Editor’s Note: The opinion columns and analysis on the historic Detroit kids’ right to literacy case that we publish are part of The Douglass Project, The PuLSE Institute’s premiere research vessel addressing issues of race, equity, democracy and poverty. The articles explain the ramifications of the recent U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that established the right to literacy for Detroit schoolchildren protected by the United States Constitution. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of the Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org .
“To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature.” Frederick Douglass
By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.
In a landmark ruling handed down April 23, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a three-judge panel majority opinion written by Judge Eric Clay affirmed a constitutionally protected right to literacy for Detroit schoolchildren, the majority of whom are African American. The decision provided an opportunity for redemption for Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to finally stand by her infamous campaign statement that she believed “every child in this state has a Constitutional right to literacy.”
If there was any conceivable ounce of sincerity remaining in that statement, Whitmer would have immediately brokered a settlement following the historic ruling to preserve and protect that precious right for every child in the state.
Instead, weeks passed without any response from Governor Whitmer, a fellow attorney who well understands that time is of the essence in any matter before the court. In fact, exactly three weeks passed before Whitmer’s office finally issued a statement in the wee hours of Thursday morning, May 14 announcing a proposed settlement between the parties.
Yet in the time between the April 23 gigantic decision and the May 14 proposed settlement, the entire Republican-led Michigan Legislature as well as the attorney generals of 10 states (Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Ohio) filed petitions opposing the right to literacy ruling and seeking a rehearing of the case by the entire Sixth Circuit.
Now, perhaps due to the flurry of momentum seeking a rehearing, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a rehearing of the case before the full court and vacated Judge Clay’s decision that affirmed the right to literacy. In essence, this means the previous decision has been voided and the case is now coming before the court for the first time.
With contradictory actions in fighting the case and an ostensible reluctance to settle right away after a right to literacy was declared, it is apparent that Whitmer did not comprehend or did not care about the immediate need to constitutionally provide and protect black students with a basic education. Her seemingly lackadaisical approach and mismanagement of time in failing to settle the case immediately after Judge Clay’s courageous and historic opinion may turn out to be a costly mistake for black schoolchildren.
In the year 2020, we should be collectively mortified that black schoolchildren had to sue their own government to provide them with a basic minimal education. Further, the fact that a Democratic governor failed to emphatically embrace their right to education and fumbled precious time that stands to now jeopardize their constitutional protections should concern every black person in Michigan, but especially Detroit- the base of the Democratic party. It should also be noted that Lavora Barnes, the first black woman chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, did not issue any public statement in support of the right to literacy and the need for Whitmer to settle the case immediately following the decision of Judge Clay, further demonstrating the questionable commitment to true diversity and inclusion by the Democratic Party.
However, regardless of what political party is in power, the history of this country has always relegated African Americans to second class citizenship, and therefore not entitled to the full weight of the law or liberties naturally enjoyed by their white counterparts. This is painstakingly true when it comes to the crossroads of racism and education, where history has repeatedly documented the lengths to which blacks were continually outlawed from the freedom and right to read and write.
In the antebellum era, the criminalization of teaching then enslaved Africans to be literate was based on fear of education, for if slaves learned to read, they could access information, read books, learn to organize, liberate themselves, and revolt against the institution of slavery. Such was the power of the written word.
Even after the abolition of slavery, the denial of access to literacy continued in the Jim Crow era, most infamously with literacy tests used as a barrier to the constitutionally protected right to vote. Because literacy was denied to African Americans, they were effectively barred from participating in the fundamental civic duty of voting, deprived of representation in government, unable to advocate for improvement for themselves, and predominantly excluded from the American democratic experience.
A radiant beam of hope appeared with the monumental 1954 Brown v Board of Education of the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal and leading to integration of schools across the country. Yet holding on tightly to the vestiges of inequality, many white politicians vehemently opposed integration in their communities, including refusal to enforce the Brown decision, despite it being the law of the land. These historic records prove that race cannot be ignored as a driving factor in this modern day right to literacy case.
With her unacceptable seeming reluctance to ensure the right to literacy for black schoolchildren, Governor Whitmer’s actions mirror the intolerable lengths to which the power structure will go to avoid or deny equal educational access to African Americans. Throughout the case, she had the power, authority, and repeated opportunity to settle the case and provide requisite solutions. She continually stated through her black spokeswoman Tiffany Brown that she supported the case on the merits of a right to literacy, but failed to offer anything in support, instead choosing to punt responsibility to act by arguing that the state was not a proper party.
The final straw was her hesitancy to settle immediately after the initial ruling affirming the right to literacy, which threatens a long, hard-fought but now temporarily nullified victory for black children who simply wish to learn and comprehend educational material in school.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer now joins a long and infamous list of shameful elected officials who refused to stand up for equal rights for black citizens, in this case, children.
The fate of this case is now in the hands of the Sixth Circuit Court, but we must never allow Whitmer to escape the blame of not acting sooner on the decision of Judge Clay as she waited for almost a month to respond to the historic decision. She must always be held accountable for her role in failing to protect a constitutional right that is pivotal to the educational future of every black child in the state of Michigan.
Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent anti-poverty think tank. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.