E Pluribus Unum

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks with focus group participants to collect responses for E Pluribus Unum's report on race in the American South. Provided/Hayne Rainey

Quality education and its connection to economic opportunity and growth remain a major battleground for people of color in Charleston, according to a report released Friday.

“Divided by Design: Findings from the American South” is the result of a yearlong research project that spans nearly 30 communities across 13 states. It stemmed from E Pluribus Unum, an initiative spearheaded by former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The report includes results from an 1,800-person survey conducted earlier this month on attitudes on race and class across the 13 Southern states. 

E Pluribus Unum, meaning "out of many, one" in Latin, studied the intersection of race and class across the South and the opportunity barriers that some Southerners still face.

Racial inequities have been "baked into our institution," Landrieu said, visible through disparate incarceration rates and poor educational and health outcomes. 

According to the report, race remains "this nation’s most traumatic issue."

“Legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are visible everywhere you look if you care to look," Landrieu said.

The E Pluribus Unum team met with more than 800 people through one-on-one interviews, small group sessions and random-sample focus groups to create the report.

In Charleston, researchers conducted focus groups with non-college-educated white, black and Latino residents.

Members of the black focus group said education was by far a "top priority for building a better future," according to the report.

“The black residents in that group really felt that education was the main way forward, like the investment in supporting strong educational systems for their children … would be critical to kind of shifting the tide on poverty, shifting the tide on life outcomes and economic opportunity outcomes,” said Programs Director Roxanne Franklin Lorio.

Conversations surrounding educational equity in Charleston have surged to the forefront in recent years, as the school district grapples with making big decisions aimed at providing more equitable opportunities for all its students. Charleston's conversation comes amid a broader statewide debate over education reforms, a debate fed in part by The Post and Courier's five-part series, Minimally Adequate.

This year, the Charleston County School District set aside $5 million to conduct “mission critical” actions designed to address educational inequities.

Last month, the district presented several proposed changes that span everything from partial magnet considerations to school closures and consolidations. Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and other district staff are gathering public feedback on the ideas. 

Higher levels of education typically translate into higher levels of wealth and less exposure to concentrated poverty, Franklin Lorio said. This is why a lot of conversations around educational equity are linked to conversations of economic opportunity.

Preparing young people for careers was often mentioned as a priority, along with wraparound services such as after-school programs.

“People felt that those were kind of critical to fixes for the education system itself,” she said.

Educational inequities were brought up as a major concern across many Southern cities visited, not just Charleston.

“Participants kind of voiced great concern about the underfunding of public schools and or the concentration of young children and high-poverty schools, possibly versus suburban schools or schools in the next district over,” Franklin Lorio said.

Another educational issue brought up across many communities is how some schools taught history.

Teaching students about the causes of the Civil War and the history of slavery "still seems to be a barrier for many school systems" across the South — either how to teach it, or if it should be taught at all, Franklin Lorio said.

Specific to Charleston, many black residents felt as if the city's role in the slave trade needs to be taught in all schools, she added.

This observation reflects a larger theme echoed in the report: "Most people, particularly white people, don't have a full understanding of our past, or how it shapes our lives today," Landrieu said. 

Next year, E Pluribus Unum will launch a series of initiatives designed to change narratives surrounding race in the South. More information about the initiative can be found at www.unumfund.org

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Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.