The racial disparities in academic achievement in grade school are so vast that it is all too easy to arrive at a genetic explanation for them. Such a conclusion is certainly wrong, but many are hard pressed to disprove it. In the United States, we attribute the lack of educational attainment by African Americans to innate characteristics that cannot be overcome, rather than to social factors that capture how students of color are treated. When research shows that African Americans are significantly absent in college preparatory, honors, and advanced placement and, conversely, disproportionately represented in remedial and special needs classes, the preponderance of these statistics often lead us without thinking to consider this calculus condign. For those who regard themselves as a bit more enlightened, their hermeneutic of desert for the overrepresentation is that these students live in a culture, or context, of poverty and resource insufficiency that they are, again, unable to keep up with majority/white students. Both “explanations” are simple rationalizations along the continuum of “blaming the victims,” and are racist to the core. What can we do to eliminate this gross inequity?
Guidance counselors and classroom teachers need to be taught that many of their perceptions and actions regarding students of color are based upon learned expectations or what is considered “realistic” to the former and for the latter. When I was graduating from Wesleyan University in the late 1970s with a degree in government, I conferred with one of my renowned major professors about postgraduate options. I indicated my interest in doing work like Martin Luther King, Jr., and that, perhaps, I should go to a theological seminary first. This advisor opined that most black preachers do not have professional degrees and maybe I should simply locate a church and work my way up. Although I was graduating from a member of the so-called Little Ivy, a celebrated political scientist who helped found Manpower and other workforce development-type establishments was relegating me to become a jackleg preacher! Here was a progressive who nevertheless encouraged me to settle for the statistical norm, rather than seek to scale the heights of professional and academic achievement—at best, a very racially insensitive piece of advice.
As Darling-Hammond points out in the second chapter of The Flat World and Education, even students of color whose test scores are equivalent to those of their white counterparts are still siphoned away from honors and advanced placement classes much more often. One reason for this state of affairs is that the underrepresentation occurs because placement is still extremely racialized. If we couple that racialization with the development of inferiority complexes, the lack of parental involvement, the absence of sufficient role models, and the socioeconomic milieu many African Americans endure, it is no wonder why the disparities are so tragic.
Where do we go from here? There is a litany that usually follows this question: parents need to be more involved in their children’s education; teachers need to appreciate students as human beings, familiarize themselves with the sociocultural circumstances of their pupils, and recognize their teaching must adjust to various learning styles; guidance counselors need to encourage success in students instead of an attitude of just getting by; and students of color need to realize that being cool or accepted has nothing to do with intellectual accomplishment. Training and socialization are necessary in order to turn the traditional, factory outlets into bona fide places of real learning, cultural competence, and development of the students into mature adulthood.
The very nature of the educational institution must change. Embracing each student as a person and as deserving of the best intellectual resources as possible is prerequisite to reforming school districts from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity—to appropriate a term Dr. King used to describe jail cells. Knowing about the subtleties of racism in educational systems is not working to destroy them; it is only a foundation to revise approaches, to reconnoiter what are the qualities of an educated person, and to discover what level of commitment is necessary to produce inclusive and effective learning environments. This process takes a lot of time, creativity, and deracination, but it is the only course to regaining a competitive edge while participating fully in the global community!