When James Meredith enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi exactly fifty years ago, he set aside more than half a century of Jim Crow laws and racial barriers against education.
Even today, Meredith’s initiative is making a difference. Junior Michaela Godfrey says after that momentous point in history, other African Americans began to ask themselves: “He’s furthering his education. Why can’t I?” They saw what they could accomplish and knew they could push themselves to succeed. She herself is the product of such motivation.
According to Godfrey, her father, Murrell, a Ph.D. and professor of Forensic Chemistry at Ole Miss, strove to improve his socioeconomic standing from the very beginning of his education.
“He was the president of everything,” she said. “He strove to do the best in school.”
Although Murrell’s parents didn’t have the ability to assist him in his studies, he was able to succeed and provide a much easier path to higher education for his daughter. Enrolled in four advanced placement (AP) classes, Michaela is an active band member and participates in a variety of other extracurricular activities. She says she realizes she has the full support and encouragement of her parents, and has a definitive direction toward which to work in order to achieve her goals.
Many African Americans have not been as successful, especially in Mississippi, where the poverty rate for African Americans is over 26 percent, almost triple that of whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“If you’re looking at people who are poor in Mississippi, they’re almost all people of color,” Dr. Kirk Johnson, an Ole Miss professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and African American Studies, said.
When the federal government began passing laws that were supposed to guarantee equal treatment, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the number of middle class African Americans indeed increased. Dr. William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University professor of sociology, proposed that opportunity and preparation are the two major factors required to reach middle class economic status, Johnson says.
Those who had prepared to advance did very well in integrated classrooms, when the opportunity arose in 1954 after U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education declared the segregation of public schools unconstitutional, but others didn’t. The fact that more blacks are succeeding now than 50 years ago doesn’t mean the racial divide no longer exists in the education system.
“It’s difficult to show that racial barriers have declined to where they don’t pose as a threat,” Johnson said. “It’s clear that they do still exist.”
But the ability to succeed is not an inherent characteristic, especially over race lines.
“African American genes don’t contribute to bad performance,” Johnson said.
The major factor is environment, which includes even seemingly small habits like the number of words that children hear in their home every day. The Pearson learning company did a study which determined that “children in professional homes heard 382 words an hour while children raised in welfare homes heard an average of 167 words an hour.” Johnson notes that role models also are a significant factor.
“Kids have aspirations that follow their parents’,” he said.
Johnson mourns the statistics showing that professional parents are “disproportionately white,” thus proving that socioeconomic status and racial factors are “closely intertwined.” The difficulty of eradicating one injustice without eradicating the other is incredible.
“What good is help going to do if aspirations are racially tinged?” he asked. “No study has quantified which factor is stronger or more prevalent.”