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.