The Challenge of Defeating Illiteracy in America | Opinion

During slavery, the United States used anti-literacy laws to prevent enslaved humans from learning how to read and write. While slavery was officially abolished in 1865, illiteracy remains, not by chance but by ongoing government action. The legacy of that action is all too apparent in a 12-year-old girl I met recently in Kentucky, who reads at a kindergarten level. It's time for America to put an end to its support for illiteracy.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 82 percent of Black fourth grade students were not reading proficiently in 2019. The same is true for 85 percent of Black eighth graders. The comparable percentages for white students were 55 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

While those percentages are an indictment of American education broadly, they also underscore the continued legacy of slavery. In the Antebellum South, it is estimated that only 10 percent of those enslaved were literate. If a Black slave was caught reading or writing, that slave would be beaten, fined and/or sentenced to prison. That practice created a fear of reading that led to generations of illiterate families and communities.

But the legacy of illiteracy among Black Americans is not circumstantial. It has been perpetuated by law to this day. Three decades after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the practice of "separate but equal" facilities in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. That decision was used to justify racial discrimination in schools until it was overruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. "Separate but equal" ensured not only the separation of races in schools but the separation of children whose families prized education from children whose families had been beaten for reading.

Even with "separate but equal" schools firmly in place, the federal government doubled down, establishing "redlining" in the 1930s—a practice by which residents of Black communities, circled with a red line, were prevented from obtaining home loans. At the same time, the Federal Housing Authority subsidized builders to mass-produce entire subdivisions for white people.

Those practices reinforced not only racial discrimination in housing but unequal community wealth, as investment in Black communities was blocked. Unequal community wealth ensured unequal funding for schools and libraries, the key institutions to address illiteracy.

That pattern still exists. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition reported in 2018 that 74 percent of neighborhoods redlined by the federal government eight decades earlier are low- to moderate-income communities today.

Inequities in school funding also persist. A 2019 report by EdBuild found that nonwhite school districts get $23 billion less than predominantly white districts despite serving the same number of students.

Ongoing racial discrimination in housing, inequitable school funding and differences in community wealth all conspire to promote illiteracy, and all are the result of specific government policies. The 21st century legacy of those policies is evident in a recent conversation that I had with a 12-year-old fifth grader in Louisville, Ky. It was readily apparent that she could only read on a kindergarten level.

Here was a lively energetic girl, who lost her spirit when a book was put in front of her. She had never learned phonetics, so she recognized simple words but couldn't pronounce more complicated ones.

Political books for children are displayed
Political books for children are displayed. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

She was like so many children I have met through volunteering with Boys and Girls Clubs and through substitute teaching earlier in my career. They have passion, commitment and true expertise when it comes to sports, music, or dance—things at which they can excel without reading. But they shrink right in front of you when faced with a book, because they never learned to read properly—and they know it.

For one recent book reading at a nonprofit organization where I was leading a book club, I had to bring the audio version because so many children couldn't read. It was incredibly upsetting, saddening and dispiriting.

How could America, the richest nation on earth, have left behind all these children who deserve nothing less than a sound education? The answer is: This happens by the millions.

Life prospects for those who are illiterate are literally restrained and curtailed by modern government policies.

What then should we as Americans do when the traditional route of contacting your elected official only leads to the government that has created and perpetuated the problem? Take it upon yourself to make a positive and constructive change in the rate of illiteracy.

Here are some steps you can take to make a difference:

—Support your public library and its outreach to children and all who have reading needs.

—Advocate equitable public funding of education and school resources for all children.

—Volunteer with a nonprofit organization that supports reading in your state.

—Patronize social enterprises that are working to address the problem on a scalable basis.

—And, of course, let your elected officials know how you feel. And let candidates for office know that you expect them to end illiteracy and the government's support for it.

No political party advocates illiteracy, yet every party permits it. It's time for all Americans to step up and not wait for government alone to ensure that America's children read proficiently.

Jonathan Beatty is founder and CEO of I Love Books, based in Louisville, Ky.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.