we will once again honor Dr. King as we do every year. There will be prayer breakfasts with famous individuals who will give speeches as well-dressed people consume plated food in well-appointed hotels or other venues. Schools around the country will hang posters in their hallways, and students will write thinly sourced book reports. Many of us will pay tribute to iconic Dr. King, the peaceful protester who marched for justice, the patient saint, the martyr who died for our country’s racial sins.

Count me out this time. I am not celebrating. Instead I’ll focus on truth and action, much the way Dr. King did. The truth is that all these years later there are still too many people living in the margins of the same cities that saw flames and smoke decades ago upon news of his death. There are still faces at the bottom of the well that are no better off than when he demanded racial justice and a fair society. 

One has to wonder, what would he think today if he learned that only 23% of Black students in our nation’s capital are reading on grade level, while 83% of their White peers are? Would he feel that there had been meaningful progress towards his “dream” in the half century since his landmark March for Jobs and Freedom? Would he think the promised land had arrived? Of course not.

I’ve had to consider this often over the past few months, as we at brightbeam (our newly named organization) worked on a report that we’re releasing today, The Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray Their Commitment to Educational Opportunity for All. The report was inspired by the pattern I’ve seen in city after city, where construction cranes abound and over-priced condominiums stand as signs of increasing opulence while in the shadows disfavored children are disconnected from the riches.

The starkest example of this is in one of our wealthiest and most progressive cities, San Francisco, where 70% of the White students are proficient in math but a scant 12% of Black students have reached that level. How can a city with the collective resources of a small nation, and a political system more symbolic of progressive ideology than any other, sustain such racially unjust outcomes in education? 

I have struggled for answers, but found them elusive. However, what I know for sure is that the political class of cities like San Francisco can’t be allowed to ignore their official responsibility to ensure every child in their jurisdiction has an equal opportunity to learn. And none of them can honestly say that it exists today.

Sadly, some of them will resist ownership of the educational problems of their cities, preferring to blame-shift to lower offices governing local schools. They will offer platitudes and point to vague “equity” plans. They will call for patience and time. Dr. King would recognize this problem as an evolution of the same “white moderate” he struggled with years ago. While most everyone then expected injustice in Southern cities, Dr. King had a harsh assessment of Northern ones too. 

He said:

In my travels in the North I was increasingly becoming disillusioned with the power structures there. I encountered the tragic and stubborn fact that in virtually no major city was there a mayor possessing statesmanship, understanding, or even strong compassion on the civil rights question. Many of them sat on platforms with all the imposing regalia of office to welcome me to their cities…Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal…there was blindness, obtuseness, and rigidity that would only be altered by a dynamic movement.”

Today he would see we still need a “dynamic movement” to address the “blindness” and “obtuseness” allowing children to be diminished by ineffective systems. Today he would still say “freedom is not given, it is won by struggle.”

Indeed, our report suggests that politically progressive cities, despite the socially liberal views of their residents, don’t just have heartstopping gaps in learning outcomes and graduation rates between White students and their peers of color—those gaps are unexplainably worse than in cities that are more politically conservative. 

I’ll pause for you to take that in. The cities we would most assume to be capitals of “equity” are in fact citadels of racial, economic and educational injustice. 

As you can read in the report, we hoped to find something that would easily explain the difference in student outcomes. Maybe city size is the real reason these progressive cities have such disparities? Or income inequality? Poverty rates? Alas, controlling for these factors couldn’t erase the sadly ironic correlation between larger gaps and a city’s progressive values.

So, what’s the remedy? Should progressives lose faith in their values and transform their donkey into an elephant? No. The opposite is true. Progressives—particularly the leaders and decision-makers in these cities—should demonstrate their values and stop living by what Dr. King called “a mythical concept of time.” Stop asking marginalized families “to wait for a ‘more convenient season’” or a new silver bullet policy, or improbable budget changes.

The shameful gaps we see are fixable. There are districts we see in our study of conservative cities where the gaps are small or even nonexistent. We should investigate them.

We also should commend the work in progressive cities like Oakland where some community members are rising up, transcending traditional political boundaries and building coalitions of parents to create tickets to opportunity. We see that in progressive cities like Chicago years of educational reforms have yielded unprecedented gains and provided families with game-changing options

In this heightened political year, many of us will be wearing our political stripes on our sleeves. I am only asking that you reconcile your declared values with the unjust outcomes you see in your city. How can you hold your political leaders to account for “world class cities” where many children can’t read?

As people of good faith we best honor Dr. King by shining a bright and unyielding light on children hidden from view, and by recommitting ourselves to his “fierce urgency of now.” 

Our goal should be simple, as was his: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Project Forever Free is part of the brightbeam network.

What Do You Think?
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes.

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