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Culture and Context: The Plight of Black Male Students

Culture and Context: The Plight of Black Male Students
By Julianne Malveaux

Brian, a Washington, D.C., high school junior, is one of my heroes. He is struggling to maintain his near-B average, while engaging in

extracurricular activities and working about 20 hours a week. While he aspires to work in psychology and attend a four-year college, financial and academic obstacles may restrict his academic career to a community college. We agonized over his options a few weeks ago when I looked at his transcript and wondered why he couldn’t pump his 2.8 GPA up to a 3.0. He acknowledged that he could do better, but only if he worked fewer hours or spent less time in his activities.

Why not work less? Brian lives with an aunt and works at a fast-food restaurant to provide extras, like tutoring, for one of his younger sisters. Social services might step in if his aunt asked for additional help, but Brian says that the time involved to accomplish that would cause his sister to fall further behind with her studies than she is now. So, at nearly 17, he shoulders a burden that many grown men would shrug off, and he does it in the name of love and responsibility.

Brian was puzzled and troubled after reading the New York Times article in March that said that young Black men are in bad shape. He didn’t ask me why the plight of young Black men is headline worthy but policy-proof. Instead, he asked if I thought the article told “the whole story.”
Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who writes about the impact of culture on marginalized young Black men, doesn’t think so. But Patterson’s explanation — that young Black men are too busy being cool to be scholars — lacks context. He doesn’t factor young men like Brian, young men who deserve to be described as heroes, into the drive-by analysis that he calls public policy.

If the “Cool Pose” has any context, it is the context of making do in a society that has no room for you. It does not mean that Black students think studying is “acting White.” It is, instead, the insurance that comes from acting as if a culture that has rejected you doesn’t even matter. The same young brothers who scoff at scholarship when they hang out with their “posse” are likely to go home and study furtively, hoping for a ticket out of their stark reality. Too bad they can’t lose face enough to invite their friends to study with them.

It seems that instead of profiling these vulnerable young men, we need to look at the context in which they live. Too many have had schoolhouse doors slammed in their faces. They’ve been profiled and exiled from the classroom and informed, both directly and subtly, that they simply cannot hang. They know, and how could they not, that higher education is the ticket to a better way of life, but they’ve also seen higher education toss their brothers and cousins aside like so much debris. They try, but they try not to try too hard for fear that they will fail and break their own hearts.

Even young middle-class Black men are confronted with the stone wall of rejection. Many have parents and elders whose constant encouragement helps them to shatter that wall, but many others get caught up in the kinds of adolescent pursuits that only matter if they are of African descent. Young Black men are challenged to be responsible from the time they are 12 or 13 years old, yet zero tolerance laws or racial profiling sideline them. And the very folks who offer the adolescent pass to irresponsible White youth seem to suggest that young Black men are derelict and deficient.

If we believe that all young people can learn, and tailor public policy that way, we will have more young Black men in college. Some, like Brian, with less than stellar GPAs, but adult responsibilities, would be offered a chance to shine through higher education. Others might combine education with internship opportunities until they find a niche that allows them to excel. But instead of supporting universal higher education, our government has decided to cut higher education spending by $16.9 billion in the name of budget balancing. It seems we are far more interested in war than we are in our nation’s future.

If we see young Black men within the context of an uncaring society, then it becomes easy to explain why so many have been sidelined. Our obduracy is unacceptable, and it ultimately damages our economy. And yet, in a nation that mistakenly focuses on culture and not on a supportive educational policy, it has become an unfortunate reality.

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