Bankole: The moral injustice of illiteracy
With some of the worst test scores for reading and math in the nation coupled with a calamitous adult literacy rate, Detroit’s illiteracy is so alarming that something must be done about it.
Generations are cut off from the mainstream because they cannot access opportunities to better themselves for lack of understanding and speaking the language of the economic life of society.
That is a moral crisis.
The 2007 financial crisis that heavily affected Detroit was in part also due to the fact that some homeowners could not read and understand the fine print of their mortgage contracts. The devastating results rendered them victims of the subprime mortgage fiasco.
That too was a moral crisis.
A significant number of people are cut off from employment today because they cannot read or complete a simple application form. Many don’t even know how to write a cover letter or develop their resume.
Illiteracy remains one of the greatest tragedies in Detroit.
Tackling the issue requires laying the foundation of literacy in the schools.
That is why the right to literacy lawsuit, which was recently dismissed by a federal judge, was a crucial step to address this grave moral crisis.
The suit was brought on behalf of students, many of them African-Americans who attend the lowest performing schools in Detroit. At the heart of the suit was the claim that the state had excluded students from the educational system, taking into consideration the fact that the Detroit public schools district has been under state supervision for years.
To make its case, Public Counsel, the California-based law firm that filed the suit, cited the shortage of books, dilapidated buildings and unsanitary learning conditions as examples of what could be hindering students’ access to literacy.
But the court disagreed and said there is no legal right to literacy.
The suit could have been dubbed “the moral case for literacy in Detroit” because it underscores the conflict between what is lawful and what is right.
The law carries significant weight when it is backed by a force that recognizes and advances the fundamental and inherent rights of all people to have access to an empowering education through literacy.
And when the law fails to recognize such a moral necessity, there is a problem.
In fact, the French economist Claude Frederic Bastiat argued that: “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
Going by Bastiat’s supposition, being on the right side of the law is not always equivalent to being on the right side of morality. Upholding the law for the sake of order is not akin to using the law to uplift groups that have historically been oppressed by the law.
Though law remains central to our lives, the fact is that the law has not always been righteous, as shown in past U.S. Supreme Court cases and rulings against the advancement of blacks and other people of color.
Because of this history, there can be a moral case for the law, and sometimes the law requires a moral lens to guarantee justice.
It is hard to imagine the degradation of the Detroit school system under state control, which began in 1999, could have happened in a rich, suburban, white community where they have access to key educational resources for literacy.
“Children from affluent communities in Michigan do not attend schools lacking teachers, books and safe and sanitary conditions, and children from less advantaged communities are entitled to no less. This is both a moral and a constitutional imperative,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Throughout history the courts have served as a place to make both a moral and legal claim against injustices that have impeded black progress. And the intrinsic power of the law rooted in a moral foundation has been one of the highlights of our democracy.
The right to literacy case was about the progress of black students and about how their humanity and education matter.
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.