Yes We Can, But Who Cares? Implications of the Schott Report on Black Males in Public Education

The Schott Foundation for Public Education is an organization whose mission is “To develop and strengthen a broad-based and representative movement to achieve fully resourced, quality pre-K-12 public education,” recently published some heart-rending findings on the state of Black males in public education. The report, Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010 reveals states, districts, and public schools that are statistically making academic gains toward closing the achievement gap (i.e., graduation rates and scores on state standardized examinations) between Black males and their counterparts. For example, the report affirms that the top ten best performing states in regard to decreasing the graduation gap between Black and White males are Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho, Montana, Utah, South Dakota, New Jersey, and Iowa respectively. The ten best performing districts in this regard are Newark (NJ), Fort Bend (IN), Baltimore County (MD), Montgomery County (MD), Gwinnett County (GA), Prince George’s County (MD), Cumberland County (NC), East Baton Rouge Parish (LA), and Guilford County (NC). In my opinion, the report would make a stronger argument and cause readers to give a heavy pause when looking at the data when it was combined with an explanation as to why these states and districts are showing an improvement in the graduation rates.

On the other hand, the report announces that the ten worst performing states for Black males in regard to decreasing the graduation gap between them and White males are respectively Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, District of Columbia, Ohio, Nebraska, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and New York. Moreover, the ten worst performing districts are Jefferson Parish (LA), New York (NY), Dade County (FL), Cleveland (OH), Detroit (MI), Buffalo (NY), Charleston County (SC), Duval County (FL), Palm Beach County (FL), and Pinellas County (FL). Within the document, it was noted that out of the 48 states that reported Black males are likely to graduate reasonably from only 15 of the states. In addition, Black males were seen to be more prone to severe punishment for school infractions than their White peers and have less opportunity to gain access to higher-level academic classes. Finally, by the time these students reach 8th grade in middle school, many were seen not be proficient readers and thus lose academic grounding as they proceed to high school.

In terms of these districts, what the report does not state is that for example, places like Jefferson Parish have recently been found to have to have high unemployment rates and a “drug incarceration rate of 186 per 100,000 people in 2002, ranking it seventh out of 198 counties or parishes with populations greater than 250,000.” Poverty in the United States, published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2002, stated that Cleveland, Ohio has the highest poverty rate. Specifically, in 2004, children were indicated to be half of those living in poverty in Cleveland. Poverty has been shown in numerous studies to affect the academic and social outcomes of children. I have always said that if economic or social plights are affecting Whites heavily, these same concerns are being felt threefold by people of color. So, it is no surprise to me that the ten worst states and districts have high numbers of Black males not graduating or excelling on standardized examinations.

What the report does not state is the psychological trauma this failure has on the students. Many of them become disenchanted with their apparent lack of skills and at times begin to act out in disruptive manners. Teachers begin to label them “special education, emotionally disturbed, difficult,” etc. All of these labels and perceptions of the students’ potential fuel the need to isolate them within alternative educational facilities that are many times encased with frustrated White teachers who do not have the experience or knowledge of Black culture–or have their own racial biases toward people of color. In my own experiences within public schools, the curricula within these settings are sub-par and filled with worksheet after worksheet that presents nothing academically substantial to the students. In fact, their designated work is simply a tactic to occupy a population many have given up on or refuse to hear due to their inability to voice the futility of their situation. Many of these Black males end up dropping out and having some association with the criminal justice system.

The schools that do seem to work outside of the traditional paradigm and attempt to meet the academic and social needs of Black males are few and in between. Sometimes these programs are taken to task and/or dismantled due to outside pressures and perception that specific programs tailored for boys is not necessary or warranted. For example, in Prince George County (MD), a system that serves mostly Blacks, an initiative was started to help in regards to meeting the academic and social needs of Black males within the area. A year after showing promise, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights felt it discriminated against females and was dismantled. In 1996, the city of New York proclaimed the success of the establishment of the East Harlem Young Women’s Leadership School that catered to mostly Black females. When the New York Times urged school administrators to start a school similar for boys, the School Chancellor said in response, “This is a case where the existence of the all-girls school makes an important statement about the viable education of girls…Presumably the statement would lose its force and point if an all-boys school were allowed to exist alongside (page. 39.” These are just a few of the anti-boy climates that exist within public education.

