by Alex Swan
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court case Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled state laws that allowed for the segregation of public schools were unconstitutional.
Janet and Christi Marks were ten and eleven-years-old, each standing anxiously with their feet resting on the doormat of the Tanaka’s residence after Janet’s knuckles struck three times against the burgundy door. They couldn’t wait for Erina to answer with her arms spread wide like eagle’s wings basking under the crisp sky, as she did every Friday morning. Little did the Marks sisters know they would never see Erina or the Tanaka family again.
Janet Marks, 86, and Christi Marks, 87, remember slipping out their front door and seeing the dew scattered along the tips of their neighbor’s lawn as they made their way next door to the Tanaka’s household. Erina had been their best friend since first grade and the three young girls were in the middle of enjoying their 5th grade year when Janet and Christi were no longer united with their Japanese neighbors. “When I knocked, it was dead silent. I couldn’t hear a peep inside and wondered could all three of them possibly still be sleeping? It was almost ," Janet Marks said.
Janet and Christi went to school that Friday puzzled as to where Erina and her family could be. Janet recalls racing home after school and going straight to her mother, demanding a response for the absence of their beloved neighbors. Mary, a single mother of the two girls, could no longer keep the secret from her children. She explained the Tanaka’s were taken from their home that morning as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese fighter planes. The American government decided to place Japanese Americans in remote camps. Mary proclaimed that many of these Japanese Americans were citizens born in America and they had not committed any crimes.
The Tanaka’s, along with other Japanese Americans, were only allowed to attend the schools within the camps. Janet Marks was utterly distraught. Her memory was as clear as day as she explained, “I could feel the tears running down my cheeks before my mother could finish her explanation entirely. I felt rage. I wanted to seek out where Erina had been taken and have her family returned home immediately. They did nothing wrong. In fact, I remember the Tanaka’s never doing anything wrong.”
As Janet and Christi grew older, they learned how Japanese Americans, including their long lost friend Erina, were unable to receive a quality education. Janet Marks took advantage of her love for numbers and extraordinary math skills and became an account for her uncle as her career started to thrive. Christi Marks, on the other hand, took to heart the situation with what happened to the Tanaka’s and Japanese Americans. When she became a teacher, she saw racism in the American education system and school segregation first hand.
Christi Marks often referred to the case of Gong Lum v. Rice (1927), while tying in the story about her childhood friend Erina and the Tanaka family to the boys and girls of her class 7th grade class at 577 Middle School in Brooklyn, New York. The case consisted of the court upholding a school’s decision to exclude a person of Chinese descent from attending a "white" school. Marks said, “During the first week of school, year after year I would tell that same story. The emotions I portrayed while reciting my story would leave the kids glued in their seat. It made them feel I was more than their teacher, but a companion who could understand when a child wanted to open up about themselves or their family.” She drives home the critical point each year to a batch of new students in her class that racism still exists in the American education system.
Access to quality education for some races in American elementary schools still does lack in various school districts throughout the country. Many New York City school communities are under-resourced, which separates and isolates many poor and minority students. “Some of these schools are no better than they were a century ago,” said Christi Marks. She states, “When I first began teaching, the school I taught at had many minorities, mainly Black, and I would spend much of the morning making sure they had a proper breakfast to eat. I would then make sure all of my students brushed their teeth. Many students would call me their second Momma and it would melt my heart.” However, she explained, “I wasn’t the only teacher to do this and when instructors are spending half of their days meeting physical needs, the quality of the education declines.”
Christi Marks shared an article she had read in October 2014 and it reported that as students come of age, middle school and high school students are at an increased risk to racism. Research data, collected from 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the nation's students, shows great disparities in the public school experiences of minority and White students. Academic opportunities are different for students of different races. “Among high schools that serve predominately Latino and African-American students, just 29 percent offer a calculus class and only 40 percent offer physics. In some school districts, those numbers are even more glaring. In New York City, for instance, just 10 percent of the high schools with the highest Black and Latino enrollment offer Algebra II” (Simon, Racial Divide). However, the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) reports different programs in public schools that are improving the inequity in education. The report seeks to prod change by calling attention to districts that have used ‘best practices’ to reduce inequities. It points to a high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, that serves a largely Black and Hispanic population--and enrolls those students in physics at an impressive rate. The report also highlights an elementary school in an impoverished neighborhood of Dade County, Florida, that enrolls nearly 17 percent of its Black and Hispanic students in a program for gifted students, more than triple the national rate. After reviewing the article with Marks, she stated, “Brown vs. The Board of Education is seeing some results from their battle. Not all is lost.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in the 1950s, the hope rested in the quality of education in America would thrive. Little did people know, there would still be racially based impediments to quality education 60 years later.