African American Student Skill Deficits and Voices from the Black Community

Summary: With African American academic scores continuing to lag behind their white counterparts, and with the US seemingly sinking back into residential re-segregation, it is beyond time for whites to listen more closely to the consistent messages poorly heard from the black community. Better heard would imply re-calibration of school reform, and dealing with our racial history head on.

This news cycle brings more evidence of the intractable gaps between white student skill levels and those of the African American and Latino brothers and sisters.

Among other conclusions, the researchers from Stanford, led by Sean Reardon, note that skill gaps increase with the degree of segregation of the races. Those of us of a certain age will have flashbacks to earlier such recognition, and the push in the 60’s and 70’s to desegregate schools, now an historical artifact defeated by various demographic and political forces. History does seem to loop back upon itself.

Also in the news cycle is the march of Donald Trump to the Republican nomination, in his person seemingly the absolute antithesis of any solution to the intransigence of these skill gaps. David Brooks, acknowledging for the umpteenth time in a recent column the failure of his punditry to accurately predict the course of the Trump campaign, has pledged his labors to a deep listening dive into the Trump nation, in order to better understand the fertile territory of Trump support. He will find, methinks, an increasingly alienated, angry, and fearful white male of the underclass, poorly educated and unmoored in an economic environment in which he has lost traction, forgotten by the elites, his job shipped overseas or erased by transformative technologies.

Methinks alienated, angry, and fearful has long described another underclass, that of African Americans and to a lesser extent that of the Latino community, though their story is somewhat different.

Brooks’ determination to just go listen to the underbelly of Trump support begs the same strategy with the African American community. Despite fifteen to twenty or more years, billions of dollars, and heart felt effort on the part of countless teachers and other professionals, we have simply failed to impact broadly or deeply enough the educational prospects of the great bulk of African American students, abundant anecdotal accounts notwithstanding.

White man here, it strikes me that there are certain threads in the writings of diverse African American writers, and eclectic echoes in various media commentary of black folk in the streets, that remain the same regardless of whose sentiments they are. It is not that one African American says something, or two, but virtually every black commentator, whether highly educated or lowly stratified, testifies to very similar truths that lie in the underbelly of every African American, and which we white folk simply do not hear or hear in a fashion that we filter or in which we have managed to turn the volume down to a level that fails to affect policy enough. Doesn’t really matter who is speaking, whether the hard anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the tempered testimony of Eugene Pitts, or the sometimes raucous and pointed chants of Black Lives Matter folk, or for that matter the prose of Richard Wright or James Baldwin. Certain themes are front and center.

Some are relatively benign, but wear down by incessant repetition. For example, black youth “feel all of it when….. a white person mistakes them for another brown person who looks nothing like them.” Or, in a related vein, “there is something utterly dehumanizing about being fit to a demographic profile….”

More directly toxic is the stereotypy of racial profiling, the stop of the car at night in a “white” neighborhood, or the inescapably inordinate number of times cops shoot black people, as though really black lives do not matter.

Or, the street dilemmas. Gang members do not only kill one another. They terrorize their communities with a fear of crossfire and random attack. If you are a parent you cringe to send your child out the door.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in particular, but others as well, note the special advantages conferred on “whiteness”, which he characterizes as built upon (to quote another writer) “the social rewards that are subtended by violence against those outside the magic circle” (meaning the magic circle of white). In other words, white privilege is prolonged by keeping blacks in place by threat of violence (or incarceration). To argue the point is to miss the widespread acceptance of that perspective within the black community.

Then there are the statistics of demographic slaughter, the poor test scores, the lower level of educational attainment and the inferiority of schools in black neighborhoods, the incarceration rates, the reduced income levels, the substandard housing in substandard streets. We in the white world, if we are paying attention, are aware of these decibels of inequality.

But do we dive more deeply into the flesh and blood, psychic effect on the members of the black community, the adults and young adults for whom these figures portend a failure of their lives? Or do we look in unvarnished fashion at the impact on the kids immersed in the real lives behind the statistics that are called nonetheless to have hope for a better future? What does it take out of a parent and a child for the former to warn the latter of dangers to him in the street and in the “white” world, the worry of the parent who loves the kid?

This is not to regard blacks as a victim class, but as a way to understand how to proffer a hand to those who in turn are working on their own behalf.

I review what I have written and wonder that black folk still enter the battle for respect every day. I wonder what I would do with the anger I expect I would feel as a black man. I wonder at the impact of all these forces on the psyche of black kids whose test scores languish. Or not wonder at all that they languish.

The same Stanford researcher who brings us the fresh evidence of failure to impact black kid academic outcomes links the findings to heightened residential re-segregation, which historically has relegated black and lower income schools to fewer resources and an inferior outcome.

In the background lurk 1954 and Brown vs. the Board of Education; “separate and unequal” again begins to haunt us.

It would be hyperbole to suggest we have circled back entirely to 1954, but the view from the black community is that we as a culture, and whites as a group, have failed to come to grips with our racial past and its ghosts among us, and still fail to grasp the depth of the continuing but remediable crisis in the black community. Those voices are hiding within plain hearing if we are to look deeper than skin color; broad school reform may arrive only when we embrace them as clues as to where we go from here.

 

 

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2 Responses to African American Student Skill Deficits and Voices from the Black Community

  1. Deb Swaser says:

    Fear. It has to be the underlying barrier.

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