Soft Bigotry, 2.0: Schooling Black Kids

By Michelle Chen Aug 04, 2009

Why can’t we just get Black kids to recognize the value of an education? At the Root, Cord Jefferson argues that the answer to racial disparities in academic performance is creating “a new way to sell education to young, black men.” Easier said than done, of course. If the antidote to racialized “underachievement” were just convincing Black kids that straight A’s are worth striving for, centuries of educational apartheid could be erased with slick marketing. The "structuralists” in the education field—those who see educational gaps as a byproduct of institutionalized inequity, rather than just poor decision-making—don’t quite buy that argument. Yet many do recognize that culture shapes, and is shaped by, social environment as well as individual goals. The structure vs. culture debate will intensify as America’s First Black President moves to inject new funds into “minority-serving institutions” as part of a major investment in higher education. Jefferson sees a need to harness individualistic drives in “making school cool.” He cites the theories of Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson—which center on the destructive influence of “cool-pose culture” on Black youth—to make the case for a market-based approach to revising Black students’ attitudes toward schooling:

In 2008, seven states adopted a new plan to attract low-income and minority students to college-prep courses, the gist of which was simple: pay kids $100 for every advanced placement exam they pass. The states latched on to the idea after a similar program in Texas produced a 30 percent rise in the number of students with high SAT scores. The proof is there—money talks. With that in mind, what’s wrong with telling a 16-year-old boy, "You wanna meet exotic women? Go to school, work hard, get an international business degree and go start a company in Paris." What’s wrong with saying to a kid who wants to be an iced-out rapper that the real money in music doesn’t go to the performers, but to the record executives? "So instead of wasting time on a rap career that odds say will never materialize," you can tell him, "Why not go to college, study music and business, graduate and then work your way up at a label? And, if that’s not glamorous enough, start a label!" Knowing what we know about how deeply many of America’s inner-city children value "cool," it’s foolish to insist on trying to appeal to them with traditional, impractical platitudes about education. It shows a disconnect with reality and, almost certainly, it’s a disconnect that exists because these marketing gimmicks are dreamed up by learned people who have come to know the inherent value of their brain.

A new twist on the Cosby model? Rather than just chastise kids for not trying harder, offer a reliable carrot: incentivize them by equating educational achievement with material wealth. A little crass, but maybe also a realistic approach to the Black educational crisis. But would cash-for-class work in schools where metal detectors greet children before their teachers do each morning? Where students are saddled with unqualified teachers, yet are quickly relegated to special ed when they are deemed to be "underperforming?" Where guidance counselors don’t expect them to graduate, let alone contemplate attending college? Urban sociologist Pedro Noguera examined the interplay between the negative school environment and the construction of identity in Black adolescents in In Motion:

Rather than serving as a source of hope and opportunity, schools are sites where Black males are marginalizedand stigmatized. Consistently, schools that serve Black males fail to nurture, support or protect them. In school, Black males are more likely to be labeled as behavior problems and less intelligent even while they are still very young. Black males are also more likely to be punished with severity, even for minor offenses, for violating school rules; often without regard for their welfare. They are more likely to be excluded from rigorous classes and prevented from accessing educational opportunities that might otherwise support and encourage them. However, changing academic outcomes and countering the risks experienced by Black males is not simply a matter of developing programs to provide support or bringing an end to unfair educational policies and practices. Black males often adopt behaviors that make them complicit in their own failure. It is not just that they are more likely to be punished or placed in remedial classes, it is also that they are more likely to act out in the classroom and to avoid challenging themselves academically. Recognizing that Black males are not merely passive victims, but may also be active agents in their own failure, means that interventions designed to help them must take this into account. Changing policies, creating new programs, and opening new opportunities will accomplish little if such efforts are not accompanied by strategies to actively engage Black males and their families in taking responsibility to improve their circumstances.

The credo of Bush’s No Child Left Behind was to end the so-called “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But the bigotry isn’t confined to school grounds. Today, with Obama’s education policies looking more and more like his predecessor’s, some are calling for a more radical, community-based approach to school reform. The Broader, Bolder Approach coalition, for example, incorporates issues like socioeconomic gaps and community involvement in a more expansive vision of what education should be for the communities that keep falling behind. In this maelstrom of structural and cultural forces, providing monetary incentives to students, even if it did boost test scores, would ignore the cultural status quo driving the achievement gap. One reason public schools often fail poor students of color is that the social and economic superstructure has reduced education to a materialist system, where individual gain is possible but always in the service of a certain hierarchy of privilege. Why should we expect “at risk” youth to stay in school when the harsh lesson of social injustice comes to them just as easily on the streets as in the classroom? Image: Bill Cosby on a visit to a Bayview-Hunterspoint school (Michael Maloney / SF Chronicle)