The structural shortcomings that produce racial inequities
If the American Dream means anything, it's that the circumstances of a person's birth ought not limit what she or he can achieve in life. Innate characteristics -- such as race, gender and sexual orientation -- or cultural traits -- such as religious beliefs, parental income level and social status -- should neither constitute barriers to advancement, nor gainsay an individual's civil rights. America's reality, however, falls well short of this dream.
The data consistently show how discrimination, whether the consequence of intentional bias or implicit biases built into core public systems, continues to deny millions of Americans access to opportunity, or even worse their fundamental rights as citizens, precisely because of innate characteristics or cultural traits. Which is why we still see inequitable outcomes along a myriad racial, ethnic, gender and other demographic lines that cannot be explained by either neutral market forces or individual choices and have no place in a just society.
To our great dishonor, racism, particularly against Black people, continues to constitute the most pervasive example of how our nation fails the American Dream. It's pervasive, in that structural racism exists in core public systems that are supposed to create access to opportunity, not single out Blacks for disadvantage. For just one example from our state, consider public education generally and how it's funded specifically.
In 2018, Illinois replaced its old school funding formula, which was widely acknowledged to be one of the most inequitable in the nation, with the "Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act" or "EBF." The EBF ties education funding to covering the cost of those practices which the research shows actually enhance student achievement. And, rather than identify one, per-student funding amount to be used statewide, the EBF instead identifies the unique amount each school district needs to educate the specific student population it serves.
This is powerful information, because it allows us to identify how state funding for education stacks up against what the evidence indicates is needed for children to succeed academically. Here's what we know: when the EBF passed, total K-12 funding in Illinois was some $7.2 billion less than what the evidence indicated was needed. That's not good. What's worse -- when that funding gap was broken down by race, it showed the typical Black student faced a shortfall of $5,100 per pupil or almost 40% more than the $3,620 gap faced by white students.
So it shouldn't be a surprise when the composite scores of Black students on the math, English and science portions of the NAEP exams come in 28 points lower than their white peers. The system is producing precisely the outcomes it is funded to produce -- which are structurally racist. Ignoring racism is more ignorance than we can afford.
Indeed, ignorance is one of the greatest impediments to eliminating all forms of racism woven into the fabric of American society. According to Merriam-Webster, "ignorance" means the state of lacking knowledge or awareness. It is nigh impossible to solve any societal problems when either elected officials or the general public are, or claim to be, ignorant of them.
Which is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so vital today: it destroys the veil of ignorance. According to former state Sen. Toi Hutchinson: "The movement forces everyone to recognize the systemic racism millions of Black Americans face every single hour of every single day. Of course, everyone has obstacles in life to overcome on the road to success -- Black folks face those same obstacles -- plus racism."
At its worst, we have all witnessed how racism manifests in acts of extreme violence, like the recent murders of two Black men, George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery, who would be alive today if they were white. It's long past time all Americans recognize how racism is diminishing our society. As the brilliant scholar W.E.B. Du Bois once famously cautioned: "either the United States and what it stands for will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States."
Ralph Martire, firstname.lastname@example.org, is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a fiscal policy think tank and the Arthur Rubloff Professor of Public Policy at Roosevelt University.