March 16, 2007

Commentary:

On Discrimination: Mendez v. Westminster

By Humberto Caspa, Ph.D

“I couldn’t handle it any longer,” complained a father, “I had to get my kids out of Tewinkle Middle School because I couldn’t stand seeing them not learning anymore.”

Tewinkle Middle School is located in a middle-class residential neighborhood in Costa Mesa. Most students here, however, like in some districts in San Diego, Los Angeles and other urban areas, come from low-income families, who also live in the same district. At the end of the day, where do these middle and upper-class families send their children to school? Why most students in some public schools, despite being in middle-class hubs, come from low-income brackets, particularly from ethnic minority groups?

I’m sure there are good reasons why these middle and upper-class parents decide to take their kids to other public or private schools that aren’t in their district; however, their decision does contradict the idea of the Mendez v. Westminster case, which reestablished diversity in public schools throughout California.

As we all know, institutional discrimination at schools was an everyday practice during the early 1900s up until the mid-1950s, and gradually faded away due to strong amount of pressure from civil rights organization and individuals. Today a self-promoted segregation is beginning to seep into our public school system because some people are only eager to embrace diversity but rarely practice it.

In 1947, the Mendez v. Westminster broke apart segregation in Orange County Schools, and it created a vacuum throughout California, sweeping away a nefarious segregation system at schools, entertaining parks, restaurants, etc. The Mendez v. Westminster case was the precursor of and it set a major precedent for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that put institutional segregation at public schools to rest.

Everything started out in 1943, when Gonzalo Mendez and his wife Felicitas decided to move to the City of Westminster. They had rented a farm from a Japanese family who had just been ordered to move into an interment camp by the U.S. government. During World War II, the White House and Congress ordered Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans to stay in these places so that the government could control possible revolts inside the country. This is one of the most disgraceful policies instituting discrimination in the U.S. history.

Meanwhile, the Mendez family wanted their children, Sylvia, Jerome and Gonzalo Jr., to attend school in their own district, but school officials in Westminster denied access to them because discrimination laws against minorities were in place. “You must go to a Mexican school,” they told them.

Mendez tried unsuccessfully to convince authorities in the district to change their minds. It didn’t pan out. Then he filed a discrimination lawsuit against the School District of Westminster.

In the end, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the Mendez. “The American system of public education must support social equality,” he said in his verdict. In 1947, an appellate court reasserted McCormick’s ruling. Two months later, then-Governor Earl Warren, disbanded school segregation all together, making California the harbinger for social change in the nation. Seven years later, as Chief Justice in the Supreme Court, Warren wrote the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools in the nation.

More recently, however, we have seen the resurgence of that sort of discrimination that took place years ago against minority groups. It isn’t the same systematic way of segregating people during the Mendez period. It is rather subtle, less overt, but continues to have the same idle impact on diversity, our communities and particularly on ethnic minorities. In other words, the kind of segregation seen today is more voluntary than compulsory.

All schools have the same capacity to educate children. Some of them, though, have more resources than others, such as better equipment, more qualified teachers, more money, etc. Once these variables are leveled off, schools should operate in the same way. Unfortunately, district officials sometimes do not allocate the same amount of resources at schools. This, of course, has lead some parents to seek for better-equipped schools for their children. It’s time to give schools the same kinds of resources.

Dr. Humberto Caspa, Adjunct Professor at California State University, Long Beach. E-mail: hcletters@yahoo.com

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