The City University of New York’s bid last fall to enact an African-American Male Initiative to boost recruitment and retention of this under-represented population in higher ed has been met with a lawsuit charging the system with discrimination. It was reported on in The New York Times and here in Diverse. CUNY’s attempt is another example of the damning paradox that undermines these initiatives. The language of the AAMI is always clear, purporting to identify, address, rectify and solve the academic problems of Black men. These efforts are universally based on principles of justice and equity. Ironically, the attacks against them universally cite those same principles. The Sisyphean rock is repeatedly being pushed up the hill and rolled down again. The key to disentangling the paradox and breaking this cycle of futility is to identify the fundamental set of tools that all Americans ought to have.
In his book, Inequality Reexamined, Dr. Amartya Sen argues that there must be agreement on the core set of items to be equally distributed among people before any discussion of inequality can take place. This is mandatory because equality in this core set is used to justify inequality in peripheral areas. The logic is clear — if all are given equal opportunities and some opt not to seize them, then any individual shortcomings thereafter are justifiable. Herein lies the central dilemma facing Black male initiatives. Are Black males given equal educational opportunities and squandering them? Or are they shortchanged from the outset and operating with a built-in handicap? There are legions of scholars dedicated to solving this mystery, and it is a national shame that their talents are tied up in this manner in 2006 — 141 years after the abolition of American slavery and 51 years after Brown v. Board of Education.
There is an increasingly popular stance of attacking the cultural practices of Black males. John McWhorter, Orlando Patterson, the Thernstroms, Bill Cosby, Juan Williams and others have effectively argued that Black males opt not to take advantage of the opportunities awarded them. These critics are part of what I suggest is the “Invictus Group.” They subscribe to the tenets of William Henley’s poem, “Invictus,” where he declares that, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The Invictus Group argues that the persona voluntarily adopted by Black males is not conducive to academic success. They argue that Black males are choosing to cede the mastery of their fates and the captaincy of their souls to degenerative cultural practices. The logical conclusion of their position in the Sen framework is that academic exclusion of Black males in university systems like CUNY is justified. AAMIs are therefore unjust and discriminatory against others who opt to seize the opportunities awarded them.
The other group, the “Contextualists,” argue that Black males do not voluntarily forfeit educational opportunities. Black males’ choice set is constrained by a brutal array of historic and contemporary forces that undervalue their intellect and discredit them as individuals. Prudence Carter, Jonathan Kozol, Pedro Noguera and others make this case. Successful Black men from beleaguered and underfunded schools demonstrate an extraordinary sense of self-worth and resilience. They exhibit levels of these qualities that simply are not necessary for their White counterparts, who benefit from a national storehouse of positive assumptions. These characteristics in Black men are required to overcome the inequality of positive assumptions in the core set. The Contextualists argue that these positive assumptions ought to be included in the set of equally distributed items. White youth should not have exclusive rights to the assumption of being smart. The conclusion of the Contextualists’ logic is that inequality in the core set of items handed to Black males renders their exclusion at the university level unjustifiable. AAMIs are, therefore, just and egalitarian programs serving those who have been underserved.
In the midst of this theoretical tussle, Sisyphus’ rock is rolling, continuously grinding the aspirations of Black men under the weight of futility and isolation. Each time it rolls back down the hill it sends the message that we are alone. I agree with Harry Belafonte that the Black community and Black men in particular did not choose to exist in the deplorable conditions and educational wasteland that many of us do. It is contrary to the human instinct. Despite the assistance we have had in arriving at this sour pass, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will have to break this cycle by ourselves. We may well have to beat the drums and call on the spirit of John Henry to smash the rock of Sisyphus. Hopefully we will survive the effort this time.
Dr. Kamau Bobb is a postdoctoral research fellow with the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education.
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I have to say that I agree with Contextualist point of view expressed regarding African American men who do attend college and become successful. It is most often times that the African American male who is successful does indeed display characteristics or resiliency not seen in his contemporaries. While working on my masters degree in counseling in a program filled mostly by white women, we discussed children who are resilient – without specific regard to race or gender. Resilient children are often those who seem to find their way no matter what has been handed them; socioeconomic status, abusive homes, horrible neighborhoods, violence, & dysfunctional families. These are all the kids that inspire us to keep working in education. The children that we want to see succeed because we know its in them to be excellent. Unfortunately, it is rare to find the African American male that exhibits these characteristics in a higher education environment. So many times, that resilience has waned or held off as much negativity as it could before breaking. The average resilient child may only have to face one or two of the aforementioned obstacles. However, it is more often than not that young African American men face all these obstacles. Beyond that, the problem is we look for those resilient young African-American men and we sometimes forget to look for the other young African American men who don’t necessarily display characteristics of resiliency. As an African American man, I think we have to put more focus on getting our young men through middle and high school with their eyes on college to better understand what it is and why they should strive for higher education. We have to get into their neighborhoods to be active in counteracting negative environmental influences. So many of us who “succeed” move to more affluent areas than those we came from – when we could better serve our community and our African American young men by staying and serving as a role model.
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