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Survival Is the Issue, Not the Confederate Flag

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In 1971, Samuel Yette published a controversial book entitled The Choice. Its thesis was that African-Americans had become an economic burden on the country and that white America had decided to give them the "choice'' either of accommodation and assimilation or of extermination. In fact, Mr. Yette postulated, certain factors threatened the very survival of those of African descent in American society.

As the former administrator of a secondary school serving an inner-city African-American population, I have often wondered whether Mr. Yette's predictions might not be coming true--in most cases with the help of the intended victims themselves.

The problems that face educators in working with African-American youths have been documented very effectively. This will not be another recital. Rather, it is a plea from one educator for a different and more urgent approach to the education of African-American young people.

The violence and lack of purpose in these students is tragic. During the previous school year, I administered a middle school of appproximately 1,000 students in the southwest area of Atlanta. This institution was hardly a "blackboard jungle.'' In fact, the students there annually approximate the national norm in mathematics and reading, and many go on to success in high school and college. In spite of these positive attributes, however, we were touched twice last year by senseless violence and loss of life. In one incident, a student who had been promoted to the 9th grade from our school shot and killed a female 8th grader and her mother before taking his own life. The apparent motive was jealousy. In another incident, an 8th-grade boy shot and killed another boy in a popular shopping center as a result of a verbal altercation. It appears that neither boy had ever met the other.

Clearly, these incidents illustrate the violent potential that permeates much of our community. As the principal of the school attended by these students, I took no comfort from the fact that the tragedies happened away from school. On any given day, I had wondered how many weapons were in our building; how many lives were threatened by factors not known to me.

The problems I speak of touch African-American males in particular, and I have read with concern about efforts to establish all-male academies for this population. I am reminded of a student at my former school whom I will call John. He is handsome, naturally intelligent, and a true leader among his peers. Unfortunately, he is also totally unconcerned about his academic preparation. Though I counseled John extensively, he continued to cut class, disrespect his teachers, and generally waste his life and potential. Finally, I caught him in the gymnasium smoking marijuana. He was as intoxicated as a 14-year-old could be, and when I brought the police in, he laughed in our faces as we warned of the dangers of drug use and threatened him with confinement in juvenile detention. John is a classic example of the potential leadership in our community that is being wasted daily.

The all-male academy is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go about changing this. These young men will not live in all-male communities when they exit school, so we would be improperly preparing them for life by educating them in such an artificially segregated school setting. We must love our children enough to demand high standards of behavior and achievement from them in real-world, competitive situations. Self-knowledge, self-respect, self-love, and self-help are the keys, I have found, to working successfully with this population. It is no coincidence that the philosophy of Malcolm X has become so popular with young people today; Malcolm X stressed these very attributes.

We should not bend the rules or make special accommodations for our students, because the society in which they will have to live will not do so. New approaches in educating these youths are needed, and these educational approaches cannot function in isolation from the political, economic, and social life of our community. Change must be effected in several areas as we deal with these young people. Here are a few places I think we could start:

  • A new, more effective, and more responsive leadership must come forward in our community. Many of the current leaders in the African-American community come from the ranks of the civil-rights movement. While they have contributed greatly to our advancement as a people, it is time for new ideas. Too many of these people still have racial integration as their primary goal, and have let their agendas in other areas become diluted. A leadership that places the interest of African-American youths at the forefront of all agendas and all initiatives is what we need. As I face serious life-or-death issues daily with my students, it is sometimes discouraging to see leaders in the community advocating the rights of Haitians, debating the problems in South Africa, or bemoaning the lack of black ownership in professional sports. These are all legitimate issues that every concerned person should be interested in, but my problem with them is one of priorities. Our race cannot survive if our young people are not helped. A bold new leadership is required.

In Georgia, one of the most hotly debated civil-rights issues of recent years has been the state flag. It has the Confederate emblem on it and should be an affront to all fair-minded people. Still, this is a symbolic problem that should not have consumed the attention of our leaders. In the middle school where I worked, the flag was taken down, but not one problem faced by students in that building was addresssed by its removal. In fact, its absence was barely noted.

Yet, it is much easier to take a stand on a symbolic issue like the Confederate flag than to advocate potentially controversial courses such as substantive changes in the way we educate African-American youths.

  • In some way, spiritual and moral values must be reintroduced into our schools. Our children must acquire the spiritual and moral underpinnings missing from many of their lives. I do not advocate teaching about any organized religion, just an opportunity to let students know that there is a spiritual force in the world that they can draw strength and moral guidance from. Students must know that there are behaviorial limits beyond which they should not allow themselves to go. Teaching this will no doubt offend some, and political and legal battles may have to be fought. But many of our young people do not get this exposure to lessons in "right'' and "wrong'' at home or elsewhere in the community. Schools must step forward to fill the vacuum.

Those who do not want values taught in school are often far removed from the problems of the inner city, and can afford the luxury of not having morals and spirituality stressed in their own children's schools. Many African-American youths do not have this luxury. Much of the hopelessness we see in these students results from this missing factor in their lives. The introduction of morals, values, and spiritual education in our classrooms will do much to ameliorate our most severe problems. Spirituality and oneness with nature are two of the most important aspects of traditional African psychology.

  • Students must be taught that there are consequences for their behavior. Our juvenile-justice system is a joke to many students. They neither respect, understand, nor fear the judicial system. The age when students may be tried as adults for serious crimes should be lowered to 16. Young people in adolescence are committing brutal offenses, partly because they know that there are no meaningful consequences for their behavior. At the school level, more authority needs to be given to educators to deal with students who exhibit repeated behavioral problems. Students must know that if they break certain rules they will deprive themselves of their right to be educated in their current school settings. If we love our children enough to hold them accountable for their behavior and to offer and accept no excuses, we may hurt a few in the short term, but we will set examples that will help many others in the long term.
  • We must advocate a new political philosophy in dealing with education. It is time for the African-American community to free itself from the shackles of traditional liberalism. The liberal philosophy of which I speak excuses all problems in our children and creates a permanent victimized underclass. At the same time, however, the victim-blaming philosophy of some current conservative political thought must also be avoided. A new approach that takes the best from both views is needed. The conservative belief in self-reliance, discipline, and accountability should be a key element in any approach to the education of African-American students. And the new-liberal or progressive programs that require public money but demand public accountability must also be used. Neighborhood and regional homework centers, security enhancements, better pay for educators, improved social services, more and better educational technology, and improved school facilities will all require the expenditure of new money. But we need a conservative accounting system to monitor how this money is used--both for the taxpayer and for the effectiveness of the programs.

Psychologists tell us that one of the chief "learned needs'' of all human beings is the need for affiliation, to belong to a larger group. The civil-rights movement filled this need for my generation of African-Americans, as we all sacrificed and worked toward a common and, as we saw it, righteous goal. Today, gangs and loosely organized "posses'' meet these needs for our young people. A unified quest for educational excellence is a goal that could involve every aspect of the community and meet the need of our young people for affiliation. The effort to educate our youths is today's civil-rights movement.

The "choice,'' as written by Samuel Yette, is becoming more real with each day. Our young people are killing each other in body and in spirit. New heroes and leaders must step forward. The educator who turns around an inner-city school or gives direction to hopeless African-American males will someday be viewed with as much respect as the leaders of the 60's who fought segregation. This is a worthy challenge to each of us. I accepted it, when I worked with John and his friends, with a sense of purpose and hope.

Clifton Tinsley is the principal of E.R. Carter Elementary School in Atlanta. He was formerly the principal of Southwest Middle School.

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