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Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Where the U.S. and schools stand with segregation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Americans observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. today, many will pause to remember his most famous speech - I Have A Dream. NPR's Alana Wise examines the goals that King set for his country, especially around schools and segregation, and where the nation stands today.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: It was a speech that gripped the nation, giving many Americans new reason to consider the stark, systemic racism on which the country was built.

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream today...

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WISE: In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's memorial, King called on America to live up to her lofty ideals of freedom and justice for all. He beseeched the nation to end segregation, an issue that still plagues Black, Latino and poor Americans today.

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KING: The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

WISE: Sixty years after his speech, that segregation remains, keeping the nation's poor and racial minorities in a state of economic stagnation. A report last year from the federal government found that about a third of public school students attend a predominantly same-race school, and about 14% of students attend schools with virtually no racial diversity. And last year, the Brookings Institution found that over 80% of Black people live in low-income communities, compared to just under half of poor white people.

TRACY HADDEN LOH: Segregation is enforced by a system that's so much bigger than just our legal system.

WISE: That was Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at Brookings who studies segregation in housing.

HADDEN LOH: Whether it's banking or whether it's the housing market, whether it's the transportation system or the school system, there are policies and practices that guide all of those systems. Whether they are explicitly framed as having malicious racial intent or not, they have the effect of segregating the country both racially and economically.

WISE: That, in turn, plays out prominently in American schools. Where you live dictates where you learn. If your neighborhoods are segregated, your public schools probably are too. King saw this segregation as the ultimate failure on America's part.

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KING: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

WISE: Experts note that even now, as Jim Crow-era segregation is no longer legally enforced, the effects remain. Elijah Anderson is a professor of sociology and African American studies at Yale, and he's the author of the book "Black In White Space." He says that after physical ghettos were created to contain the Black population, a second ideological ghetto was born, reinforcing the idea of separate, unequal Black and white spaces.

ELIJAH ANDERSON: As a Black person enters or navigates the white space, so to speak, he or she is burdened with a negative presumption that must be disproved, neutralized or overcome.

WISE: Simply existing in spaces that operate on a system of de facto segregation, Anderson says, creates a dangerous undue burden on Black people.

ANDERSON: It's tiresome, and I think this is one of the biggest issues for Black people today.

WISE: Despite those issues, Anderson notes that society has evolved in many ways since Dr. King made his plea from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

ANDERSON: We've brought about the largest Black middle class in American history, and this is very important. We've also elected a Black president, Barack Obama. This is very important. I mean, we've made tremendous progress, but we have so far to go.

WISE: But he warns there are still forces that want to undo Dr. King's legacy.

Alana Wise, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.