Separate Is Never Equal

Separate Is Never Equal, a children’s book authored and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, begins:

Sylvia had on her black shoes. They were shiny-new. Her hair was perfectly parted in two long trenzas. It was her first day at the Westminster school. The halls were crowded with students. She was looking for her locker when a young white boy pointed at her and yelled, “Go back to the Mexican school! You don’t belong here!”

Sylvia does not want to return to the Westminster school until her mother reminds her of their family’s struggle to send her there.

Separate Is Never Equal is a retelling of that struggle, based on the real-life lawsuit the Mendez and other families filed against their segregated school districts in California in the 1940s. That case, Mendez v. Westminster School District (1946), affirmed by the 9th Circuit (1947), required four districts in California to admit children of Mexican descent to white schools. Reaching this conclusion, Judge McCormick wrote in the District Court opinion:

A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality.  It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage… the commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals.

64 F. Supp. 544, 549.

This case ultimately led to state legislation, signed by then-governor Earl Warren, that racially desegregated districts across California. Mendez was an important predecessor to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court opinion authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren that made it clear that race-based segregation laws and policies violate the United States Constitution.

These court cases were vital to opening up educational opportunities for minority students in the United States, but the book’s opening scene showing Sylvia in tears illustrates a limitation of litigation. The Mendez court changed the official policy of the school district, but not the biased culture that created that policy. Sylvia, however, perseveres in this hostile environment, ultimately forging friendships with children of different backgrounds, relationships I hope contributed to a cultural shift that embraces equality. It’s the happy ending she and all children deserve.

Sadly, though, for far too many of our children today, school remains a racially isolated experience, and majority-minority districts often lack the resources that majority-white districts typically have. As the author’s note explains at the end of the book, citing a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, “a great deal of inequality–and a kind of unofficial segregation–still exists today.”

More than six decades after Brown and seven after Mendez, the need for equal educational opportunities and intercultural understanding remains. I wish these goals were achievable by court decree, but it clearly takes more than that.

My family lives in a racially diverse area, and my children attend a majority-minority public school in the same district I attended as a child (which was diverse back then but probably not majority-minority). Today, the school district is 53% black, 35% white, under 10% Asian, under 5% Latino, and 1% “other races” (and I have no idea how the district categorizes racially mixed children).

We returned to this community because of its diversity, but, frustratingly, it’s turned out to be far from integrated. Many white families here tout the diversity of our community but send their children to predominantly white private schools.  Meanwhile, the well-funded public schools appear racially segregated in activities and academics, there’s a persistent achievement gap with black students at the bottom, and a handful of incidents since the 2016 election suggest that some faculty and staff need cultural and anti-bias training. The district, led by a diverse group of administrators, recognizes these problems, but we are far from solving them.

I wasn’t expecting my community to be a utopia, but I was hoping for something better than this. Unfortunately, what we have here may be as good as it gets in a country where people lack the personal and political will to do better. At least my district is trying.


  1. I did some brief research this past year on today’s racial segregation, which is largely caused by income disparity. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I learned about the important difference between equality and equity.

  2. Oh, friend, I sympathize with this the most. I grew up in a majority-minority city and went to public school, and when they shifted the Gifted kids to be at a blacker-than-almost-totally-white school, the majority of my white friends from elementary school got pulled out of public school and put in private. By far the majority of them did. It was a pretty enlightening thing for me to see at age, like, nine, how fast people will throw other people’s kids under the bus to get some tiny shred of what they perceive as advantage for their own kids.

    1. “It was a pretty enlightening thing for me to see at age, like, nine, how fast people will throw other people’s kids under the bus to get some tiny shred of what they perceive as advantage for their own kids.”

      This is exactly right. Sadly, in many cases, what they perceive as an advantage isn’t necessarily so. In my area, children from privileged families will receive an excellent education at the public school. Children from families with less access to resources–which here, tends to be a more racially diverse group–are the ones who aren’t getting the education they need at the same schools. I am glad that my district is focusing on ways to close the achievement gap, but I don’t know enough about it to have a sense of whether those strategies are likely to work.

  3. What a wonderful book. I don’t have children so I don’t know all the ins and outs of what is going on in schools in Minneapolis but I do know that a lot of white couples who live in the city will move to the suburbs when they have children “because the schools are better” which, given the city schools are more racially diverse, is a complicated reason mixed up with racial and class issues that will take a lot of work to solve. Plus it is really sad.

    1. It is really sad. I live in a suburb, but it’s a diverse suburb, more so than parts of the city. We are definitely seeing “white flight” from here, both to private schools and also to other suburbs farther away from the city.

  4. This post hit close to home. Our area has highly segregated schools and a huge disparity in academics. I sort of knew that from teaching but didn’t realize how bad it was until parenting. Children can reach 8th grade, be functionally illiterate, and still get passed into high school. It is a huge disservice to the children and the community.

    The kids now attend a school where they are the racial minority (and have to contend with racism from some classmates) but are receiving a very high quality education. Ironically, in our area, we are more likely to get a racially mixed and culturally sensitive educational environment by sending the children to a private school – but there are challenges there also. We do a lot of “unschooling”, learning games, and educational stuff at home – there are moments I consider homeschooling.

    When Baby is old enough to attend school we will have some difficult decisions to make.

    1. Good luck navigating these systems and deciding what to do in the future. There are positives and negatives to every type of education and every school, but it seems truly awful and wrong that those “negatives” still include segregation and an achievement gap in 2017. I am hoping that the recent issues in our district will produce genuine changes that will enhance our schools and our community.

  5. A cry from the heart. Thank you for that. The fact that racial divides -and raw racism – remain so strong does not speak well of enlightened leadership, including, I fear, from many religious leaders. There are no ultimate winners in this reality. 😥

    1. Thanks for this comment, Jane. I can see that we’ve made progress toward racial justice, but we are so far from reaching our goal of equality for all.

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