Desperate Remedies for Desperate Times

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President Bush noted recently that he thought the idea of separate elementary schools for African-American boys was a worthwhile one (even if it meant changing civil-rights laws, he added later), since his experiences in a single-sex school as a boy had helped him.

In these few words to journalists, the President appears oblivious to the desperation of urban black parents, religious leaders, and educators who cope daily with families and children scarred by violent deaths, poverty, and drugs.

For the proposal to establish black, all-male academies is a remedy anchored in despair. It is proposed by black adults to save their children from prisons, from rage-producing joblessness, and from homicide. But it is as desperate as the mother and father in New York City who reportedly chained their 15-year-old daughter to a bed to save her from drug-infested streets outside their apartment house. Such extreme proposals have occurred frequently in the history of African-Americans.

In the almost four centuries that African-Americans have lived both as slaves and as free citizens in this country, two impulses within black communities have ebbed and flowed with their fortunes. One impulse has been to strive toward integration into the country's political, economic, and social institutions. The other has been toward separation. Intertwined within each impulse, however, has been the strong value accorded to helping one's self, individually, and collectively helping the race. Self-help has marked both efforts to integrate and to separate.

In tension with one another, these impulses and the self-help value have been central to that part of the black experience that depends upon white Americans. Constantly juggled by African-American leaders and communities, these impulses toward integration and separation exist not only in communities but also within individuals. Whether integration or separation gets the most attention, which gets juggled first, depends not only on the strategies black leaders pursue but also, in part, upon the degree to which white Americans have accepted and rejected African-Americans.

During the two and a half centuries of slavery, for example, some free black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and others prodded the country at great risk to themselves to act on its rounding principles of equality and justice to free slaves and extend basic citizenship to all people of color. At the same time, in the face of racial hatred and blighted living conditions, African-Americans, slave and free, formed churches, schools, benevolent associations, and literary societies to help one another.

In these centuries, some blacks, so thoroughly angry with the perverse and lethal racism they faced, despaired of ever becoming free. Desperation drove many who were slaves to run away and some to rebel. Some free African-Americans, despairing of ever securing first-class citizenship, sought complete separation from whites by establishing separate communities elsewhere in the country and by leaving America for Africa.

Between the Civil War and World War I, in the dismal half-century of lynchings, peonage, and Jim Crow, appeals both to separatism and self-help flourished. Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute urged Southern blacks to climb the economic ladder of success through hard work, self-sacrifice, and taking care of one's family. Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association attracted many urban working-class blacks who responded heartily to the message of collective effort and pride in being black. As repression mounted against blacks after World War I, Garvey shifted the association's goals to a back-to-Africa movement.

Nor was integration ignored at the height of white supremacy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, rounded by a group of white and black reformers in 1909, challenged Jim Crow, lynchings, and racist practices. W.E .B. Dubois, first as a professor and later as editor of the Crisis, the N.A.A.C.P.'S magazine, opposed Washington's concentration on economic self-help and spoke unrelentingly for full political, social, and economic rights.

Two generations later, within the civil-rights movement of the 1960's, impulses toward integration and separation again produced tensions within and among black leaders. The gut-wrenching pull of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X upon Southern and Northern African-Americans in the 1960's speaks again to these pervasive impulses. By the time both leaders died, they were reaching out for new ideas and programs that would reconcile these prized values through self-help.

It is within the African-American experience of these two entangled impulses and the prized value of self-help that all-male black academies need to be assessed. In the 1970's and 1980's, a malign fiscal and social neglect accelerated racial isolation in cities and suburbs. A dominant political ethos of deregulation and privatizing public services punctuated by periodic recessions increased numbers of the poor while producing more millionaires than ever. These developments shouted a message to urban blacks, poor and middle class, that they must fend for themselves. Moreover, high dropout rates among minority youths, increasing numbers of teenage mothers, fewer jobs, and a pervasive drug trade further told urban African-American parents and youths what could easily be spray-painted on the walls of a burned-out tenement: Abandon hope, you will feel better.