Who shall carry the cross and burden of the plight of Black males? The current plight could only be directed at Blacks, right? We have a Black president for God sake. Cosby was correct when he pointed that Jell-O pudding-pop-encrusted finger at the Black community, right?

In contrast to the historic racial barriers that are evident within the history of the United States in regards to economic and social growth of people of color, specifically Black males, President Barrack Obama is a beacon; a symbol that the Black male have the potential to break through the proverbal glass ceiling to the highest position afforded to an U.S. citizen. A large number of people here and aboard have joined in the celebration of his election as an end to the historic caste system that has hindered the progress of Blacks since the beginning of the nation.

In fact this celebration is nothing but a distraction that serves as a curtain to hide the underlying racial realities that affect Blacks, particularity Black males within the lower SES brackets. The gains that many discuss are in fact by primarily middle and upper class Blacks. The racial caste system that has been rooted since the founding of the country is still in full operation and witnessed within the workings of public schools. Since Blacks were first forced into slavery, regardless of the efforts of many in within the civil rights and equal rights legislation struggles, they have never moved from a caste system that deems them as inferior and treated as such within all facets of the country. In fact, being a part of the minority caste comes with it a negative ideology that dictates a set of behavior, actions, procedures, and policies directed by non-Blacks to Blacks within the major institutions; such as public and higher education setting. The modes of oppression and control that are imprinted within the foundation of education are incited into the psyche of Black American children in public schools in overt and covert fashions. The attempts to oppress and control are nothing but a continuation of the targeting seen within the early U.S. colonies with the institutionalization of the White racial frame. Therefore, I would argue that public schools are an equal partner in the plight of Black males. Therefore, the effects of systemic institutional racism and the existence of a caste system that are witnessed in the treatment of these children increase the likelihood of their internalizing the oppressive conditions and controlling the state of their environment through socialization, which in turn leads them to view themselves as unworthy in comparisons to their counterparts. The system within public education is not totally equal for females of color. But, simply, Black males have it worse. Many may be upset with this statement, but I am aligned with scholars such as bell hooks who states, that, “[d]espite all the advances in civil rights in our nation, feminist movement, sexual liberation, when the spotlight is on black males the message is usually that they have managed to stay stuck, that as a group they have not evolved with the times” (ix). Many scholars like hooks (2004), and often Black men themselves, believe that society is “fearful to acknowledge the truth – America has no compassion for black males” (p. Ix).

It will be virtually impossible for this country to meet the President’s mission to place the U.S. as a global leader in “post-credential attainment” if this trend continues. Schools are currently not moving beyond the paradigm of seeing the problem existing within the child–and are at the same time discounting other contributing factors within the school setting, such as the teacher to student relationship, and assumptions teachers have in terms of race and cultural differences. In my current position, I have many interactions with schools that implement the latest and greatest academic programs, instruments, and curriculum to combat graduation and standardized examination gaps. They also have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars by introducing new social and behavioral modification techniques that have warm, but empowering titles that claim to decrease behavioral issues among “difficult” students (code for Black and Latino) while enabling the entire school to simultaneously sing “Kum Bah Yah” as they march toward academic excellence. I have seen administrators shell out ten thousands of dollars for a motivational speaker (usually they are Black and have come from some difficult situations to preach to teachers that if they can do it, so can the students) to come for one-shot deals that leave fleeting positive words and emotions. Schools need to stop creating or looking for the holy grail that will help them elevate Black scores and graduation rates and learn that what is needed for females is not necessarily the same thing needed for males. Due to the fact that Black females are graduating at a higher rate and entering into college and graduate school more than Black males, schools are in need of analyzing the plight of Black males while separating from all others. What schools refuse to acknowledge is that you can dress up a pig, but it’ll still be a pig. No amount of money will transform a system that is meant to oppress a group while propelling another until the system is revamped, thus a revolution is needed. Until we realize the depths of the White racial frame and the existence of an operating caste system, I may one day look to up from the struggle for justice and see that I am alone.