This is Black Health Matters, a series shedding light on the health realities of Black people in America. Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, in partnership with Healthline, aims to educate about inequities to inspire a world where everyone can attain their full health potential, regardless of the color of their skin.
Education is important to me.
As a first-generation child, my father was adamant that I had to have at least a master’s degree. This was clear to me as early as 9 years old.
When I graduated from high school, I wondered why my classmates were excited. I knew I had a minimum of 6 years of school left.
As a Black woman, I knew I would have to go above and beyond in my education just to get the same chance as a white person with less education.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a middle-class neighborhood. My schools were identical to private schools with primarily white students.
As the daughter of an assistant superintendent of the school district, I received the best public education possible. As a Black person, I was privileged to have opportunities to grow, develop, and thrive.
I have three degrees due to the foundation my parents provided me. My access to education and extracurricular activities set me up for success.
This is not the typical story for Black students from the traditional kindergarten-to-12th-grade system.
I’m an outlier.
America’s K–12 system is skewed toward white students. From textbooks, classroom sizes, teachers, and facilities, white students often receive the best of what money can buy.
This is because public schools are primarily funded by property values of homes.
Let’s get into the facts.
A history of educational inequity
Brown vs. The Board of Education was a landmark case in 1954 determining that schools were to be desegregated. This meant that Black and white students would go to the same school. It was a terribly slow process.
On September 3, 1957, the Little Rock Nine integrated a white school. They arrived daily at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, to an angry mob of white people yelling obscenities.
The governor of Arkansas called on the National Guard to block the Black students’ entrance, even after a judge ordered that they be allowed to attend.
Twenty-two days later, after President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and sent in U.S. Army troops, the Little Rock Nine were able to enter.
Every single day, the Black students were threatened and harassed. This continued until they left school or graduated.
Ruby Bridges was a 6-year-old first grader who integrated a school in New Orleans 60 years ago. She was met with violent threats when she attended her first day with U.S. marshals by her side.
All the white students withdrew from her class, leaving her completely alone with her teacher the entire first year of school.
Outside the school, an angry white mob paraded a baby coffin with a Black doll inside. Bridges’ parents were shunned from the community.
Still, her risks and sacrifices paid off. Eight Black students were enrolled in first grade the next year.
Along with many other Black students who integrated schools, Bridges persevered and changed history.
How K–12 funding works
The effects of segregation still live on in today’s educational system. Schools have moved from segregated to racially concentrated.
School funding is inherently connected to neighborhood wealth. It’s largely determined by property taxes, with more expensive properties yielding higher funding for local schools.
This means students who already have the advantage of coming from wealthy homes also have the advantage of the quality education that wealth can provide.
Underfunded schools may lack:
- school counselors
- access to up-to-date technology
- mental health services
- college prep services
- career counseling
- extracurricular activities
- clean, modern facilities
- experienced, culturally competent teachers
Predominantly non-white school districts receive $2,226 less on average per student when compared to white school districts.
Lower-income white school districts receive $150 less per student when compared to middle- and upper-class school districts.
Racism is still present in our non-segregated school system. This begs the question, was it ever desegregated?
Health depends on education
When students live in a neighborhood that doesn’t provide healthy spaces like grocery stores, places to exercise outdoors, or safe places to walk, their quality of education is at risk. So is their health.
Interestingly, many of these aliments are rampant in Black communities.
Health outcomes are largely determined by education.
Black students attending 2-year and 4-year colleges often have improved health outcomes.
This involves not only education about health, but opportunities for access to things like mental health and healthcare in schools, increased income to afford healthcare and healthy food, and opportunities to live in safer neighborhoods.
A major goal of K–12 education is to advance to a 4-year institution, then to a career to afford a healthy life. Without a college degree, Black people have a 5 percent higher rate of unemployment when compared to white people without college degrees.
Many students must decide if the financial burden of a large loan is worth the education they receive.
Loan repayment can be a major deterrent to college, especially for Black students who may come from a lower-income background and lack parental support.
They may also be less likely to graduate, which makes the financial equation more risky.
Black and Latinx/Hispanic students with federal loans who attended public, private, or a nonprofit college for 6 years or less, graduated at 51.5 percent compared to 70 percent of white students.
Black students are aware that their job prospects after graduation may not provide enough money to pay back loans.
According to national nonprofit The Education Trust, Black graduates are six times more likely to default on their federal loans.
This is largely due to financial inequities, though statistics like this are often used to fuel racist myths that Black people are lazy or unmotivated.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
A default on a loan negatively affects credit. This reduces access to wealth, a safe home to rent or buy, and even purchasing a car.
Ironically, pursuing education for a better quality of life can set Black graduates back.
What you can do
Get involved with your local school system. School board meetings are public, and you can attend to learn about ways to advocate for predominantly Black schools.
Vote for elected school officials who represent and/or advocate for the Black community. You can also consider running for a seat.
Support or donate to College Track or local organizations designed to support Black students to successfully complete high school and advance to college.
Advocate on the federal level for more loan repayment and forgiveness programs. Remove the barrier for some Black people to have access to education.
The foundation of education
My parents are the reason I’m successful.
They are why I have a life that affords me all that I need to live in a safe neighborhood, build wealth, receive access to quality healthcare, and more.
Education gives me the foundation I need to access the social determinants of health. Many Black people will never have that experience.
To thrive as a Black person in America is to defy all odds.
Akilah Cadet, MPH, works with tech companies, nonprofits, retail, and small businesses to assure diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that support Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), women, and the marginalized communities in the workplace. As a Black woman, she uses her personal and professional experiences to inspire her anti-racism work through coaching, strategy, facilitation, and organizational change. She’s proud to live in Oakland, CA, has a rare heart condition, and is a proud Beyoncé advocate. Follow her here.