Blacks, Whites and the R-word: Continuing the Conversation

The heavy volume of thoughtful feedback I received from white brothers and sisters from all over the country in response to a piece I wrote on race matters in general and white-skin privilege in particular is evidence of their basic goodness and sincerity. Let's keep the dialogue going.

One respondent wrote: "I do not for one moment deny the existence of racism, but a person's color is coming to be of absolutely no importance economically. Education is the key to the new economy." Another wrote: "At least in the area of education, until black parents start to take their kid's education seriously, they are doing far more damage to their children than any 'institutional racism' could achieve."

The assumption here is that black folks don't take education seriously, which is, well, a white lie. As a black who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in East Oakland, hanging out with an assortment of people including "thugs," and having been fortunate enough to have traveled to places all over this great country, spending lots of time in black churches, barbershops, living rooms and kitchens, I can tell you that education is the number one item on the social progress agenda of most black parents and all black leaders.

This has been the case since slaves were first brought to this country -- from Frederick Douglass to Sojourner Truth to Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X to Fannie Lou Hamer on down to Jesse Jackson and even Al Sharpton.

White Americans seem to confuse the message they hear from black leaders in the mainstream press as being the same one given to blacks in churches and other community-gathering places, as if young Americans of African descent take the mainstream press as seriously as does mainstream America.

As the grandson of a hard-working black woman with little formal education, who as a hired domestic helped raise white kids while their parents enjoyed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it's frustrating to be constantly lectured on the importance of a good work ethic and the value of education.

The poor academic performance of some black students has more to do with a sense of hopelessness in future prospects. For the 20 percent or so of the population who are "professionals," education is certainly important. But in the real world, America needs a pool of cheap labor to work in the service sector and other menial jobs.

Our schools are designed to prepare working-class folk for these mind-numbing and disempowering roles. To pretend as if everyone in America can start a business, climb the corporate ladder or be some computer geek is a utopian dream that fuels the despair of those students who have lost interest in education.

Notice I didn't say lost interest in learning, which is a natural human inclination. Education in America has become a commodity and, therefore, its true aim has been distorted. Social critic Neil Postman makes the keen observation that kids go into schools as question marks and come out as periods.

This is because our economic system needs the majority of its citizens to follow orders without question and to be spend-happy consumers. Critical thinkers are a threat to such a hierarchy because critical thinkers have the nerve to imagine alternatives. To pay lip service to "getting a good education," in light of these realities, doesn't do much to advance anything except the false sense of pride of those who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, having done so because they were provided the boots in the first place.

Isn't it possible that some black parents aren't more involved in their kids education because they're too busy trying to make ends meet, which is also a problem for many white parents also not involved in their children's education? As a reporter who covers schools (among other things) in an area that is 97 percent white, I can assure you: blacks have no monopoly on lack of parental involvement.

In my own experience, I could have done better in certain subjects in school if I had sought help. It wasn't that I thought doing well in school was "acting white," as conservatives love to fantasize because Thomas Sowell says so. Given the white-supremacist myth that blacks are intellectually inferior, I thought asking for help was an admission of inferiority.

I was also rebelling against what I considered to be the arbitrary whims of my teachers, having received mostly mediocre grades even though I did reasonably well on most tests and was recognized by instructors and peers as a class discussion leader. I concluded that getting good grades had more to do with following the teacher's orders (homework) than with being smart. As foolish as such thinking was, it didn't have a damn thing to do with "not valuing education." My story is not unique.

White-skin privilege is never having to think about this unless some loud mouth like me brings it up. Of course, that's not a luxury black folks can afford. Stay tuned.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at

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