The recent acts of violence against Asian and African Americans have made it clear that — as parents and educators — it’s time for a genuine conversation about racial and educational inequity. Often amid tragic circumstances, we miss opportunities to explore root causes. Despite the horrible situations, perhaps these recent events can spark real action in our community. Working together toward racial and educational equity, we can hope to create a better and just Atlanta for all. 

Tauheedah Baker-Jones is the Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer of Atlanta Public Schools.

In my role as Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer of Atlanta Public Schools, I collaborate with stakeholders to ensure equity among all students. I hear and understand parents’ beliefs and concerns. Some are concerned that equity could mean their children will have opportunities taken away as we provide greater access for all children. Others are concerned about a lessening of educational quality. I understand how difficult it may be to share these concerns, especially in the thick of race-based, hate-filled violence. 

It is important to me for concerned parents to know that I don’t take their concerns as racist statements. I, too, am a parent and understand that all parents only want what’s best for our children. Equally as important is that we all push beyond the barriers built through generations of misinformation. 

As an educator, I recognize that the greatest remedy against fear is knowledge. To eliminate fears that surround equity, it’s vital that we have a clear understanding of what it is and how it differs from equality.

Equity is when each student gets what they uniquely need to succeed. It’s different from equality, which treats everyone the same without addressing the root causes of disparity and ignores the reality that each child is different. 

Equity differs in that it ensures all children get what they need. 

As we begin to understand the true meaning of equity, we also must accept that racial and educational inequities exist and understand that they are the result of historic policies and practices that have disenfranchised large sections of our community for generations. 

For example, the 1854 California Supreme Court ruling in People v. Hall stated that people of Asian descent could not testify against a white person in court, thereby establishing a legal mandate protecting perpetrators of violence against Asian Americans and substantiating anti-Asian sentiments to this day.

During slavery, laws were passed forbidding African Americans from learning to read, write and educate themselves. In Georgia, these anti-literacy laws were so strict that failure to comply was punishable by death. At the end of slavery, African Americans across the South enrolled in schools, only to have these efforts undermined with the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and the passage of Georgia’s first Jim Crow law in 1890. For the next 60 years, Jim Crow laws legally defined all matters of public life in the South, including schools. Even after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, school segregation continued in Atlanta until 1972. 

Legally sanctioned redlining in the 1930s via President Roosevelt’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created Atlanta’s residential demographic patterns, with more affluent white communities living in the north above Interstate 20 and poorer African American communities living in the south and west of I-20.

Anti-literacy laws, legal segregation and racial violence have had profound impacts on the economic mobility and educational options available to people of color, particularly to African Americans within our city. Since slavery, African Americans have been playing catch-up with their white counterparts in all areas, especially education.

Consider today when Atlanta stands as the most income-disparate city in the nation:

  • Current census data shows that the median household income within Atlanta Public Schools is $167,087 for white students and $23,803 for Black students
  • Roughly 75% of APS students live in low-income situations and research shows that a child born into poverty in Atlanta has a 95.5% chance of remaining in poverty.

This context and data are not to suggest that APS can fix all of our societal problems, or that APS owns all of the work to be done. However, we are going to do our best to own what is ours.

It should also be stated that achieving equity does not mean taking anything from anyone nor does it mean lowering the quality of education. It means giving ALL students what they need. 

Ultimately, equity is not a zero-sum game. At its core, our equity work is about recognizing that in Atlanta there are real ceilings hindering children from receiving the promise education is supposed to provide. Some may not believe in what we say, but we need everyone to believe that when we say all children, “All means ALL.”  

While we all play a role in fixing inequities, there is no simple “to-do” list that will make it all better. We must do the work. Equity for all requires participation by all. The effort is by you, the effort is for you, the effort is with you. When ALL of our students are valued, affirmed and supported, our entire city will succeed. 

Tauheedah Baker-Jones is the Chief Equity and Social Justice Officer of Atlanta Public Schools.