The War Against Black Children


kingdrew boys

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In a predominantly Black South L.A. continuation school class packed with eleventh and twelfth grade girls, only half want to go to college, few can name role models of color and virtually none have been exposed to literature by women of color.  Demonized as the most expendable of the expendable, Black continuation school students are routinely branded as too “at risk”, “challenged” and “deficit-laden” to be “college material”.  Coming from backgrounds of abuse, incarceration, foster care and homelessness, these youth are already written off as budding welfare queens and baby mamas.  They are at the epicenter of the war against Black children. 

State-sanctioned terrorism against Black children is commonly understood as murder, harassment, and racial profiling–overt acts of violence which elicit marches, pickets, mass resistance and moral outrage.  Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike fell all over themselves to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic murder of four African American girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.  Such overt acts of organized white supremacist terrorism against Black children have largely receded.  Instead, they have been replaced by the socially acceptable state violence of school-to-prison pipelining, racist low expectations and the illusion of equal educational opportunity in the “post Jim Crow” era of re-segregated schools.

 Last spring, in an offensive commencement speech to Morehouse College graduates, President Obama launched into his standard refrain about personal responsibility, sagging pants and absent fathers.  Checking shiftless Black youth has long been one of his favorite presidential past-times.  As progressive Black pundits have noted, this narrative not only plays well in Peoria, but on the global stage.  For a nation brainwashed into believing the U.S. is an exceptionalist beacon, the underachievement of black students has become both shorthand for and explanation of its low standing in academic rankings.  According to this view, the achievement gap between (lazy) Black and (enterprising) white and Asian students “drags” down the U.S.’ global academic standing.  Steeped in a culture of pathology, native-born African American youth “squander” the opportunities seized upon by newly arrived immigrant students of color.

 As a 2013 high school graduate and first generation college student of mixed heritage, Ashley Jones is well acquainted with toxic anti-black propaganda.  She says, “Being Black and Thai…if I do well on a test or in class, then some people will comment, ‘that’s your Asian side.’”  Jones comes from a South L.A. school where it is not uncommon for teachers to reflexively track students into college prep, honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes according to race and ethnicity.  She comments, “If you were to ask these same people about race, they would tell you we are all equal and anyone can achieve anything they set their mind to, but when you listen to them talk at nutrition and lunch, you hear Blackness constantly associated with violence,  ‘being ghetto’, and a lack of intellectual abilities.” A recent L.A. Times article about Kashawn Campbell, a high-achieving African American graduate of South L.A.’s Jefferson High School who struggled to get C’s and D’s at UC Berkeley, exemplifies these sentiments.  The over 700 responses on the article’s comment thread were relentless: the young man’s plight was due to inflated expectations, laziness, outright sloth, and the natural intellectual inferiority of African Americans.  Even the National Review picked up the piece and dubbed it an example of a “Devastating Affirmative Action Failure.” Why, many commenters howled contemptuously, didn’t Campbell’s slot go to a “real” achiever, i.e., a hardworking Asian or white student who genuinely deserved it? Missing from the near universal condemnations of affirmative action was the fact that Campbell’s freshman performance at UC Berkeley reflects the deficits of a neo-liberal public education system in which even high achieving students of color may be grossly under-prepared for college work.  High stakes tests, unqualified teachers, culturally un-responsive curricula, overcrowded classrooms, long term subs, high student-to-college counselor ratios and school climates that over-suspend, criminalize and push-out Black and Latino youth all influence whether a student thrives or languishes in a rigorous college environment.  According to the Education Trust West, Only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university if (these) current trends continue.”

