Editor’s Note: This column, part of The Douglass Project, The PuLSE Institute’s premiere research vessel addressing issues of race, equity, democracy and poverty, explains 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. The column also underscores the historic denial of literacy and education to African Americans in the United States, furthering the need to declare a fundamental right to literacy to ensure a standard of education for majority African American school districts like Detroit. The Institute was one of several organizations that wrote an amicus brief in support of the right to literacy case at the request of lead counsel Mark Rosenbaum, and hosted a forum in Detroit discussing the case and its significance for the future of urban education in America.
“The history of education in the United States also demonstrates a substantial relationship between access to education and access to economic and political power, one in which race-based restrictions on education have been used to subjugate African Americans and other people of color. This racial history of education in America—and the efforts subsequently taken to confront it—reveals the importance earlier generations placed on education. Taken together, this history establishes that education has held paramount importance in American history and tradition, such that the denial of education has long been viewed as a particularly serious injustice.” – Gary B., et al. v. Whitmer, et al.
By Tina M. Patterson, Esq
In a victory for urban education in America, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that access to literacy is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. The lawsuit, Gary B., et al. v. Whitmer, et al., filed on behalf of Detroit school children, the majority of whom are African American and low income population, gained support from education and literacy groups across the country, in addition to numerous concerned Detroit citizens and Detroit Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti, who traveled to the hearing in Cincinnati last October.
Yet one prominent early supporter turned opponent of the right to literacy case found herself on the wrong side of history- Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
The case was originally filed in 2016 against the Michigan State Board of Education and then Republican Governor Rick Snyder. The plaintiff schoolchildren lost their case in the U.S. District Court in Detroit, setting the stage for appeal. At the time, then candidate Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, pronounced her support for the students, fresh off their defeat, stating that she believed “every child in this state has a Constitutional right to literacy.”
This pronouncement was refreshing to hear, since Whitmer was the front-runner in the gubernatorial campaign, and with her support and ultimate gubernatorial victory, she could have instituted policy that would have guaranteed a fundamental right to literacy for children in Detroit. After all, educational equity mandates are no stranger to executive action. In fact, perhaps the most effective equitable educational policy, Affirmative Action, was instituted by former President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. President Johnson laid out this vision in his 1965 commencement address at the historic and preeminent black college, Howard University in Washington D.C., where he famously declared, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
Johnson solidified his words into action, even during a time when it was politically unpopular for him to do so. Therefore, there is no reason Governor Whitmer could not have done the same in a similarly divided racial and political climate.
Instead, Whitmer completely turned her back on the black children of Detroit by refusing to back out of the lawsuit and refusing to affirm their right to literacy before the second highest judicial institution in the land, a court where the late Damon J. Keith of Detroit, a fierce advocate of racial equality, served as Senior Judge. Rather than support their right to literacy, which she herself said she believed in, Whitmer and other state officials argued that they were not proper parties to the case. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
After the ruling, Whitmer attempted to minimize the monumental defeat, with press secretary Tiffany Brown, an African American, stating that the governor did not challenge the ruling on the merits. However, Governor Whitmer maintained the suit, with the state arguing that “[a]ccess to literacy is not so fundamental to ordered liberty and justice.”
This is a far cry from Whitmer’s explicit belief in the right to literacy that she touted as candidate Whitmer. Judiciously, the court disagreed with Governor Whitmer, stating: “The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance. Access to literacy is such a right.”
In the majority opinion, written by Judge Eric L. Clay, the court explains that “Our nation’s history of racial discrimination further reveals the historical and lasting importance of education, and the significance of its modern ubiquity. Education, and particularly access to literacy, has long been viewed as a key to political power. Withholding that key, slaveholders and segregationists used the deprivation of education as a weapon, preventing African Americans from obtaining the political power needed to achieve liberty and equality.” Given Whitmer’s refusal to support literacy as a fundamental right for the majority African American school children in Detroit, this position is arguably sinister when one considers the historical weaponization of illiteracy through denial of education and literacy to African Americans as a form of maintaining political power and institutionalizing white supremacy.
While the failure and hypocrisy of Whitmer’s campaign promises should not be ignored, it should also come as no surprise to anyone that has been following the actions of Whitmer since being elected governor, particularly when it comes to delivering for African American communities.
Being a significant voting bloc of the Democratic Party, African Americans are routinely counted on to deliver victory for the party, and with Detroit being the largest city in Michigan and the largest majority black city in the nation, Democrats don’t have a chance to win statewide without Detroit. This was true of Whitmer as well, especially being a candidate with little name recognition in the city.
During her 2018 campaign, Whitmer ran on issues significant to the African American community in Detroit, such as improving education, access to clean water, and the promise of an inaugural cabinet level poverty secretary to deal with the unacceptable levels of poverty in Detroit and other urban cities in Michigan, such as Flint and Benton Harbor.
Yet, once in office, Whitmer almost immediately backtracked on every promise made to black communities on the campaign trail. Most notoriously, just four months in to her term, she went to Benton Harbor, a majority black and significantly low income city, and insisted that she had to shut down the only high school in the city in order to prevent complete dissolution of the district. She insisted on these efforts in spite of her campaign against emergency management and her campaign theme of being an education advocate.
For the governor, the most powerful white woman in Michigan, to enter an overwhelmingly poor and majority black community and insist on shutting down its only institutional vessel of education, reeked of Jim Crow era politics. Whitmer only backed down after mounting and intense pressure from Benton Harbor residents and allies across the state, including The PuLSE Institute editor-in-chief, Bankole Thompson, a Detroit News opinion columnist who wrote a series of columns explaining the racial hypocrisies of the governor’s actions.
Regarding access to clean water, even though she promised to deliver for Flint, a city that gained international notoriety for lead in its water that poisoned residents including children, no action has been taken. In Detroit, another city that has gained international scorn from the United Nations for its inhumane water shutoffs on poor, mostly black residents, Governor Whitmer refused to declare a state of emergency or issue an order against water shutoffs. Only when the novel coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head, preceded by a visit from her favorite Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, did Whitmer finally issue an order halting water shutoffs. Yet even today, residents in Detroit still remain without clean water, not just a basic necessity for handwashing in this pandemic era, but an essential of everyday life.
And as for the cabinet level poverty secretary that Whitmer promised at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit, an institution named after a man who stated “the curse of poverty has no justification in our age,”- it has yet to be done after nearly a year and a half in office.
Thankfully, when it comes to failed education campaign promises, the Sixth Circuit Court of appeals ensured a fundamental right to literacy exists for black school children in Detroit- and throughout the Sixth Circuit that includes Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky- to give “all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.”
This landmark ruling against Governor Whitmer is not only significant for its constitutional protections of the right to literacy for students in the most vulnerable and disenfranchised communities. It also demonstrates the falsities of allies for equality, no matter how high their position, and the continual need to hold political leaders like Governor Whitmer accountable at all times. Had Whitmer simply maintained her campaign promise, she would have been a celebratory figure in the continual crusade against racism, poverty, and inequality in our educational system. Instead, she finds herself as another infamous and ubiquitous barrier in the nation’s continuous racial equality struggle to uphold basic rights and liberties.
Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan 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.