These have become grim times for African-American communities. With a small but expanding middle and upper-middle class divided by education and income from a much larger poor class, many black businesses, churches, fraternities, and sororities have tried to bridge socioeconomic differences by working directly with poor African-American youths. The separatist impulse wedded to the value of collective self-help has become even more compelling as times worsen and racial animosity mounts over such incidents as Howard Beach, the Willie Horton ad, or vetoed civil-rights bills and their alleged quotas. The frequent turning to racial politics in the 1980's and federal inattention to urban poor families provide the setting for proposing black, all-male elementary schools named for a Malcolm X or a Marcus Garvey.

To advocate a single-sex school, an Afrocentric curriculum taught by black male teachers who enforce strict rules is, indeed, a strong response to a desperate situation. It is a turning inward to the community, an effort to help one another because, God knows, many would say, everyone else has turned their backs.

Is a desperate remedy necessarily a blemished one? What is worthwhile about such proposals? First, they come directly from the African-American community in an anguished expression of collective caring for its young. Of course, reaching out to help boys and girls has occurred constantly within poor and middle-class black churches, private schools, youth organizations, and scores of other communal groups. But in many inner-city areas, few self-help groups remain because of crime, drugs, and daily violence. As a result, in many inner cities there are now too few adults on streets and in homes to offer examples of self-discipline, caring for one another, and leading a decent, law-abiding life. Two out of three ghetto families, for example, are headed by single women, many of whom have left school themselves and seek help to raise their children. Where, community activists ask, can black boys find the self-esteem and character to survive the street's lure of fast money and expensive things? Their answer is the public school.

A second point that favors the proposal is that for decades program after program has been tried and nothing has worked to save black boys from prison or early death. Perhaps an extreme proposal authored by African-Americans for their children can do better; it certainly can't do any worse.

Thus, the ghetto schoolhouse becomes the institution of last resort. An all-male African-American academy is a place where peoplehood and personal self-confidence can be built rung-by-rung into a ladder for each boy to climb proudly and reach the kinds of success that will bring pride to himself, his family, his race.

But disturbing questions about all-male academies remain: Can public funds be spent for a separate school in order to save young boys from prison, drugs, and murder? If it is constitutional to use funds in this way, can such a school, using traditional forms of discipline and an experimental curriculum, build the kind of character and self-esteem sought by its advocates? Finally, will all-male schools inherently strengthen the already pervasive male bias that exists in schools?

The legality of such schools has been challenged in Detroit and may be challenged elsewhere. In ordering Detroit's experimental male academies to admit girls, U.S. District Court Judge George E. Woods pointed out that the public schools were failing the community's girls almost as much as its boys. Though the Detroit Board of Education has dropped an appeal of that district-court decision, chances are that in future litigation higher federal courts will find such academies unconstitutional.

If, however, such schools are found constitutional, they will need to finesse the compelling evidence accumulated by the Stanford University scholars David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot, who recently compiled a history of public coeducation in America. In Learning Together, these researchers point to the many studies showing that public schools historically have favored males and, when segregated by sex, have encouraged the development of even more sexist attitudes in males than would have been the case in coeducational schools. They also cite evidence from studies over the last century when girls and boys have been separated from one another in subjects and sports; in every instance, male activities received more resources. In short, based upon this evidence, Professors Tyack and Hansot argue that single-sex public schools would probably strengthen gender discrimination within schools.

Furthermore, if proponents of all-male academies were to try to build a case for their schools on the basis of research evidence they would have a tough time. There simply aren't research findings available that demonstrate that an Afrocentric curriculum, male teachers serving as role models, or strict disciplinary rules (or all three together) will produce character, a higher sense of self-worth, and improved academic performance. The case would have to be made on belief and faith or as an assertion of political power.

As a desperate remedy for desperate times, the proposal for all-male black academies mirrors the grim state of American race relations almost four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. It mirrors, too, a Presidential leadership over the last two decades that has deepened American fears of race, class, and economic insecurity, rather than a leadership that heals and promotes both integration and diversity.

Vol. 11, Issue 12, Pages 30, 36

Published in Print: November 20, 1991, as Desperate Remedies for Desperate Times
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