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African-American boys: ‘Too important to fail’

If we can accept the premise that huge banks and insurance companies and major U.S. automakers are too big to fail, why can’t we embrace the notion that an entire generation of millions of African-American boys is too large and “too important to fail?”

That’s the compelling message of a new documentary with that title that aired on TPT-TV last Sunday. This one-hour jewel, both blunt and uplifting, is authored and narrated by Tavis Smiley, a talk-show host and advocate who overcame his own childhood disadvantages and has been ranked the second most powerful media “change agent” (behind Oprah Winfrey) in Ebony magazine’s Power 150 list. Smiley also made Time magazine’s 2009 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Finding out what’s working right now — and breakthroughs are being achieved at various charters and public “turnaround” schools all over the nation — may be more important than sorting through all the whys and wherefores that created this situation. And that’s the strength of Smiley’s work.

Smiley’s documentary lays out heartening examples of shining success. And even as last week’s statewide test scores in math were being analyzed, the Star Tribune noted that Harvest Preparatory School and Best Academy in north Minneapolis exceeded the state averages with enrollments that are overwhelmingly poor and African-American. Both schools have a strong emphasis on high expectations and on cultural awareness and pride.

A call for return of black studies
John Thompson, a historian, a white former inner-city schoolteacher and a blogger for the Huffington Post, opined last week that the most important contribution of the documentary is its “call for a return of black studies to the classroom. Schools must help black males see themselves in the country’s narrative,” Thompson writes.

And as we look forward, it’s worth at least briefly reviewing the great stain in American history that got us here. Smiley, in a recent book by the same name as the documentary, neatly summarizes the litany: “overcrowding, underfunded schools, poverty, lack of positive male role models, inattentive adults, misguided policies and poorly conceived mandates, and economic stagnation. … It’s also about race in America and the cultural differences inherent in our complicated history. It’s a problem that cannot be solved without taking an honest and clear-eyed look at how race factors into the reality of lost young lives in a land of promise and opportunity.”

The statistics that tell a story of perhaps the worst disparities of any demographic subdivision in America are depressingly familiar: a high-school graduation rate that routinely falls some 20 percentage points behind the national average; a suspension rate from school 250 percent higher than that of whites; and 12th-grade reading levels that are significantly lower than those for men and women across every other racial and economic group.

Scholars in the documentary boldly ask white Americans to just try to imagine this shoe on their foot. Here’s the observation of noted educator, author and lecturer Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu:

“If 53 percent were the dropout rate for white males, it would be unacceptable; if 41 percent of their children were being placed in special education, that would be a major crisis. If only 20 percent of their boys were proficient in reading in eighth grade, that would be a crisis. If only 2.5 percent of white males ever earned a college degree, that would be a major crisis in America.”

Worse in Minnesota
Those statistics are even more glaring and embarrassing in Minnesota, which has long prided itself on a progressive and egalitarian culture. For more than a decade, test scores and attainment rates for our African-American students are lower than they are in most other states.

This is not somebody else’s problem or a fate that we can separate from our own. What happens to African-American males will impact what happens to our economy and community at large.

Business leaders in Minnesota have been warning that within the decade, 70 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require postsecondary education. And we simply won’t have the educated work force our economy needs unless achievement and attainment gaps are closed.

Growing part of the work force
White population growth rates are flat or declining as a percentage of the total in Minnesota, but the number of African-American children and young adults, ages 5 to 24, is expected to grow 24 percent between 2006 and 2020. Put another way, the public and private sector will increasingly rely on racial and ethnic minorities, including African-American males, to make up the highly educated work force necessary to attract the knowledge-based companies that have made our economy strong. An economy that will desperately need smart labor cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

The best of our black and white leaders, past and current, have exhorted us to do the right thing, appealing to both self-interest and the loftiest instincts toward justice and fairness.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his enduring letter from a Birmingham jail, wrote that he could not “sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Mike Ciresi, a Minnesotan who happens to be white and one of the most prominent lawyers in the nation, and whose Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children strongly supports efforts to address the equity gap, brought this message home at a recent reception in Minneapolis celebrating Teach for America, a corps of young teachers working in under-resourced rural and urban schools. Improving racial equity in education outcomes is “the civil rights battleground of this century,” Ciresi said. “Unless and until we do this, the America we grew up with will not be there tomorrow.”

