School & District Management Opinion

Black Boys: When a Spotlight Is Not Enough

By Anthony Cody — November 14, 2010 3 min read
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My colleague Renee Moore has an interesting reflection on the recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools on the crisis we face with Black boys.

She writes:

But why are so many people acting so surprised by these facts? Is it that they've been too distracted by other events such as the background noise of Waiting for Superman or The Education Nation? Too enthralled with the superegos placed in charge of major schools systems (NYC, DC, NOLA) and their flashy but largely ineffective (especially for Black males) turnaround strategies? Or, is the ignorance of the plight of Black American boys and men a case of collective self-imposed ignorance? The information has been around and many have been speaking out about it for a long time.

Renee is correct. We can’t pretend we don’t know. But that has not been the main strategy employed by our leaders. From the genesis of No Child Left Behind, a phrase taken from civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman herself, the strategy has been to use the inequities this report describes as the justification for a host of policies that actually make things worse.

This report, to its credit, describes not only educational outcomes, but also some of the conditions that contribute to them. High infant mortality and a lack of access to health care also have an impact, and most African American children are not enrolled in high quality pre-school. The number of children in poverty has steadily risen, and more than a third of African American children live in poverty, and two thirds in a single-parent household. Two thirds of Black children’s parents do not even have a high school diploma.

The breed of educational reformers that emerged under NCLB take pride in “shining a spotlight” on the poor educational outcomes we see from sub-groups such as African American boys, but they studiously avoid addressing these material conditions. These, we are told, are beyond our ability to change, so instead we must focus all our attention on their teachers, who we are (falsely) told, are the primary determinant of student success.

This sleight of hand yields us the whole gamut of phony reforms now being promoted by the Department of Education, and the various billionaires who have become self-taught experts in repairing our supposedly broken schools. All promoted under the self-righteous declarations that this is the “civil rights issue of our generation.”

While the report deserves credit for recognizing some of the harsh realities that contribute to the poor outcomes for Black boys, the recommendations it makes are rather timid. There are a host of programmatic suggestions, such as mentoring programs, counseling services and after-school programs, all of which are worthwhile. But there is nothing about desegregation, nothing about directly addressing poverty and unemployment, and nothing about access to high quality early childhood education.

The actual Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s did not hesitate to call for economic justice. The 1963 March on Washington included calls for desegregation, civil rights and economic justice, including a minimum wage of $2. Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. also made the explicit connection between the economic injustices taking place at home and the terrible human and economic waste of war.

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr, said,

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available... Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor, transformed into purchasers, will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.
Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth...

The pressure created by the Civil Rights movement actually resulted in President Johnson declaring a War on Poverty, with a host of policies and investments towards that end. Educational historians note that the greatest closing of the achievement gap occurred in the 1970s and 80s, as a result of these changes. But all that has been rolled back now, and our economic inequality is back to where it was in 1928, and segregation back to where it was in the 1950s.

As Frank Rich made clear in his column this morning, we have seen the wealthy become vastly wealthier in the past decade due to government policies enacted at their behest. Why then is it apparently taboo for even social reformers to raise the need for policies that would correct the huge problem we have with poverty? We can afford to give billionaires tax breaks, and spend further billions bombing distant nations, but we cannot afford any significant programs to address poverty and unemployment? Perhaps teachers, parents and students will need to write our own reports for such solutions to be included.

What do you think? Are the recommendations from this report adequate? Or should we push for some deeper economic and social changes?

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