May 29, 2020

The biggest “problem” with black boys might be how we view them

Minneapolis School Board Director Hussein Samatar recently sent an email update with seven of the most crushing words I’ve seen in a while: “black boys are not doing well anywhere.”

It’s a sad statement made more depressing by the fact that it is simply untrue.

In fact, black boys are doing well in some places and ignoring success does nothing to help our communities.

Black males in states like Maine, North Dakota, and New Hampshire have graduation rates higher than white students nationally (98%, 93%, and 83%).

They are doing well in some traditional public schools in cities like Cinncinati and New Jersey, in some charter schools like Yes Prep, Amistad Academy, Harvest Prep, Urban Prep, and KIPP; and in some exam schools like Boston Latin.

It’s true that black boys in general are not receiving all they need to fully reach their potential, but that is different (and less depressing) than a blanket statement of universal black male failure.

At different times this year other MPS School Board Directors have bemoaned the poverty and neediness of poor children of color too. When confronted with statistical information surfacing a gap in achievement between black and white students some of our leaders have carefully caressed adults in the system and affirmed for them that it is not their “fault.”

In the apologist’s worldview the kids are just so poor that almost no one should be expected to do a good job with them. The solution is not solid instruction, strong leadership, and seeing parents are partners rather than sociological cartoons. The solution is “wrap-around” social services to help “fix” kids that bring to school challenges beyond the scope of education.

These weathered apologies fit tidily in a teflon portfolio of sympathetic sidesteps intended to relieve us from collective accountability. We conspire through language to construct a rationale for inequity that is retributive rather than restorative. By concerning ourselves with “fault” rather than possibilities we slide into the “it’s not the schools that are “the problem,” it’s the parents, students, and/or community” defensive rhetoric.

Some community members or leaders say – in whispers and hushes – that black parents either don’t care as much about their children, or value education as much as others, or they’re too busy from working the proverbial “two jobs” to attend to their parental duties. Yet when asked African American and Latino parents were more likely to express college aspirations for their children than their white peers.

The world looks different when you talk to people rather than about them.

Too many in our communities embrace the tempting inevitability of low expectations because they privately believe in the premise that black students aren’t as gifted or interested or prepared. Yet, when asked, black students point to school based factors that leave them unprepared for standardized tests.

It should occur to someone that these dated mental models trap us all into inaction and prevent us from truly moving forward, together, as a single community with communal expectations for the healthy development of all our children. Black boys, like other boys, are not problems to be fixed. They are not defined by what others perceive them to lack. They are not what too many of us project them to be.

And we are not brave when pointing at them and saying none of them are doing well. We are brave when we love them enough to ask what power we have to change the context in which they live so that we can honor their humanity by insisting they experience more humane outcomes.

How would our discussions be different if we started with the belief that black boys possess immeasurable gifts, that they embody limitless potential, and they have unsurpassable worth granted to them by G-d?

What if we thought they were beautiful, capable, and intelligent rather than damaged, troubled, and in need of professional assistance?

Would our conversations be different if we saw their possibilities more than what we assume to be their missing parts?

I ask these questions not to naively dismiss any of the serious and persistent social issues that poverty and a historical racism have projected onto black boys. Clearly there has been no entity more maligned in America than the black male. No group has suffered more cultural emasculation or faced more discounting. We can agree that years of marginalization, alienation, and economic displacement have social, psychological, and political consequences.

I ask the inverted questions because I think the power to transform the situation and end needless suffering exists in the positive framing of the issues. Admiring the problem and justifying unacceptable systemic inattention to the needs of black children only preserves strife and pain for families that deserve better from their country.

Rather than declaring universal failure for black boys we might ask what can we do to create a better future? We might commit to affirm the humanity and possibilities of black boys by engaging them (and their families) directly rather than calling for the 80 millionth conversation just amongst teachers, staff, and the voters we think will further our “leadership.”

More important than anything, if we are sincere in our interests to lead our community to a better place for everyone, we might start to  see black boys as the answer, not the problem?

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