Former Congressman William H. Gray III has to look no further than his battles on the floor of the U.S., House of Representatives over race-specific scholarships in justifying how key the College Fund/United Negro College Fund’s newly created Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute can be to Black America.
In 1990, when then Assistant Education Secretary Michael Williams created a stir by trying to eliminate the scholarships, Gray and other Black legislators convinced the George Bush administration that the furor Williams created was groundless by showing, statistically, how few race-based scholarships existed compared to those given based on sex, religion, geography and other factors.
“Here I was as majority whip, with the White House and Justice Department making major policy — and we didn’t have the facts. it became clear to me that there was no place in the United States where you could pick up a phone and quickly get data,” explains the UNCF president and CEO, who touts his brainchild as “the first research institute of its kind” controlled by the Black community. “The real point here is that people were making policy based on perception, not reality,” says Gray, who recently unveiled the new institute, which will focus research exclusively on the status of Black students, preschool to postgraduate.
“We are real excited about this,” he says. “You know, we spend billions of dollars on education in this country, billions trying to deal with the problems of minorities — particularly African Americans. But what do we base that expenditure on? Often it’s a partial study, an isolated study. It is not based on fact.” Gray says he expects his data to be “very much up to date, within a year to two years.” He adds, “There will be a broad range of original research going on, as well as data collection. We will use the best scientific methodologies.”
Though he is vague as to exactly how the data will be gathered, Gray related that in the course of conducting original research, the institute might first focus on standardized testing, and the enrollment and employment of African Americans regionally and nationally. He said that the institute might undertake to gather information directly from individual schools.
Around the country, observers are hopeful that the institute can fulfill Gray’s vision, though they are cautious when discussing how successful the institute, named for UNCF founder Frederick D. Patterson, can be. “You want to keep in the front of America’s consciousness how much Blacks need to achieve education-wise,” says Dr. Kenneth S. Tollett Sr., professor of higher education policy at Howard University and an advisor to the American Association of University Professor’s committee on historically Black institutions and the status of minorities in the profession.
“What is happening in the country now is that people are just washing their hands of the problems” in the Black community, particularly in light of the Los Angeles riots of a few years ago and growing racial divisions on several issues. “The hope is that there is a reservoir of decency in both Blacks and whites that will cause them to want to direct these deficits,” he says. “The research also would indicate that there still is a need for Head Start, affirmative action and special consideration.”
Dr. Reginald Wilson, senior scholar at the American Council on Education, has spoken with Gray about his plans for the institute and sees a potential benefit. “It depends on what it’s going to do.” says Wilson. “The institute potentially could do a good job.” “For example, Blacks have lower SAT scores than any other group, and Blacks have been here longer than any other group. There are not the language barriers that Hispanics and Asians we have not been isolated like Native Americans have been, so why are the scores lower?” Wilson muses. “Nobody has looked those scores to determine exactly what has happened. Right now all we can do is speculate because we don’t have the time or the resources to come up with the answers.”
“In any research project, the most crucial item is what you are assuming when you put the project together. The questions you ask are directly related to the kinds of answers you generate,” says Dr. William King, professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Colorado’s Department of Ethnic Studies — formerly the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America. “If what they have is a response to funding cutbacks that’s one thing. But if what they have is their version of what has been done before, then it may or may not be something new.”
`No One to Call’
The UNCF/College Fund raised $5 million in endowments over the past four years to launch the institute. Gray tapped University of Michigan’s Dr. Michael T. Nettles in December to head the institute on a part-time basis. Nettles will hire staff, set priorities and coordinate data. Both men project that their first report will come out by the end of the year. Gray expects the data will be current, perhaps no older than a year or two.
“The institute has to have some level of autonomy to be able to report the facts, so that people can review them as things to work on. We will be trying to tell the balanced story,” says Nettles, whose career in education research in Tennessee, Iowa and Michigan dates to the 1970s.
“We are trying to persuade some people about priorities,” he says. “We won’t try to address every single education issue immediately. That’s not to say that at some point in our history that we would not have touched on most of the vital issues of the time.” While there are several organizations looking at different aspects of Black educational life — such as NAFEO, the joint Center for Political Research, the Children’s Defense Fund, the American Council on Education, the American Association of University Professors, even the Census Bureau and the Department of Education — none covers the full scope, argues Gray.