Yet the myth of the lazy Black student, mascot of a shiftless pathological culture, remains a powerful theme in anti-public education and anti-affirmative action propaganda.  Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) entered into an agreement with several Alabama school districts to redress the underrepresentation of African American students in advanced, honors and AP course enrollment (as well as test-taking).  The OCR found that advanced math was offered in the seventh grade at white middle schools, but wasn’t offered at predominantly African American middle schools.  AP courses are gatekeepers to top colleges and universities.  A high score on an AP test allows a student to receive college course credit.  Nationwide, African American students are less likely to be enrolled in AP classes, especially the “elite” math and science courses that are virtually required for admission to top STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. At 14% of the U.S. student population Black students comprise only 3% of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams.  According to the College Board, “The vast majority of Black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.”Persistently racist attitudes about the academic and intellectual capacity of black students are a major barrier to their placement in AP and college prep courses.  In schools with diverse multicultural populations Black students are still routinely consigned to less challenging courses (even if they have high GPAs) and stereotyped as not being as capable as other students of color.

As one private college counselor argues, “With competition for college admission increasing every year, many students fear they won’t be accepted without five or six AP courses, and when it comes to the most selective colleges, they are probably right.”  Eighty three percent of colleges ranked grades in college prep courses as the single most important factor in their admissions decisions.  According to the OCR, “enrollment in middle school advanced math courses – and, in particular, in 8th grade Algebra—sets students on the path for completion of the District’s highest level course offerings in math and science, including AP courses.”   

Nationwide, African American students struggle with and are underrepresented in eighth grade Algebra courses.  In Silicon Valley, fount of American technological innovation, fewer than 25% of black and Latino students successfully complete Algebra. Moreover, only 20% of Latinos and 22% of African-Americans “graduate with passing grades in the courses that are required” for admission to UC and Cal State universities.  Ultimately, the predominantly white and Asian make-up of Silicon Valley companies reflects the insidious ramifications of these disparities.  Passing Algebra is a major predictor of later success in college.  But if students of color don’t have access to college prep math in middle school (and then transition to high school taking less rigorous courses), gaining admission to and staying in college, much less graduating from college, will never be a viable option. 

Despite the mainstreaming of discourse about “diversity” and culturally responsive teaching, there is little focus on the unrelenting violence anti-black racism inflicts upon even high-achieving Black students.  The vitriol expressed toward UC Berkeley student Kashawn Campbell reflects the rawness of mainstream views about the moral failings of all Black students.  Here, “even” high-achieving Black students are presumed to be “guilty” representatives of communities that reject presumably accepted “American” standards for academic success and personal uplift.  Exceptional Black folk may delude themselves into believing that they can successfully manipulate this equation in their favor.  But Obama’s destructive Talented Tenth palliatives merely reflect this nation’s deep investment in violence against Black children.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.

The War Against Black Children

13 thoughts on “The War Against Black Children

  1. 1

    Sikivu, as always you do a wonderful job expressing things that many minority people like myself often don’t know how to say. Your article illustrates how non-overt racism destroys the lives of young people before they’ve even begun. From experience, I’ve learned that four things besides talent play a major role in achievement: confidence, presentation, mentoring, and focus.

    I’ve both observed and experienced how the subtle racism of low expectations destroys the confidence of colored kids, especially girls, in American classrooms. This is a sure-fire recipe for creating underachievers.

    As for presentation, it’s a sheer impossibility to deliver learning content to students in an even remotely captivating way, if your classrooms are overcrowded and your teachers barely qualified. The latter is a particular problem if the best teachers – including teachers of color – are drawn to higher-paying, better equipped, more trouble-free, upscale neighborhood schools that are predominantly white. In such an environment, you’ll have at least one or two subjects delivered in a fascinating enough way for you to seriously consider studying them. That won’t happen if your teachers don’t involve their students – and colored students even less – and give the general impression that they’re neither really qualified nor really motivated, and just want to get it over with. There needs to be affirmative action not just for individuals, but also for schools in minority neighborhoods, to spread teaching skills more evenly.

    In my opinion, you really can’t overstate the college prep and AP issues. Most people won’t be able to master a subject completely on their own. At some point, you’ll have questions, there will be things you’ve missed, you’ll want to go further than what your textbooks say, and you’ll need guidance to do it. I’m not talking about luxuries such as private tutors, but mentoring at least in a classroom setting is vitally important.

