An individual’s value is judged by what they contribute to their community, society or world (and let no one tell you otherwise). This same value assessment is used when dealing with groups of people. To largely exclude the record or achievements of Africans and African-Americans not only creates an obstacle or void that the black student must contend with, but it gives the white student (and whites in general) a basis to, at best, deemphasize the accomplishments of those of the African Diaspora or (at worst) disrespect them altogether. These accomplishments, by the way, have not only benefited the black community, but society and the world as a whole.
There are some who say that it is abundantly clear that there are cultural shortcomings in the areas of social studies, history and English, but that doesn’t account for the failings of black students in the areas of math and science. To that I say the whole of education is connected. If our black students are not validated and challenged in all aspects of their educational experience – if there is an indifference (or even downright antagonism) towards all things African or black – then their mastery of any of their subjects (including math and science) is at-risk. It also would be somewhat naïve of us to believe that adolescents and children will not carry a negative experience in one classroom into the next one.
In his essay, Cognitive Styles and Multicultural Populations, J.A. Anderson touches on this dynamic: “For children of color, biculturality is not a free choice, but a prerequisite for successful participation and eventual success. Non-white children generally are expected to be bicultural, bidialectic and bicognitive; to measure their performance against a Euro-American yardstick; and to maintain this orientation. At the same time, they are being castigated whenever they attempt to express and validate their indigenous culture and cognitive styles.
What Can Be Done?
Educators: For white educators, the first step is to examine what issues, biases, prejudices, and assumptions they carry into the classroom and how these inform their curriculum and attitudes towards black students. In fact, they must constantly engage in a process of examining and critiquing their own perspective because this will also affect the way they approach teaching. Furthermore, it is the role of administrators to insist that this process be as frequent and all-encompassing as necessary.
In the black community we must get about the business of cultivating and developing educators. It has been estimated that in 1950 one-half of all black professionals in the United States were teachers. Compare that to The National Centers for Educational Statistics 2001 data that found of the 105,566 bachelor’s degrees conferred in education in 2001, only 7,394 were awarded to blacks. Those numbers must change in order for us to have the impact that is necessary to affect real change in educational systems. Those of us who teach at the postsecondary level may have to gently nudge some our students in that direction.
However, there has been some progress in recruiting blacks into education who have degrees in areas other than education. The number of second career professionals who have ventured into education has grown somewhat in the past decade – these professionals include those from the fields of social services, engineering, medicine and journalism.
Parents: As parents, we should expect excellence from our children and do all we can to help them reach those expectations. Although parent-teacher conferences and making sure that our children stay on-task academically are important aspects of our involvement, equally important is making sure that our child’s educational experience is positive and just.
There are still glaring inequities present in our schools. Recognizing, addressing and combating these inequities falls into the category of parental involvement as well. Challenge the schools that are educating your children to make a greater effort to recruit and retain black educators and to develop and implement a curriculum in which your children will see themselves reflected (and not just during February).
If you haven’t already, or when funds and resources permit, invest in a computer and the internet (we must begin to look at these things as investments and not purchases). There is literally a world of information, which is enormously beneficial to the education of your child, within their (as well as your) fingertips.
I already hear the voices of dissent: “You can’t blame what is happening with black students in education on white educators.” Although I did not write this essay to attribute blame to anyone nor do I blame white educators entirely for the hindrances that black students face, I would like to say this: You can take it to the bank that if we as blacks represented more than 85% of a profession and there were significant problems within that profession, we would be receiving an extreme amount of blame.
Furthermore, it is my opinion that not nearly enough time has been spent on the white educator’s role in our post-Brown educational systems. Jane Elliot (a courageous soul in my opinion) described racism as a “white attitudinal problem.” She has stated that the problem lies not with people of color but with whites who believe if blacks would just get “white” then everything would be all right. “For too many years we have been blaming racism on people of color….” Is there some secret potion that makes white teachers immune to this attitudinal problem?
“It’s been fifty years already, we need to stop making excuses.” That argument would carry more weight if a truly equitable educational system would have emerged after the Brown decision. A tremendous amount of desegregation took place (especially with the dismantling of all-black schools), but very little integration. The teaching and administrative ranks were never integrated (as a matter of fact they became even more segregated) and the curriculum, with the exception of a few minor and recent changes, is just as Euro- and male-centered as it has always been. The “feelings of inferiority” that were alluded to by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Brown v. the Board of Education’s majority opinion, have been left fundamentally unresolved. To desegregate without real integration, is an invitation for dysfunction.
“Historically, we have overcome racism and adversity to achieve, why can’t these young people do the same?” I agree that a great deal of time and energy can be wasted if we allow circumstances beyond our control to overwhelm us. However, the flip-side of this observation is that while we reflect upon our past of overcoming, with pride and satisfaction, we still need to question whether our children should have to overcome certain barriers. It is as if we no longer question the injustices that our children face educationally.
We must also realize that this present group of adolescents and young adults is truly the first to be born outside of the shadows of segregation and busing. They have certain expectations of fairness and equality, which prior generations did not have. When these expectations are not realized, should we be surprised by their disillusionment? The fact that some of us make it in spite of the unjust and inequitable obstacles that still exist in our society, does not justify the barriers nor does it excuse us from doing all we can to identify and eliminate those obstacles.
I know there are bound to be some who believe that I am painting some idyllic picture of pre-Brown segregated schools, as if these were schools that had no dysfunctions or difficulties. Let me assure you, I am not. Nor am I disregarding the gains made as a result of the Brown verdict. However, every event has it consequences, including Brown. What I am attempting to point out is that the best attributes of the segregated all-black schools have never truly been integrated into this nation’s educational systems.