By challenging Plyler, Abbott threatened to unravel more than a century of efforts to provide educational opportunities for children nationwide and especially those in black, Latino and Indigenous communities. But rather than a new assault, Abbott’s remarks are part of a tradition of systemic racism designed to harm communities of color and undermine court rulings that have continually sided with parents fighting for justice. educational.
From the earliest days of the country, there were debates about who was worthy of an education and for what purposes an education should serve. Race played a critical role in answering these questions, producing anti-literacy laws preventing free and enslaved black people from learning to read and boarding schools that separated indigenous children from their families, cultures and languages.
As for Latino children, less than 18% of children aged 5 to 17 were enrolled in public schools during the early years of the 20th century, but by 1930 that number had risen to 50%. Yet enrolling in public schools did not mean attending the same schools as white children. In California, for example, increased immigration from Mexico and increased labor needs in the citrus industry have led most school districts to place Mexican school children in schools separated from their white counterparts. This was the experience of many families, until a group of parents decided to fight back.
In 1944, the Mendez family moved to Orange County to rent a farm from a Japanese-American family who had been forced into an internment camp. Despite the 17th Street school’s proximity to their home, the white-dominated Westminster Primary School District denied 9-year-old Sylvia Mendez and her brothers entry to the school due to their appearance and Mexican ancestry. Instead, the district forced them and others like them into a segregated and unequal school across the city.
The Mendez children were not alone: in the 1940s, up to 80 percent of Spanish-speaking children in places like Orange County attended intentionally segregated schools that were not only often far from home, but also deprived of resources.
But the Mendez’s cousins — who had lighter skin and a French surname — were admitted to the 17th Street school, prompting Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez to file a federal lawsuit. , with equally aggrieved parents, in 1946. The resulting case, Mendez v Westminster, led to the end of formal segregation in California. In an amicus brief in support of Mendez, Thurgood Marshall, who would support Brown v. Board of Education, said: “Our democracy is based on informed citizenship. It can only function when all of its citizens, whether they belong to a dominant group or a minority group, are allowed to enjoy the privileges and advantages inherent in our Constitution.
Two years later, another group of Mexican American professionals and civil rights advocates filed suit in Texas on behalf of Mexican American children, leading to Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District and resulted in the end of segregation according to language difference.
The momentum of these cases laid the legal and cultural foundations for Brown v. Board of Education, led by another group of parents, Oliver and Leola Brown. The Browns used the courts to secure access for their daughter, Linda, to the school of their choice. Linda Brown said that “if it wasn’t for that walk, you know, to school and getting so far in school” she and her husband might never have challenged the discrimination their daughter faced. Like Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, the Browns just wanted to send their child to school closer to home.
Together, these cases resulted in significant legal victories. But that was only the beginning of the court’s pursuit of educational justice because policymakers continued to enact policies to evade integration. Their tactics included facilitating residential segregation — which effectively separated schools — and enacting school closure laws that led to the establishment of private academies for white children and gave school boards plausible deniability.
Policymakers facilitated the flight of whites to the suburbs, for example, with the GI Bill and FHA loans that effectively restricted the access of black families and others to these homes and schools, and many state districts such as Virginia and Alabama have closed their schools to stop federally mandated. the integration.
So the colored parents kept fighting. In 1968, Jose Cisneros led the charge against his children’s school district for failing to repair its buildings in Cisneros vs. Corpus Christi ISDwho came to ensure that the principles of Brown applied to Mexican American children. In 1969, black and Latino parents in Denver challenged the segregation of the city’s schools and, in Keyes v. School District #1, Denver, the Supreme Court sided with them, finding that the evidence against the school district implicated it in facilitating racial discrimination. And in 1972, Mexican-American parents in New Mexico, by Serna v. Municipal schools of Portalesassured that having a Spanish surname did not prevent him from studying.
Building on this work, in the early 1980s, a group of undocumented migrant families sued to test the constitutionality of a Texas law that prohibited funding education for noncitizens.
And in Plyler v. Doe, the very case Abbott was considering, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas law unlawfully punishes minors who are not responsible for their actions, imposes a heavy burden on a vulnerable group and ignores the lifespan of children. lack of education would be levied on the children of undocumented migrants.
The decision ensured children of all races, colors, creeds and identities the opportunity to obtain an education in Texas. And as legal scholar Justin Driver has noted, the court’s decision in Plyler prevented the Texas measure from becoming the dominant approach nationally.
Abbott’s comments on Plyler are not surprising, given how states have long worked to shirk responsibility for educating all children.
But the case insists that due process and equal protection apply to everyone in America – a principle that is essential in combating the anti-immigrant and racial profiling laws that so brutally discriminate against black communities. , Latinos and immigrants. It also reminds us that families of color have long led the fight for social justice and educational equity, even as white policymakers and politicians have regularly sought to get in their way.
But Abbott’s comments are just one more example that the fight for equity in education is far from over.