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The Paradox of Black Male Initiatives

The Paradox of Black Male Initiatives
By Kamau Bobb

The City University of New York (CUNY) recently launched a systemwide African American Male Initiative (AAMI) to improve the success and

retention of the Black men on its 11 senior college campuses. The problem at CUNY has become so acute that the AAMI is part of the master plan for the entire system. CUNY’s initiative is just the latest in a long list of similar initiatives. The University System of Georgia instituted a similar plan in 2003 to combat the troubling academic conditions of Black men there.

I am a product of the public education systems in both New York City and Georgia, and an object of these academic initiatives. The initiative objectives, the performance gaps they are based on and the social reality faced by Black male students are an increasingly disconnected trinity. The disconnection comes from a set of debilitating paradoxes.

The general objectives of these initiatives are, as one Southern colleague put it, “like moms and apple pie — who could be against them?” All of the initiatives are designed to (1) identify the obstacles to Black male college admission and retention; (2) devise and support programmatic interventions to mitigate those obstacles; and (3) to provide a small annual budget to accomplish goals one and two. The problem with these initiatives is that they exist in a political climate that is increasingly conservative. The mechanisms that would support their objectives are weakened, if not totally eradicated, by the anti-affirmative action climate in which universities currently exist.

Targeted scholarships, recruitment efforts and campus programs that were designed to specifically address the needs of underrepresented minorities in general, and Black men in particular, have been dismantled or considerably weakened. In addition, the ever-looming threat of lawsuits by anti-affirmative action organizations stifles aggressive program development in this area. This is the essential paradox that undermines the efficacy of these initiatives. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” states it beautifully: “Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools,” he wrote. To be successful, a policy must have the proper tools. In this case, the tools available to universities are increasingly dull and inadequate.

The statistics are familiar by now. Average scores for Black men on all things academic are bad in their own right and worse in comparison to their Asian and White college-age counterparts. One school in the metropolitan Atlanta area exemplifies the problem. It is one of the only schools in the area whose enrollment is 100 percent Black. During the 2003-2004 academic year, the average SAT score of Black men in that school was 721. The average scores for Asian and White students in the local school system during the same academic year were 1,155 and 1,123, respectively. Those are deficits of 434 and 402 points. To have a difference greater than 400 points on an exam with a top score of 1,600 is extraordinary.

The problem here is one of familiarity. Once upon a time, knowledge of these appalling facts would send activists and academics alike into feverish activity. But while these conditions are still appalling, they are no longer shocking. The steadily worsening quality of life in Black communities is becoming part of the background noise in this country. Poor results in the classroom are just another symptom of poverty, like the health disparities Black Americans face and the rising tide of juvenile crime. Familiarity with these tragic conditions makes the problems appear untenable, with too many unspecified variables. For many, the consequence of that familiarity is a retreat to individual concerns, away from the complications of community contribution.

The third disconnection of the trinity is the educational reality faced by many Black students. Many of the students in segregated Black schools are utterly disconnected from the standard set of expectations and practices that are the norm of the American academic world. The depth of that segregation is precisely the paradox that undermines the efforts to dismantle it. There is increasingly less common language, common assumptions and common understanding across the divide to effectively act on the objectives of the AAMIs.

The recent initiatives are not themselves new strategies. They are well-intentioned efforts to encourage the beleaguered proponents of equity to battle on. The essential question is Kipling’s — can it be done with worn-out tools?

— 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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