In Honor of Martin Luther King jr.

I wrote the following in response to some recent education analyses I was reading that were, in part, blaming our nation's achievement gaps on lower-income urban children's cultures/family life:

This is the perfect day to discuss race, culture and education, though I am glad Martin Luther King Jr. is not here to see how we as a society still deny an equal education to, and have lower expectations for, black students--especially boys. 

It's a good day to remember that America's treatment of blacks has, from the beginning, always included denial of education and, as Dr. Howard Fuller describes it, the active pressing of "notions of inferiority" on to black children. When Africans were brought to America, families and people from the same regions were forcibly separated, limiting their ability to communicate with each other. After the Nat Turner rebellion, states passed laws that made it illegal to educate slaves to limit their ability to communicate and organize (a white person could literally go to jail for educating a black--think how that is infused in our culture). Fast forward to 1954 and--at long last--blacks believe they have forced America to provide their children with an equal education. Sadly, at the micro and macro levels, we as a society have found infinite ways NOT to do this.

During the last two years of filming for TEACHED, I interviewed public school students, teachers and parents across the country. And while initially I thought TEACHED would focus on inequities in the system vis-a-vis urban Hispanic and black students generally, over time I couldn't deny that I was witnessing a different level of injustice for black boys. It just kept leaping up (and motivated me to do my own breakdown of PISA scores by race, because that breakdown wasn't publicized until now; and it speaks volumes). 

Every black male student and recent student I interviewed had had at least one teacher tell him he was "stupid" and/or said something to the effect of "it doesn't matter if you learn, I will still get paid." Every one! And I wasn't asking: somehow it never occurred to me that more than the very rare teacher would abuse his/her power as an authority figure and tell a child he or she was "stupid." (To me, this is almost worse than the physically abusive teacher, because hopefully children will be able to recognize that as wrong and not internalize it). I heard stories like this over and over again: teachers calling students "idiots," teachers having kids watch tv and/or play board games the majority of their time in school instead of teaching them. And I heard stories from parent after parent who tried to move their children out of these classrooms but were told "no." 

I will never forget the first time I witnessed this "pressing of inferiority" on to a black child. It was my first year teaching in South Central and a third-grade boy came into the teachers' lounge to deliver a note to a teacher. As the student walked away, the teacher mocked him as "not exactly college material." I don't remember why she said that, but the student heard it, and I have never forgotten it. 

 I find it hard to point the finger at the students' home life and culture when our schools say to them year after year that they are not worth being educated or aren't able to be (and their parents were told the same). We should survey inner-city kids to see how often they watch school. 

If this makes me an "apologist," that's ok. I am witnessing and apologizing for continuing racism that results in the potential of thousands and thousands (and generations) of black students--especially boys--being destroyed before they even get to discover what that potential might be.

Here are some great articles/resources to read more on this issue: 

The Struggle Continues (by Dr. Fuller)

The Historical Context for Understanding the Achievement Gap (research article by Prof. James Anderson)

The Plight Deepens for Black Men (NYT article)

The Schott Foundation (major project on black boys and education)

Posted on January 19, 2011 .