Education Commentary

Why ‘Demanding Black Families’ Are Not the Solution

By George J. Mckenna III — December 03, 1968 7 min read

Having read with great interest the Commentary by Clifton Wharton Jr., chancellor of the State University of New York and chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, I feel obligated to present an observation and a different point of view (“‘Demanding Families’ and Black Achievement,” Oct. 29, 1986). Mr. Wharton presents an excellent assessment of the problem, complete with appropriate analogies, imagery, and statistical support for his observations.

Unfortunately, the final paragraphs of his essay reflect a sense of hopelessness and misdirection in his attempt to offer a “solution” to the problem. If it is an accurate premise that the solution to the miseducation of the black child will not appear without the rehabilitation of the black family, then the public-school system can effectively absolve itself of responsibility until the black family is “rehabilitated.”

It is this very tragic “logic” that has permitted the systematic miseducation of black children for decades. It was James Coleman’s report in the 1960’s that convinced us that poverty and deprived socioeconomic background were predetermining factors that could not be overcome by public schools, and that the only hope for children of the poor and, particularly, black children, was private schooling. This argument allowed public schools for years to divest themselves of the responsibility for educating certain children despite their background or environment.

The unfortunate positions taken by Mr. Wharton who is black, and Mr. Coleman, permits the majority culture and other controlling interests and decisionmakers in this country to agree with some black leaders and learned scholars, so as to blame the victims for their own condition and not assume responsibility for removing the oppression of poverty through effective education. It is even more unfortunate that resistance to the position of Mr. Wharton will be less vehement because he is black and cannot easily be accused of prejudicial thinking toward black people.

It is precisely this thinking that cries out for challenge. The “effective schools” research championed by the late Ronald Edmonds sought to prove that certain schools could offer effective educational programs and outcomes for students, despite the level of poverty of the community. As principal of an inner-city public high school in southcentral Los Angeles, serving a student body of 2,800 students--90 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic--I must convey my most severe opposition to the position taken by Mr. Wharton.

The responsibility for an effective educational program lies with the educators, not the students, and until we are prepared collectively to assume our institutional responsibility, we will continue to look for scapegoats to blame for the failure of the system. Since Mr. Wharton offers no solution other than to encourage the black family to rehabilitate itself--with the assistance of whites who have “good faith"--he has obviously removed all responsibility from the backs of the schools.

If public-school educators can continue to demand that families rehabilitate themselves and pre-educate their children before sending them to school, then every physician in this country has the right to demand that all of their patients heal themselves before they seek medical attention, since the doctor has no responsibility to cure the sick.

The poverty, hopelessness, and loss of human dignity existing within our communities can only be changed by an effective educational program that can serve to uplift people and change their conditions. No one can seriously believe that poor people can “bootstrap” themselves without effective assistance from the institutions that are designed to serve their needs.

The public school system is the most powerful of all the institutions in the country, in that it is the only institution that requires by law that citizens participate in its programs, at a time when those citizens are in their most vulnerable condition--childhood. And the primary purpose of this institution is to shape the minds and values of the participants. Even in the most totalitarian state, no institution could have more power and influence over the lives of the people.

It is true that the black community must strive to uplift itself, but to assume that schools are only reflections of the community, rather than institutions that form the values of society and, therefore, the character of the community, depicts a classic case of a false hypothesis leading to an erroneous conclusion.

Schools can effectively educate their clients, despite the children’s socioeconomic level, and therefore change the direction of society, including such problems as unemployment, drug abuse, gang violence, and premature pregnancy. It is possible to create educational programs that address these issues in an effective manner, rather than wait for conditions in the community to change before we can become successful as educators.

Unfortunately, the thinking of Mr. Wharton is clearly being practiced daily in our public schools. Witness the fact that 90 percent of the black high-school graduates in California are ineligible to attend any four-year college or university in the country. This is reflected across each state in the nation, and the consistent excuses offered are that the families from which these students come were lacking in support and that, therefore, the children failed because of their backgrounds.

The premise that blacks during the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s were more educable and more interested in education than blacks of today because black families were ''better’’ in those days is dangerously misleading. It is a fact that most blacks of that era were educated in segregated schools, which despite all of their handicaps did make a total commitment to the education of black children. To assume that black families today are less caring about the education of their children is a misrepresentation of the facts. It is not the expectations of the families that have diminished, but rather the expectations and commitment of the schools to the education of black children.

Rarely, if ever, do we accept the responsibility for miseducating our children, particularly in the “desegregated” school systems of America. Perhaps it is because the children we are now educating in large urban school districts are no longer “our” children. Public-school teachers in large numbers no longer send their own children to the public schools, and when they do, they send them to the “better” schools, which are generally perceived not to be in the inner cities.

As a product of segregated schools in the South, I am personally aware of the ability of competent, caring, and committed teachers to rescue the children from the terrifying stigma of second-class citizenship. Perhaps it is because our teachers were also segregated, and in the same degraded conditions as the students, that they understood the need to make a total commitment to serve the children, since only through the effective education of the next generation would any of us be eventually freed from institutional slavery.

Despite low pay, second-hand textbooks, inferior equipment and housing, and lack of support from political leaders, those heroic black teachers provided a quality educational program that gave us a sense of dignity, pride, and self-assurance. In turn, they were treated with respect, something that is lacking in the profession today. They did overcome the obstacles, and their influence did help uplift the black family--which, in turn, produced a sense of hope, despite the “ism’s” that served to oppress black people everywhere.

It is the responsibility of the oppressed to remove the barriers of oppression from their lives, through nonviolent means. The oppressors have no obligation to care more for the needs of the oppressed than the oppressed themselves; to this extent I agree with Mr. Wharton that we blacks are responsible for our own salvation. I refuse, however, to allow anyone to absolve the institutions in our society of their moral obligation to support the needs of those who are “at risk” and are deserving of equity and justice.

The solution to our problems lies within the educational systems of our country. Only when we accept full responsibility for the salvation of the people will America be free of miseducated citizens, who place us all in jeopardy.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 1986 edition of Education Week