I received an invitation to a meeting about the academic achievement, or lack thereof, of “undergraduate men of color”on a nearby Research 1 University campus. The invitation seems to have been sent out broadly to student affairs types. Not sure if it was sent to any faculty. The problems with the “undergraduate men of color” and their lack of persistence and graduation ( at this institution 70.8% of white males graduate in four years, only 49.2% of black males graduate in four years. Only 13.9% of white males fail to graduate at all, compared to 34.1% black males. Now, anyone with a modicum of common sense would look at these statistics and at least suspect that race and racism have something to do with the disparity. That is unless they are one of the delusional individuals that believe that legions of black males are simply inferior and do not do well in school because they simply do not try, or that they are intellectually inferior.
I have been engaged, at some level, with educational research for more than 25 years. One of the common comments made when you cite statistics like those above is that there are things wrong with the black males themselves. They are ( choose one or more) a) not interested in eduction b) on drugs c) from one parent families ( I am not sure what that has to do with anything, has any research been done on orphans?) d) involved in the criminal justice system at an early age and ergo doomed e) just trifling. Much of the research that has been done targeting black males has been along these lines, in other words, ” let’s find out what is wrong with them and fix them!”
Close your eyes ( read the entire sentence first, and tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the phrase, “young, black man.” Is it positive? Is it accurate? Okay, now close your eyes and tell me what is the first thing you think of when you think of the phrase “young white man?” Is it positive? Is it accurate? Teachers, almost all of whom in k-12 and higher ed are white, are people just like you. They have the same biases and prejudices that you have. Not all of them, but enough. Do not believe me? I presume you did not see the article recently about the faculty at the elementary school in Georgia that passed out a math worksheet that asked questions like ” if Frederick, a slave, picks four apples a day, who many does he have at the end of the week?” and ” if Frederick gets two beatings a week, how many beatings will he get in a month?” Note the gender and race of Frederick.
Now, tell me if you think those teachers will be likely to encourage or even enable their young black male students to do well? Most of the problem, of course, does not lie with egregious examples of racism like that. No it is more benign, but no less deadly. I had white teachers tell me when I was doing field research that they do not give the black students some tasks because they did not want to embarrass them or have them feel bad. Teacher expectation has a lot to do with what the academic outcomes are, pre-k-Ph.D. If the picture of young black men that society holds dear is one of a violent brute who is good at athletics if he can stay out of jail guess how much effort will be put into developing his academic skill? It is odd that we do not extend statistical information to other groups. Who murders people in the US? Of the 15, 760 murders recorded in 2009 all but about 2,00o were done by men. Does that mean that we treat all males as if they are potential murderers in our dealings with them? Or all males as potential rapists when we are dealing with them?
I do not think most of us do, but we do treat black males as both potentially dangerous and inherently brutish and non-scholarly. I could tell you horror stories about young black men who were academically excellent and the abuse they took for that from both their white teachers and classmates and in some cases their black classmates.
There is no reason to hold a summit about the plight of the poor male of color on college campuses. I can give you the reasons and the solutions, if you really want to know them. First,stop asking people who have never taught a class and know nothing about pedagogy or public education to come talk about it. They know nothing and therefore cannot offer any relevant information. Second, change the way society views black males, not by fixing the black male but by insisting on a more accurate picture of who and what he is. Third, require all teachers from pre-k-PhD to take regular coursework in ethnicity, race, racism and the history of oppression in this country. They do not know who they are teaching and they do not know what created him. Fourth, stop looking at the problem from the wrong end. The black male does not need fixing. the system that arrests him for things white boys get a warning for, sentences him to jail for things white boys get probation or plea bargains for, suspends him from school at an egregiously high rate and treats him as a disposable person in the classroom is what needs fixing.
We cannot continue to discard the black male in such numbers. Now that we have social integration the difficulties he may encounter impact more than just the black community in myriad ways, including fathering children with white women that his lack of education makes him unable to support financially. This is not a black problem it is not a male problem, it is a societal problem. Ignore it at your peril.