Education Opinion

‘Demanding Families’ and Black Achievement

By Clifton R. Wharton Jr. — October 29, 1986 6 min read

From our country’s earliest days, schooling has been a key to progress, and American blacks, in particular, have been ardent believers in this educational credo.

It was no accident that made it a criminal offense to teach a Mississippi slave to read and write. Nor was it coincidence that so many black heroes during slavery were heroes of literacy, like Frederick Douglass. They knew that freeing their minds was the first step toward freeing their people.

In the South and elsewhere, the old doctrine of “separate but equal” long subverted opportunities for blacks. Until the end of World War II, we participated with only limited success in this century’s drive toward public schooling. Then, with the coming of Brown v. Board of Education, our pent-up demand for knowledge was explosively released. The fraction of blacks finishing high school increased from 10 percent in 1940 to 70 percent in 1980. Moreover, between 1965 and 1984, black enrollment in colleges and universities nearly quadrupled, by far the largest part of the increase occurring at predominantly white institutions.

And yet, in the most recent years, something has gone very, very wrong in education for black youngsters.

Since 1980, the black high-school completion rate has hovered around 70 percent--much better than a generation before, but still substantially poorer than the 83 percent rate for white youths. In many central cities, the dropout rate soars to 40 percent, 50 percent, and even higher. Dropping out starts among black students as early as the primary grades and extends right through high school. As for those who do graduate, many are academically underprepared as a result of attending classes in which merely keeping order has displaced rigorous instruction.

Some students will have been automatically “tracked” into vocational rather than college-preparatory programs, regardless of their abilities and aptitudes. Others still will have been programmed to blame themselves for the failures of the educational system and will have come to loathe the very idea of further study.

Why, after having won at such terrible cost the right for our young people to attend school, do we face today a black dropout rate that has reached the point of a national educational emergency?

Well, the old vicious cycles have not gone away. Disenfranchisement breeds poverty breeds bad neighborhoods, which in turn breed bad schools and dropouts who cannot get jobs. Unemployment breeds crime, welfare dependency, and homelessness. Before long, you are right back where you started--only now with yet another generation seared with the permanent brand of oppression, locked into what the sociologists have begun calling the “hard-core underclass.”

Even so, there is a sense in which this analysis, so familiar and unassailable, is unsatisfying. It is unsatisfying because it fails to explain why, two or three generations ago, blacks somehow managed to advance their educational goals even with the deck stacked much more formidably against them.

If you took a sample of black high-school and college graduates from the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, you might be able to put together a composite personality profile. I have not done anything so systematic, but I have known and talked with more than a few such individuals. I’ve met them in business and industry, in politics and public service, in science and the arts. As a group, they are a vitally important presence in our public schools and colleges, and of course they form the backbone of the faculty at today’s traditionally black campuses.

Diverse as they are, I have observed that educated blacks from the 20’s through the 50’s tend to have several things in common psychologically. They have a strong sense of self and heritage. They have tremendous drive and ambition. In a word, they aspire. They are not much interested in all the reasons they are given why a black person has never before accomplished what they want to do. All that matters to them is what it will take for them to do it, now.

How does this contrast with the attitudes currently instilled in so many black youngsters in school?

Through images, representations, the very structure of language, we send an overwhelming signal to black children. And the signal is: “Excellence is for other folks--not you.”

From the first day of the 1st grade to the moment when the last strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” fade to silence, many and perhaps most of our schools and colleges beat the same dreary drum.

Start in kindergarten. Set up “slow” sections to homogenize the classroom. Pass the “slow” kids anyway, whether they have learned the material or not. Just make sure they know they are getting by ''because they’re black.”

Design “aptitude tests” and academic tracking for the “culturally impoverished.”

Hire guidance counselors who benignly steer black youngsters away from college, toward jobs right after high school, or at best toward technical programs leading to jobs with low ceilings of advancement.

Demand dual college-admissions standards--better yet, lobby for a tacit lowering of academic standards for graduation, graduate school, and professional certification.

And so on.

And so on.

And I must ask: Do we think that by these shabby devices we are doing black youngsters a favor?

No. What we are doing is telling them, in a hundred whispered or unspoken ways each day, that we do not believe in their abilities or even their potential.

Is it any wonder, really, that so many of them cannot believe in themselves?

Over the last several years, I have nursed a growing conviction that one of the most urgent needs for black youth is a broad-based effort to help foster stronger, more competitive, achievement-oriented self-images.

Much of the time, strong self-images and driving personal aspirations are most firmly rooted in close, supportive, and yes-- demanding families. Such families were a prominent part of black America during the first half of this century. Their presence probably goes a long way toward explaining how those black high-school and college graduates of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s could accomplish so much, against such daunting odds.

Recently, many of us have begun to ask again about the role of the family and the values embodied in families: discipline, hard work, ambition, self-sacrifice, patience, and love.

It is easy enough to mock such values as bourgeois. But middle-class or not, they increasingly appear to constitute the spiritual foundation for achievement: the psychic infrastructure, if you will, for both personal growth and full participation in the world around us.

Black gains in schooling and elsewhere have stalled at a time when the black family as an institution has been under severe stress. I believe that has been more than happenstance. And I believe that dropping out, underachieving, and other educational pathologies common among black youngsters will not disappear without the rehabilitation of the black family as a channel for the transmission of sound values.

It is hard to know all that job will entail, or exactly how to set about it. But even given the reservoir of good faith and commitment that still exists among many whites, it is a job that blacks must define and undertake mainly on their own. It is a job that requires us to look deeply inward, to our needs and innate potential, rather than exclusively outward for assistance or reparations. And it is a job that calls for resources of strength and creativity that history documents in inspiring abundance within the black community itself.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 1986 edition of Education Week