    And so is focus. I admire people who can work on intellectual matters while their economic situation is uncertain. The ability to close your mind to anything other than the subject at hand is a rare gift. Most people, including myself, lack that gift. Tuition fees that require you to either incur massive debt or take on an almost-full-time job are prohibitive for the majority of prospective college students from non-affluent backgrounds. Which creates another selection criterion that favors the majority over minorities. This may make right-wingers mad with anger, but I strongly believe all education including higher education should be paid for by the state with income tax money. In my opinion, this should be the next big project in the U.S. after healthcare.

    On a lighter note, your book has done one hell of a job keeping me up all night! Now thanks to you, I have a grumbling spouse, I can hardly keep my eyes open, and I’ll be on kids duty at our day care group in an hour. And I don’t even regret it! You have no idea how much of what you say can be transposed to both, the situation of the Romani people as well as Ex-Muslims. I’ve been trying to formulate a humanist, socialist approach to those matters for some time, and your book is really helpful.

    I’ll be back on the internet next week, and I hope I’ll have the detailed review I promised you on twitter ready by then. Thanks again for all the inspiration!

    1. 1.1

      Much appreciated as always double-m. I agree wholeheartedly that mentoring and focus play a big role in achievement. I’ve seen it with my students whose brilliance is routinely ignored, marginalized and ghettoized because they are automatically demonized as criminals with no purchase on “civilized” American values, much less intellectualism and critical thinking. Our new Women’s Leadership Project class at Duke Ellington continuation school in South L.A. is bursting with gifted naturally analytical youth who have egregiously been programmed to believe that real scholars are Ivory Tower white academics. Your point about skyrocketing tuition is especially relevant here in California where many of my community college mentees must commute back and forth from two and sometimes three campuses just to hustle enough courses for a full load. The attrition rate amongst th the predominantly first generation college population is high and the chance of finding caring mentors/faculty to help shepherd them through the process is low.

      I’m gratified to hear that the book is resonating with you on so many levels (sorry about the sleep deprivation!) and am looking forward to your review!

  2. 2

    One of the biggest causes of this problem is almost never addressed – and deliberately avoided by those who want to blame the poor for their situation.

    In Canada, the provincial and federal governments pool the tax money collected for public education, then distribute it to school districts on a per student basis. Schools and districts with more students will get more money and can buy better materials, but even the smallest rural schools in the poorest areas can still afford all the materials needed for properly educating children. It’s not perfect, but it works.

    Not so in the US. Tax revenues (mostly property taxes) stay locally, so wealthy areas keep their money and poorer areas have a much less tax revenue to spend. Liars pretend that tax money is being misspent on schools, that “teachers are overpaid” and “the kids are lazy”. They’re only overpaid and money wasted where it’s spent on luxuries, in the rich districts. The kids in poorer schools never have a chance in a system designed to fail (them).

    Poverty begets poverty. If parents in the US have lower incomes and poorer housing, schools have no money to spend on education. Public schools (K-12) should be collectively funded the same way that police, fire departments, and other government services are. This isn’t about “socialism”, it’s about ensuring all members of society are able to contribute and improve the country. Funny how some who claim to want it do all they can to prevent it.

    1. 2.1

      Great points. In California Proposition 13 effectively eliminated the property tax base for education funding. So, as a result, the state has weathered crisis after crisis with both K-12 and higher education sacrificed on the altar of criminally low taxes for older homeowners with no children in public schools. Every generation in exceptionalist Americana the “regime change” is the same: welfare for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.

      1. And yet, it is those older homeowners who expect the children to work and pay taxes which fund their pension benefits. With what, exactly, when the kids don’t have the skills to earn high wages and pay the taxes needed?

        They are yet another leech on the government coffers, the very people who criticize the working poor and those on welfare. How libertarian of them, wanting the benefits of a social contract without accepting the responsibilities that come with it.

