As we transition into the second quarter of the 2016-2017 academic school year, which should still be filled with excitement and promise for “all” students, unfortunately, we are still dealing with “old business” pertaining to Black male students. The old business that we are referring to is the continued disturbing educational performance of Black boys. To further this point, for over a decade, the Schott Foundation for Public Education has been highlighting the national four-year high school graduation rates for Black males, in comparison to other sub-groups. Not surprisingly, the latest report outlined that Black males had the lowest four-year high school graduation rates in the majority of states that the data was collected.
Despite the litany of studies that highlight the so-called “achievement gap,” we believe that framing the problems that impact the educational success of Black males as merely a “gap” is nothing more than a cop-out. Using “gap” rhetoric is akin to strategizing ways to improve race relations in America, while simultaneously overlooking the vicious historical legacy of racism and White supremacy ingrained in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” No, the true crime in this sad narrative that some educators purposely avoid, while others are too timid to admit, is the ubiquitous practice of viewing Black male students as problems and not princes.
The practice of viewing Black males as problems is not a new phenomenon. For example, in his classic book titled Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois raised this point when he asked the question, How does it feel to be a problem? To embellish Dubois’s inquiry, he wasn’t talking about trite 21st century educational problems around “high stakes testing” and the common core; no, he was actually talking about something more pernicious, which is the utter disrespect, devaluing, and disdain of the Black male body.
Within our schools and classrooms, too many Black male students have been disrespected, devalued, disdained, and, yes, viewed as problems. Malcom X illustrates this claim in his autobiography, when he spoke about his seventh grade teacher who laughed at his dream of becoming a lawyer. More explicitly, young Malcolm was told by his teacher that a “nigger” needed to be realistic about his career aspirations. Another example can be found in the classic hip-hop song titled Juicy, when the slain rapper Biggie Smalls gave a “shout out” to all the teachers who told him that “he would never amount to nothing.” And if one still needs concrete evidence of this claim, we challenge you to visit schools in urban, suburban, and rural America, where countless Black males within those educational milieus will be made to feel as though their mere presence is synonymous with the word, problem!
If we are really serious about improving the educational plight of African-American male students, we first have to deal with the ways in which they are negatively viewed. More specifically, it is imperative that teachers and educational leaders see Black boys as Princes and not problems! When we view Black boys from a Prince perspective, we see destiny, and not deficits. When we view Black boys from a Prince perspective, we understand that we have a moral imperative to prepare them for rulership in the global marketplace. When we view Black boys from a Prince perspective, we provide them with the right weapons needed for success. When we truly view Black boys from a Prince perspective, we hold teachers and educational leaders accountable for the influential role that they play in developing Black boys.
As argued, and as other educators, scholars, practitioners, and researchers have also argued, teachers and educational leaders need to have high expectations for “all students.” Psychological science supports this assertion. For instance, in a 2015 report by the American Psychological Association (APA), one of the key principles highlighted is the importance of teachers’ expectations and how that can affect “students’ opportunities to learn, their motivation, and their learning outcomes.” The point is, like “all students,” when we raise the expectation for Black boys in the classroom, the possibilities become endless.
But beyond that, Black boys need to be challenged by culturally responsive curricula and programing that is academic rigorous at the same time. This is something that several cities around the country have enacted at the district level. For example, both the Oakland Unified School District and the Minneapolis School District have established specialized offices that utilize culturally responsive curriculum and programming to address the needs of Black boys in their district. Although we still have to assess the effectiveness of these programs, at worst, these initiatives provide a template for other districts that are struggling with equity issues for their Black male students.
Equally important is facilitating intentional professional development efforts for teachers and educational leaders so that they can explore their own implicit biases, racial stereotypes, and generational racial residue that they may hold against Black boys. The exploration of confronting one’s biases and racial stereotypes is something that aspiring teachers should also be exposed to within their teacher prep programs (this should be mandatory).
In closing, we summarize our claims.
First, unlike some politicians who “tap dance” for votes during election season, our position is firm. We stand on the premise that the image of the Black male has been and continues to be under attack. Therefore, how we define something or in this context how we define Black male students usually correlates with how we engage them. When we problematize Black boys instead of dealing with the actual educational problems, we will continue to see disturbing outcomes for Black male students. It’s true we do have a “gap,” but it’s not the so-called “achievement gap.” No, we have a “gap” in how we view the Black male body in comparison to others.
Second, our argument within this essay is not an emotional tirade that lacks substance, but, rather, it comes from over 15 years of “on the ground” experience in which we have seen Black boys viewed as problems. Perhaps how we problematize Black boys in the classroom is a forerunner to how Black males are problematized in society.
And, finally, what could happen if we started to treat and view Black boys as Princes, engaged them as royal human beings, and prepared them to reign in society? Perhaps the aforementioned is a necessary approach to eradicating the so-called “achievement gap” that exist for Black males. Just perhaps this approach is worth trying since large-scale education reform efforts have not worked for Black boys!
Dr. Ronald W. Whitaker, II, is an Assistant Professor of Education at Cabrini University and the director of District and School relations.
Dr. Adriel A. Hilton is director of the Extended Campus, Myrtle Beach Metropolitan at Webster University.