Good Black News about Education
I don’t need to use this space to inform you that many African American high school students are still struggling with standardized tests, nor do I need to remind you that many of our urban youth are dropping out of high school before they even have the opportunity to consider college. You’ll find enough of those kinds of stories on other sites. Sadly enough, the obsession with Black underachievement is not limited to mainstream media, nor is it confined to white and/or conservative news sources. Too often African Americans on both the right and the left join their majority counterparents in perpetuating the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to find a successful Black high school or college student.
While African American underachievement is a crucial issue that negatively impacts far too many of our youth, I don’t believe that the interests of Black young people are served by disseminating the notion that Blackness and academic success are oppositional. Over and over again, I encounter bright, hard-working African American students who are psychologically paralyzed by the feeling that they do not belong on a college campus. No Black person they’ve ever been close to has attended and/or completed their degree, and they do not feel entitled to this precious time for scholarly inquiry, intellectual and personal growth, the very same educational opportunity that many of their white counterparts seem to embrace as their destiny.
If I were to ask these students to name the percentage of U.S. Black college entrants who receive their bachelor’s degrees within 5 or 6 years, they could not tell me, nor could they quote the percentage of African American college graduates who eventually go on to graduate schools. The would not be able to name even a single African American Rhodes scholar, nor would they be able to recall the name of even one Black college president. They would, however, be able to rattle off the names of any number of Black professional athletes and musicians and their legal troubles. And while they might not, in fact, know the percentages of African Americans who graduated from high school last year, or who were attending college, they would be–and, in fact, have been–able to inform me that there are more African American men in prison, in jail, or on parole than there are in college. This is not terribly surprising, since this misleading observation is one of the more widely repeated “facts” about U.S. Black educational achivement. What is surprising, and disappointing, is the conviction with which African Americans of all ages will cite disturbingly low high school graduation rates (often 30-35% lower than the actual rate for African American seniors) if asked how many Black people graduate from U.S. high schools.
How, I often wonder, can African American students–especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds–ever begin their undergraduate (or graduate) programs with confidence, if they have already internalized the notion that their presence on a college campus, and even their mere interest in learning, marks them as an anomaly among U.S. Black people.
After spending so many decades reporting on Black underachievement, it is nothing short of remarkable that such stories continue to constitute “news”; and yet maybe the point of this relentless focus on Black underperformance is not to inform the public of new developments, but to reinforce–even to African American people themselves–the existing status quo.
One of the most disturbing aspects of my interactions with Black students at virtually every college I have ever been affiliated with has been their clear understanding of their “place” in the educational hierarchy. Whenever I come across an article or report on low African American SAT scores or Black drop-out rates I skim quickly, looking to see whether or not the author is offering anything like a new perspective on these issues. If not, I move on. But, as a Black PhD whose world is populated by Black professors, Black doctors, Black attorneys, and other highly-educated African American professionals, these reports are easy for me to disregard. They don’t reflect the reality of Black education as I know and experience it everyday. I’m lucky, but many African American undergraduates, graduate students, and high school students with college aspirations are not as fortunate. When many of our youth look around their neighborhoods, their schoolhouses, and–too often–their undergraduate and/or graduate programs, the reality they see seems to confirm the bleak picture offered up in those regularly recurring stories of Black failure.
Too often, and for too long, the truth of both mainstream and non-mainstream reporting on Black educational achievement has been that “no news is good news.” I’m ready to close the door on that approach. Time for more news, information, and opinion sources that reflect back to our youth a vision of Blackness that–in terms of educational achivement and the life possibilities that school success opens up for all young people–is full of promise, inspiration and hope. Enough of the usual warped mirror of failure and unattainability. Time for some Good Black News about Education.
Posted by Ajuan Mance