07/24/2014 10:29 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014

Evidence, Brown, and the Civil Rights Act


2014 is the anniversary of two great milestones in American history: Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). I was too young to remember the first, but I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Civil Rights Act had passed. I was 13, working as a volunteer in a giant orphanage in Washington, DC, called Junior Village. The kids, hundreds of them from babies to teens, were all African American, and so was most of the staff, plus a few liberal whites, so the news was greeted with euphoria. That summer changed my life.

Many people are writing to commemorate these great events, always with a question of how far we've really come toward the fairness and equality promised both by Brown and by the Civil Rights Act. Anyone with eyes to see has to acknowledge the progress that has taken place, but also the huge inequities that still remain.

I won't add to the half-hurrahs being widely offered. During the time since Brown and the Civil Rights Act, we, the greatest nation on Earth, rocketed to the moon, cured many diseases, led astonishing developments in technology, defeated the Soviets, and on and on. And yet we still struggle to solve the most basic issues of equality between racial and ethnic groups: employment, education, health, and more. If inequality were merely a technical problem, we would have solved it. But it's a problem of will, and therefore we consider the unacceptable acceptable. For shame.

In my own field, education, the "gap" between white students and African American and Hispanic children is always decried but never solved. It has remained about the same since 1980. Could we solve it? Could anyone doubt that the greatest nation on the planet could solve such a problem if it wanted to?

If we were truly committed to solving this problem, here is what we'd do. First, we'd identify all of the problems holding back minority students. Then we'd put in place solutions already known to be effective. We'd then commission research and development on the scale of the Manhattan Project to find effective, replicable solutions to the remaining problems. As approaches are validated in rigorous evaluations, we'd put them into practice in all schools that need them. We'd do the same in public health, mental health, social services, juvenile justice, employment, housing, and every other area that affects children and families. If America decided to do these things, it would succeed. There is no doubt. But did you notice the word "if" at the beginning of this paragraph?

America is an incredibly wealthy and capable country. Just as one example, we spent more than $2 trillion on the Iraq war. It did not even cause taxes to go up. We could have spent that much to combat inequality. We still could, and it would actually cost far less. But we have, thus far at least, chosen not to.

Even in dysfunctional Washington, we can still make progress in learning how to use the funds we already have committed to education and other services more effectively. Progressives and conservatives share an interest in using federal funds efficiently, and bipartisan alliances are coalescing to find out what works and use that information to make good policy choices that may eventually reduce achievement gaps. That's the realistic grown-up me talking. The hopeful 13-year-old who celebrated the Civil Rights Act has confronted reality.

But can anyone explain to me why we shouldn't be achieving what everyone knows can be achieved to bring about true equality and opportunity for all?