  3. 3

    As a white kid in a very diverse 6th grade class circa 1987, I was a beneficiary of desegregation programs. I took a bus from halfway across Seattle to go to a a school where I could experience the humanity of people different from myself.

    All those programs went bye-bye. Now it’s harder for white kids to think of people of different races as being similar to themselves, which makes it easier to be racist as they grow up. I have been avoiding political news as much as humanly possible, and crap like that Obama speech is why. What a fuckin’ jerk. Jeezus.

    I want my socialistkenyanmuslimmanchuriancandidate already. WTF, it’s like Fox News was lying or something.

    1. 3.1

      Same here — I vividly recall white kids being bused to my neighborhood in the 70s. Lots of white kids on the old class photos. Sometime during the Carter administration the white families expended their wages of whiteness and “fled” to the Valley and further west to private schools and the few remaining “elite” public schools in the LAUSD.

  4. 5

    And then they do their damnedest to take away more and more funding for the predominantly black schools. 20 years ago I had to fight to get my son into AP classes after he’d gotten exactly the same grades as his white best friend. Their reasoning was ‘what if he fails’. Why in the hell weren’t they concerned about his friend failing? They put him into the AP class after I raised hell, and he did well.

    1. 5.1

      Exactly: What if anyone fails? I mean, you could look at it in an equally stupid and somewhat opposite fashion: Gee, what motivates the privileged white kid to excel? We should admit more Black kids because it would be expected that they would want to increase their functional privilege over what society limits them to.

      Reason: How does it work? (Not so well sometimes without facts, that’s for sure.)

    2. 5.2

      Assuming that you are not Black. I would like to express how I feel about “you people” take it anyway you like. Have you ever stop to think of how some of us Blacks think about you and your “people”? I guess not. I personally is offended by majority of people that look like you. Why do you and your “people” automatically think that you are appealing to everyone? My friend, you are living in a “fools paradise” if you think that. Everything about you and yours are disruptive. Especially the “straight” hair you sport. On many occasions, I find myself dodging dirty “straight” hair at the copy machine, when someone bends down (who looks like you, by the way), when I encounter someone in the elevator, everything is discussing about them. Do you think you have a monopoly on “its just war on everything about them?” You want to talk about disruption, look in the miror. Am I the only Black person who see this as a problem. Some 2nd rate differential, Hillbilly dissing us. You got a nerve.The corporate medias and other propaganda machines have served you well. They have promoted and perpetuated your race to such an extent, that you actually believe the rubbish. You actually believe and have imagined that your race deserves all the accolades for just being present in this world. While promoting and perpuating the idea that one race deserves all the acolades, and the other races (especially Black) should be demonized, they have succeeded in creating people like you. They have to know the damage they do when they continue to express these prejudices, day after day. They have to know that feebleminded fools like you, who takes it seriously are out there. I hope you are not an Atheist. I would be embarrassed to know you are a fellow Atheist. Your lack of knowledge and hatred coupled,is frightening. The fact that someone like you walk among us, makes me sick to my stomach. I apologize to the decent human beings, who might have come accross this hurtful and evil comment, written by a misinformed, uncivilized imbecile.

  5. 6

    As a non-traditional student of African decent pursuing a less labor intensive means of making a living(English teacher would love red marking this!), my experiences confirm these dynamics that many may see as being limited to our youth. If I knew how to place double-m’s statement concerning classrooms settings and teachers in these comments–they would be “HERE!” At the community college I attend, double-m could have been sitting right there gathering all the info for her (his?) post.

  6. 7

    Back in the days of castles and dragons (the early ’70s) I attended a Catholic high school. It was a very racially and culturally diverse school, but gradually I came to realize that the parents of black students in particular were just scraping by in order to send their children to a school where they wouldn’t automatically be expected to fail because they were black. It saddens me and disgusts me that the black children of today seem no better off in public school than they were 40 years ago.

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