I visited a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King recently and found myself transfixed on the quote shown above. As I looked at the statue and then back to the quote, I am not ashamed to admit I came to tears. In examining why I had that reaction (beyond being in awe of such a great human being), two things, one personal and one professional, emerged for me.
On the personal side I was thinking of my fabulous daughter-in-law (the latter part of that title bugs me, she is my third daughter) who is African American and the mother of the two greatest daughters, and my granddaughters (bias intended), anywhere. I’ve heard stories from her about some of the negative experiences she has endured and admire her strength to just grow from those. For my son, the story is quite simple. He fell in love and nothing else mattered. Still, I worry for my granddaughters as I read stories, track Twitter feeds, and catch news items where race has been the central excuse for negative behavior. I wonder if there will come a time where they will simply be judged “for the content of their character and not the color of their skin”. And I weep some more.
On the professional side I continue to be disturbed by overwhelming statistics like these from the Census Bureau and the Department of Education:
➢ In 2005, the on-time graduation rate for black males was 48 percent nationally; for white males it was 74 percent.
➢ Nearly half of the nation’s African American students, but only 11 percent of white students, attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm.
➢ On average, African American and Hispanic twelfth-grade students read at approximately the same level as white eighth graders.
➢ The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that 88 percent of African American eighth graders read below grade level, compared to 62 percent of white eighth graders.
➢ More than 60 percent of black students attend schools where more than 50 percent of the school population is identified as living in poverty, compared to 18 percent of white students.
➢ In the forty-nine states studied, the school districts with the highest minority enrollments receive an average of $877 less per student than school districts with the lowest number of minorities enrolled.
➢ In high schools where at least 75 percent of the students are low-income, there are three times as many uncertified or out-of-field teachers teaching both English and science than in schools with wealthier populations.
I’ve been working in schools where these statistics are the norm and drive the expectations for (lack of) success. Dr. James Norwood put together this infographic (http://bit.ly/M0Wlgf) that shows the devastating social and financial impacts of dropping out. The passivity and resignation that occurs when a black student is identified as struggling is mind-boggling. Are we harder on white students who struggle and do we try to push them to “get it”. Can any educator take solace in a graduation rate that suggests one in two students won’t be successful? Is our perception of low achievement for black students the cause or the byproduct? Or, as Rutgers-Newark professor Kent D. Harber suggests in this study http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120504143023.htm, are we giving inaccurate feedback that does not provide black students the same intellectual growth and foster achievement? Have we institutionalized the very thing Dr. King was trying to eradicate? And I weep some more.
In the midst of my despair, I find some comfort. Some other data emerges on the positive side of the ledger:
➢ Among blacks ages 25 and older, 82% have at least a high school diploma (as of July 2007) versus 14% in 1950.
➢ Among blacks ages 25 and older, 19% have a bachelor’s degree or higher (as of July 2007) versus 2% in 1950.
➢ 95% of black children ages 5 and 6 are enrolled in school (versus 69% in 1954)
And then I get a chance to talk to Carlos who is a young African American man and my seat-mate for the first leg of my flight home. He is a man of many talents and interests, polished and well spoken, and willing to share his perceptions on my concerns. He let me know about the struggles his folks went through in order to create a better situation for their children. Carlos talked about two challenges – the institutionalization of failure for black students (as illustrated above) and the lack of positive role models or mentors. He went on to describe the various ways he is involved to set a positive example by volunteering his time to work with black youth who come from poverty or lack of success to let them know what is possible. He felt this was a critical component that was lacking in the structures and systems that African American kids were exposed to. He insightfully suggested they needed more than rappers and athletes to identify with as their only career options. I begin to smile. Perhaps Carlos and his generation, which includes my third daughter Sabrina, are what Dr. King was alluding to. Strong role models that will guide the next generation to take pride in the content of their character and their color so that others may be able to do the same.