“If you, wanted to know how many Black males there are in American colleges, who are you going to call?” Gray asks. “There is no one to call. There is no one.”
Resources Drying Up
In recent years, such organizations as the Institute for the Study of Education Policy at Howard University closed its doors, and the Education Department’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement has been cut back, leading many to fear that what little data there was on Black education is in danger of drying up. “There really aren’t many people doing that” says Tollett. “There was no think tank that was dealing with issues affecting Blacks from a Black perspective. You have a lot of research going on regarding the condition of Blacks but little of it is controlled by Blacks.”
Adds Wilson, “We at ACE have had increasing difficulty in getting statistics on the progress of minorities in higher education, and I would assume that those institutions that are devoted to K-12 education are having similar difficulties. We depend on the federal government for these national statistics on minority progress, and if we are having this much difficulty, I would imagine that no matter how well-endowed the Patterson Institute is, it will also have some difficulty getting them.”
Some are skeptical as to whether Gray and Nettles are biting off more than they can chew. One director of a Black education association wondered aloud how much the institute would really add, or whether it would merely duplicate the work of others. “There are some tensions out there,” says N. Joyce Payne, director of the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges. “Some people are raising questions about usurping authority, but hopefully there will be an opportunity to engage the larger community in this. There’s some structural and relationship issues that need to be talked about as they build that enterprise.”
Gray is careful not to use the word “control” as he stresses the need for Black research based in the Black community. But he and others point to the barrage of controversial research of Black life that has become part of the American mainstream as a wake-up call for Black researchers.
“There have been a lot of people studying us, and talking about us, but it is important that African-American people look at themselves, have available the data and information, and be involved in the interpretation of that data and information,” says Gray. “Otherwise, it will always be somebody studying the community and bringing their biases to that study.” By taking charge of their own research, which African-American scholars have done more ferociously over the past three decades, they are laying waste to long-held notions from those outside the community that Blacks are too close to their subject — their own community — to provide adequate or unbiased data.
“I see people saying that Black folk shouldn’t be doing that, but every other group does it,” argues Gray. “UNCF can concentrate on Black experiences in education. They don’t have to apologize for that. it’s their business,” Wilson agrees. “As a consequence, they can say Blacks are progressing because of this and they are being held back because of this — and they are not being held back in the same way that Hispanics are being held back because this and this and this happened historically.”
For some, the idea of an identifiable Black research clearinghouse carries a more spiritual importance — Black people defining Black people. “If you count the emphasis that we have placed on action and intervention and compare that to the emphasis we have placed on research you will find that the scales tilt in favor of action,” Nettles argues.
“It’s about identity. That’s all it has ever been. If you go back and look at the slave petitions to colonial legislatures, you will see the same questions — questions about identity, and action components,” the University of Colorado’s King offers. “in other words, how do I act? We allowed ourselves to be reinvented in someone else’s image of us. We didn’t spend a lot time addressing questions of identity, self-knowledge, self-consciousness, self-awareness.” Payne views the institute as symbolic not only of a logical progression in Black research, but as long overdue.
“We have enough Michael Nettleses out there to make a difference,” she says. “It’s obviously more important that you have people who are fair, who believe in truth and justice and all of that — and in an ideal world, we would have those people carry out the research agenda. But that has not been the case, so it is important that African Americans play a major role in determining what the priorities are,” Payne adds, “I thought we had already defined who we are as a people.
If you look at the radical change in the amount of research documents and literature Black scholars and writers have produced, we have been pretty prolific. We have been much more assertive about defining who we are as a community. “I don’t think that in 1996 it would be politically imaginable to accept the notion that we have not defined who we are — especially in the academy. I’m not sure if we have used that information as strategically as we need to in order to fight back against the powerful forces of conservatism. We need to get on a collision course with some of that and take on the Newt Gingriches of the world.”
“There is always the problem of transcending our submergence in a white world,” says Tollett. “We all have to overcome the effect of being educated in a white society, at a predominately white college — lest we see things essentially the same way white people see things.”
Says Wilson, “They may not come up with anything new, but they can come up with a broad speculation about Blacks in education that others are not getting at this time.”
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