The Cultural Sabotage of Black Students

A year or so ago a handful of black and white conservatives and some prominent educators churned out legions of op-ed articles and several best-selling books, and appeared regularly on TV talk shows, claiming that young blacks were hopeless educational cripples. The proof of black incompetence supposedly was their miserably low-test scores, high dropout, and suspension and expulsion rates.

Black students were educational failures, the experts maintained, because they are in perpetual rebellion against white values and authority, they fritter away countless hours blaming whites for their problems, and go into near catatonia at the prospect of studying hard and completing their homework assignments, thus risking being ridiculed by their peers as "acting white."

This thinly disguised and deeply flawed rehash of the old stereotype of black intellectual inferiority went virtually unchallenged in high academic circles. But that stereotype has again been shattered. A comprehensive survey of student attitudes by the Minority Student Achievement Network, an educational advocacy group, found that black and Latino students were as motivated, studied as hard, and were as serious about graduating as whites.

This is not the first study to explode the myth of inherent black educational failure. A special Census report in February, 1999, on black achievement, and the National Urban League's State of Black America recent annual reports found that more than eighty percent of blacks graduate from high school, their drop-out rates are only marginally higher than that of whites, and a significant and rising number of black high school graduates go on to college.

During the nightmare years of legal segregation, blacks repeatedly said that they prized education above everything else, and regarded it as their children's passport out of poverty and segregation. Generations of black students attended de-facto segregated inner city schools and legally segregated schools in the South. Most graduated, went on to college, and became successful in business and the professions.

Teachers who were dedicated and determined that they attain excellence in their studies taught them. These teachers expected and demanded that their students perform up to the same level as white students. They challenged the students to learn, set specific goals, demanded their full participation in classroom work, gave them positive and continual direction and reinforcement. Even though far more young blacks than whites are in prison, on parole or probation, the overwhelming majority have avoided the dead end cycle of crime, drugs, gangs, and violence. They have seen the personal and social devastation that the streets have wreaked on friends, relatives, and acquaintances and they want no part of it.

The black students that tumble through the educational crack do so not because they are stupid, lack ambition, or are terrified of seeming too smart. They fail because they are trapped in crumbling, underserved public schools, stocked with inexperienced, insensitive, or indifferent teachers and administrators, and because they lack parental and social supports. Their failure provides grist for conservative educational ideologues to victim-bash and propagate the phony notion of chronic black educational incompetence.

But while the Network study is the latest to refute the educational myths and lies about blacks, the big question is why do so many educators and much of the public still believe these falsehoods? Indeed, some teachers expressed shock and disbelief at the Network study's finding, and even questioned its validity.

The media is an obvious culprit. The relentless barrage of stories on ghetto car jackers, gang bangers, drive-by-shooters, and dope dealers reinforces racial stereotypes and stokes public fear of young blacks. But fuming at the white media for perpetuating negative images of young blacks skirts a huge point. Many African-Americans perpetuate the same negative stereotypes that the "white press" does about themselves and young blacks. They are just as culpable in believing the racially warped media images.

Some blacks in the rap and hip-hop world are also complicit in fanning the negative stereotype. The rap moguls have reaped king's ransoms peddling their music-video-cartoon version of the thug life. The rebellious young of all colors that shell out billions to enrich them are almost totally mindless of the social complexities, and the artistic and intellectual richness of the black experience. Even more tragic, some blacks further bolster the thug life stereotype by committing or winding up as victims of violence. The murders of rap icons Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG, and Jam Master Jay, and the legal contortions of P.Diddy have been the stuff of cheap media sensationalism.

While most young blacks do not self-describe themselves as gangsters, many do identify with the swagger, clothes, rhetoric, sex and violent antics of gang members, and some rappers. This further deepens the public belief that all young blacks are thugs, and of course, educational losers. The Network's study buries the dangerous myth that black students are inherently "anti-school." But the way to permanently bury the myth, and end the sabotage and self-sabotage of black students, is to provide all of them with the educational resources and tools to succeed.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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