Still separate, still unequal

September 4, 2019

By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith

For many, the back-to-school season is a source of pride. It serves as a reminder of our historic national commitment to education for all. This commitment has contributed to the vision of a civil democracy that advances moral leadership and civility.

The great African American educator and faith leader Nannie Helen Burroughs said, "Education and justice are democracy's only life insurance." It was with this in mind that Burroughs, with support of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., began creating a trade school for black high school- and junior college-aged girls.

While African Americans leaders like Burroughs were advancing education for all, they were also directly affected by a contradictory policy of “separate but equal,” which was, in reality, an inequitable system that prevented African Americans from an education. This policy limited job choices and the ability of African Americans to put food on the table.

This month’s Pan African devotional by Heather L. Taylor reminds us of this policy. She writes that the policy was a part of the disenfranchisement that was done through a discriminatory legal system. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jim Crow laws of the south mandated racial segregation thereby laying the foundation for institutionalizing separate and drastically unequal public-school facilities and other resources for black Americans.

This was true even after the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that public facilities and services may remain separate but equal. The advocacy of our ancestors finally ended racial segregation in public schools in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

The long-term effect of this court case has been mixed. Today, many students find themselves in schools that are re-segregated and unequal despite the hard-fought battles to not only integrate schools but to appropriate equitable resources to insure an education.

In a recent Atlantic article Will Stancil pointed out that “racially divided schools are a major and intensifying problem for American education—maybe even a crisis.” The article cites the National Center on Education Statistics, which discovered that the number of segregated schools approximately doubled between 1996 and 2016. During the same time, the number of children of color attending such a school rose from 59 to 66 percent. For black students, it rose even higher: 59 to 71 percent.

The past and present failure to end “separate but equal” in practice, rather than only in law, has led to today’s cycle of underinvestment in many students of color. The devotional points out that higher school spending is associated with a significantly lower risk of students facing hunger and poverty when they become adults.

In a rapidly changing information-based economy, education is more important than ever to students’ ability to compete for jobs that will support a family.

Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church engagement at Bread for the World.

The past and present failure to end “separate but equal” in practice, rather than only in law, has led to today’s cycle of underinvestment in many students of color.

from our Resource Library

For Education

  • Election Resources

    One of the best times to raise the issues of hunger and poverty is during election campaigns. Engage candidates in your state/district on hunger and poverty using our elections resources.
  • U.S. Hunger and Poverty State Fact Sheets

    These fact sheets provide a snapshot of hunger and poverty in the United States and in each state plus Washington, D.C. 

  • Conflict and Fragility Are Hunger Issues

    Conflict is a main driver of the recent increase in hunger around the world and of forced migration. Hunger also contributes to conflict.

For Faith

  • The Bible on Health as a Hunger Issue

    “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith.” These words from Colossians 2:6 remind us of the faith that is active in love for our neighbors.

    The Bible on...

  • Unity Declaration on Racism and Poverty

    A diverse body of Christian leaders calls on the churches and Congress to focus on the integral connection.

    Dear Members of Congress,

    As the president and Congress are preparing their plans for this year, almost 100 church leaders—from all the families of U.S. Christianity—are...

  • In Times Like These … A Pan-African Christian Devotional for Public Policy Engagement

    This devotional guide invites deepened relationship with and among Pan-Af­rican people and elected leaders in the mission to end hunger and poverty.

For Advocacy


African at Heart

November 22, 2019


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