John B. King and Jidenna: Stop the assault on the American dream

Trump backs plan to curb legal immigration
Trump backs plan to curb legal immigration


    Trump backs plan to curb legal immigration


Trump backs plan to curb legal immigration 02:42

Story highlights

  • John B. King and Jidenna: It is beyond time that we stand up against the assault on the American dream, especially for young people of color
  • Teachers can make all the difference in a kid's life. Our lives are proof, they write -- and we need more teachers of color

John B. King Jr. is a former secretary of education for the Obama administration and president and CEO at The Education Trust. Jidenna is a recording artist and producer. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)All too often, "A dream deferred is a dream denied." Langston Hughes challenged us with this reality through his poem, "Harlem," more than 60 years ago. Poets can speak truth in a time of struggle. Poets also can be prophets in verse.

Today, the American dream remains out of reach for far too many people -- and far too often, it is people of color who still have to fight the hardest to achieve it because of systemic biases, structural obstacles and inequalities in opportunity.
John B. King Jr.
The promise of America is that through hard work, perseverance and a good education everyone can get ahead, land a good job, provide for their families and lead successful lives. Our nation's history is the story of that promise being made more real -- in painful fits and starts -- for an ever-widening circle of Americans.
    From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from the women's suffrage movement to the continuing fight for equal pay for equal work, progress has been far too slow, but it has been real.
    Today, the American dream needs people to stand up in its defense, especially because of what feels like a daily assault.
    We need action.
    We need action in matters of life and death, including the senseless killings of Tamir Rice and Philando Castile. And we need action in matters that affect millions of lives, including the reckless rollbacks on civil rights and harmful cuts to vital programs by the Trump administration.
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      Trump proposes eliminating after-school program


    Trump proposes eliminating after-school program 02:41
    We need action when the 45th President proposes to reduce federal funding for education by more than 13% (about $10 billion). We need action when the administration attempts to raid nearly $4 billion in reserves from Pell Grants (federal financial aid for low-income students to attend college). And we need action when the safety net for low-income families across the nation could be slashed through proposals that would cut support for housing, public transportation and health care.
    We are speaking out now because it is beyond time that we stand up against this senseless assault on the American dream, especially for young people of color.
    Sadly, we know that the Trump administration's proposals will exacerbate inequities that already exist.
    African-Americans and Latinos are significantly overrepresented among the poor in our country. Black and Hispanic families have less than one-tenth of the household wealth of white families in America. And the Urban Institute notes that young men and boys of color are twice as likely to grow up in poverty as their white counterparts.
    Over the last few decades, many states have increased their investments in locking people up faster than in lifting them up through education. In fact, some states have increased spending on jails at five times the rate of increase in spending on public schools, contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately funnels youth of color into our criminal justice system.
    And while 63% of white students who begin college complete college within six years, just over half of Latino students and only 40% of black students do. These gaps in college completion affect job prospects. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is nearly double the rate for whites, and a persistent gap remains between whites and Latinos.
    All of these numbers add up to lost potential. And they represent troubling inequities in our systems and society that are drawn along lines of race and class.
    Recently, people across the country have been voicing their concerns on these issues and more by marching in the streets. But protest by itself -- while critically important -- isn't a guarantee of progress. We also need solutions.
    The real resistance is in the daily fight for equity and opportunity for all, in building a movement to put kids and communities first, and in pulling the disenfranchised up, rather than pushing them down and to the margins.
    We write this piece to call for action on behalf of our children, so they can build a better future for themselves and future generations. It is simply not enough to shout about the problem.
    To be true advocates, yes, we have to show up on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York or Washington, D.C. We also have to sit down at community meetings in rural New Mexico or Alabama. We have to run for that open school board seat in our town. And we have to realize how important it is to vote -- not just every four years in a presidential election, but in contests that decide who represents us in city hall, the state house, and Congress.
    One way to make change, especially for our youth, is to get involved in schools. Consider becoming a teacher --especially for people of color, who represent just 18% of the teaching force when the majority of students in our nation's public schools are students of color.
    As exciting as it is to aspire to be the next hip-hop king or basketball MVP, we need more educators of color. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University finds that having a black teacher for just one year is associated with a nearly 30% reduction in the risk of a black student dropping out.
    Teachers can make all the difference in a kid's life. Our lives are proof.
    We both experienced challenges when we were young. One of us is an immigrant from Nigeria who encountered racism on his first day of school in the United States, but who was supported by educators and ultimately became a teacher himself, while working to pursue a music career. And one of us is an African-American and Latino from Brooklyn, who lost both of his parents to illness by the time he was 12 years old and was kicked out of high school -- but his teachers stepped in to save his life.
    Because of our own experiences as educators, we understand that when kids are kicked out of school, they can be made to feel like they are less than their classmates or that their lives don't matter.
    This is an experience that our young people of color face much more often than their peers. In fact, Black babies as young as 4 years old make up just 18% of the preschoolers in our country, but 48% of preschool children suspended more than once. And 1.6 million students -- predominately those in low-income areas -- attend school where there is a sworn law enforcement officer, but no school counselor.
    Despite this, we are hopeful.
    That immigrant kid who struggled? He went on to become a successful musical artist and activist. And that kid who lost his parents and was kicked out of high school? He became a teacher, too, served as President Obama's secretary of education, and now is an advocate fighting every day for equal rights for all kids.

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    Somewhere today, there is a young person who feels hopeless, who is fighting against the lure of the streets, who may have been suspended or expelled or had a brush with the juvenile justice system, or who is part of a family in crisis. We must show young people that they matter, that we believe in them and their potential.
    It's time to defend the American dream and not defer it for any of our children. We need more champions for our kids who take action -- because they care, not because of who they can call to showcase their goodwill. Now is the time to act.