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public-policy organization based in St. Paul. Shawn Lewis is a board member of the Pan African Community Endowment of the St. Paul Foundation and a trustee of the Minnesota 4-H Foundation. A version of this column appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2011 - 09:42 am.

    Black kids’ educations have been sacrificed on the alter of the leftist special interests that control every facit of the government school system. That is an undeniable fact, but I’m not going to waste time detailing the long history that makes it so.

    That is because while the public system shoulders a large portion of the blame, it is also an undeniable fact that despite the best efforts of public school administrators and teachers to disengage students from their parents, it’s the parents that still have the biggest influence over who, and what their kids become.

    If a focus on positive role models encourages black *parents*, such curriculums will have a positive effect on their kids academic success. Maybe, just maybe, if their kids come home with questions of black history that excentuate the positive contributions their ancestors have made to our country, parents will get re-engaged.

    I’m all for a focus on positive black studies.

    The question is, will the public school administrators have the guts to re-focus their priorities away from the leftist agends they pour their hearts, souls and billions of tax dollars into to give black kids a chance.

    Recent history says no, but we can hope for change.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/30/2011 - 10:30 am.

    Sadly and ironically, many of the blacks of Southern slavehood knew that they were better than their situation and aspired to overcome it. Even more sadly and ironically, while the opportunities may appear infinitely greater today, the black culture appears to be in a clinical depression, resulting in a hopelessness that should have been more appropriate to the enslaved blacks during that dark time. An entire group of people reflect the symptoms you might hear listed in a commercial for an antidepressant. Without a change in thinking, the statistics will remain horribly unacceptable. I know from personal experience and the experience of loved ones that the first step out of depression is accepting a motivation, even if it’s the last thing you want to do, then keep up the momentum. The problem is that no one on the outside can force that. However, the good news is that there are more and more outsiders willing to help once an individual decides to pull out of the funk, and that can make all the difference in the world.

    I have to say that one of the saddest things I’d ever seen and heard was something I observed while riding the bus. A man and a small child got on. The boy was adorable, wearing mittens that were knitted to look like footballs with the white stitching across the back of his hands. The man was affectionate and patient as the boy, maybe 4 years old, asked a bazillion questions. I, being a sucker for cute kids about that age, was distracted from my reading by his questions and observations. He was plastered to the window pointing out trucks and other boyish eye-candy. Then, out of the blue, he said quite seriously (and I thought I was misunderstanding him at first–apparently, so did the man), “I wanna go to jail.” What? “I wanna be in jail.” He said this in various ways about 4 or 5 times, the man obviously trying to convince him that he shouldn’t say that. Why would this little boy, who was clearly loved by someone to have made or purchased those mittens, who had a man (I don’t know the man’s relationship to the boy) who clearly adored him, wish to go to jail? He was very clearly not old enough to understand what jail really was. Yes, the little boy and the man were black. I fervently hope that the boy was not, in his young, impressionable mind, not idolizing someone that would lead him exactly where he said he wanted to go, particularly when he had an apparent role model riding with him on that bus.

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/30/2011 - 11:30 am.

    We can always count on Mr. Swift to provide penetrating analysis. His latest is that we commie/liberals are somehow causing black parent issues which enhance black student failure. It is true that family environment has a big impact on student performance. But I’m not sure how I have caused the problems with black families.
    I await the details which Mr. Swift has decided would be a waste of our time.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2011 - 01:28 pm.

    I didn’t say leftists caused problems for Black parents, rolf. It’s not that they don’t, but I was making a different point. However, since you’ve asked, I’ll give you this.

    Rachel shared a story, I have another, which should give you something to think about.

    One of the saddest things *I* ever saw occurred at the Rondo community center, where Sandy Pappas, Carlos Mariani, Dave Thune and Cy Thao were holding a “We’re all doomed as doomed can be, and it’s all T-Paw’s fault” pity party.

    After each leftist politician had made the obligatory pandering prostrations for the crowd, several people got up to squirt tears…it was all going according to script.

    Then a woman, I’d guess she was in her very early 20’s got up and made an incredibly articulate, though sadly ignorant, speech about how the loss of government programs was going to ruin her life…she actually said “doomed”.

    I jumped up after she sat down and, speaking directly to her said how sad it was to see an obviously intelligent, well educated woman, not even near the prime of her life admit she was completely helpless.

    I told her not to listen to the leftist snake-oil salesmen sitting so smugly in the front of the room; I told her they and their ilk had no power over her. I told her there was a huge world of opportunity out there; go out and grab your share.

    I was booed, of course, and to my utter astonishment, told I was disrupting a Democrat meeting, and not welcome!

    I don’t know what became of that woman, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find her in the welfare line or the new Frogtown free store.

    You did that rolf. You and your ilk do that to Blacks, Latinos, Asians and every other minority at every opportunity. It’s the passive\aggressive racism of Socialism; it’s how leftists roll.

    Stop it rolf; just stop it.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/30/2011 - 02:24 pm.

    The role of commercial pop culture in this phenomenon cannot be underestimated: loutish “hero” athletes, mindless movies consisting mostly of explosions and car chases, gross-out comedies, rap numbers that glorify “toughness” and sexual promiscuity, and all-around disdain for intellectual pursuits like reading or the arts.

    Pop culture seems to be telling young boys of all races that it’s cool to be violent and ignorant. Now a youth with a stable family and positive role models will be able to overcome this conditioning, but those from unstable families with negative role models will have their worst tendencies reinforced.

    It’s not only black youth who are falling behind. You can see the same phenomenon among working-class white boys.

    Among both black and white youth, more girls than boys attend college.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/30/2011 - 04:44 pm.

    I’d guess that the young woman who felt “doomed” felt that way for a reason. Single mother with no job and no way to pay for child care while looking for one? Student with no way to find the money to finish her degree? Ill with a serious disease but unable to afford health insurance? Low-wage worker with no prospect of advancement without expensive training?

    These are not liberal or conservative problems. They are problems described very well in “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich and are extremely hard for individuals to solve by themselves.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/30/2011 - 08:03 pm.

    I’d really like to stop it, Tom. But I’m crying so hard over what I have done to Blacks, Latinos, Asians and every other minority at every opportunity, that I can’t do a thing.
    But having heard you, I’m going to go out there and grab my share. I’ve decided to start by signing up for the Marcus Bachmann clinic. A few sessions there and I could even become a go-getter conservative like you. Maybe I could even reach Tea Party status and get more than my share!

    Thank you, Rolf

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/03/2011 - 03:07 pm.

    Bernice, the list of woes the woman shared was real familiar to me. I remember what having a lout of a father walk out on me and my four brothers & sisters felt like. I remember what rolling a shopping cart of pop bottles back to the store to pay for dinner felt like. I remember what it felt like to know there wasn’t going to be any help to get me to college.

    What I don’t remember is a comittee of leftist snake-oil salesmen telling me I was doomed unless the government swept down to hold my hand. Instead, I remember my mom telling me the day after I graduated high school that I’d better get up off my ass and get a job because rent was $50 a month.

    I was signed up for the US Navy the next day….no pandering there either, but the best decision I ever made.

    That being said, judging from the complete lack of any cogent response in your retort…I think you’re beyond anything Bachmann can offer; in short, you’re doomed.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/06/2011 - 05:42 pm.

    Good for you for rising above your circumstances, Tom Swift, but things are different now. The real wages of working-class Americans have fallen since 1979, and the kinds of jobs that used to provide an entry to the middle class have either been shipped overseas (the manufacturing jobs that allowed the families of my grade school classmates, both black and white, to own a house and car and send kids to college on one income) or no longer pay enough to live on. Minimum wage pays $1600 a month before deductions. I’d really like to see you live on that if you couldn’t take any of your existing financial resources with you. Millions can find nothing else.

    They should start a business? Yeah, I’ve actually done that, and I don’t regret it. I was able to finance it through a lucky series of coincidences, though, and I actually know it instead of thinking that I’m so wonderful because the right set of circumstances came together for me.

    Even people who are trying to better themselves have it rough. It’s been estimated that 10% of the students at MCTC, which offers mostly vocational courses, are homeless.

  10. Submitted by Donna Misuraca on 10/17/2011 - 01:17 pm.

    I would like to know where I can get my hands on Tavis Smiley’s documentary. I would love for my teachers to see it to motivate them about this issue. I am from a NYC public school and we need more advocates regarding this subject. Mr. Smiley is very correct in saying we cannot solve this problem without taking an honest look at race factors into the reality of lost young boys. White or black, 53% of our students are drop outs is an obscene number.

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