Sunday, January 14, 2007

Black School Goals Defeated by Victims' Strategy

This is the second post in a series on Juan Williams' new book, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- And What We Can Do About It.

In my earlier post on the book, I discussed what Williams calls the "Blood of Martyrs" strategy, whereby today's African-American leadership takes for granted the black vote, arguing that it's soaked in the blood of slain civil rights martyrs and not to be given away freely. Williams argues that the strategy elevates victimhood and promotes a code of silence against anyone speaking out to denounce the internal cultures working to defeat the advancement today's black poor.

Williams notes that the strategy works in the educational realm as well. He sees a culture of victimhood debilitating the educational aspirations of the black lower third in America. Citing the 2004 speech in which Bill Cosby asked "what the hell good is Brown if nobody wants it" (referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation ruling), Williams argues that the current black leadership fails the black poor by not making educational achievement a defining social issue for upcoming generations. There is bitter irony in this approch, he notes, since the black leadership is generally well-educated and middle class:

That leaves poor black people open to a massive lie -- that education is no big deal. After all, poor black children are most vulnerable to the poisonous idea that excellence in school is for white nerds. The idea is one of the main ingredients of America's minstel-show popular culture. Black characters on TV and in music videos dazzle with ripped muscles, blunt profanity, and brandished guns, but not mental power. The vast majority of "powerful" black people to whom black children are exposed in our popular culture are rapping, telling dirty jokes, acting like gangbangers, playing basketball or football, or are menacing criminals in jails. There is a seductive, serpentine logic at work on young black people. Without anyone saying a word, black youngsters find themselves in a hypnotic, self-defeating trance that has them walking blindly into a black alley of failure. Brainwashed by popular culture to ignore reality, they are in a confused state of mind and doubt the value of schooling. When they watch TV or listen to music they never see people who have succeeded on the basis of education -- black intellectuals, artists, and professionals such as dentists, lawyers, and doctors -- celebrated for their accomplishments. In fact, people with that kind of success are ignored, if not put down as not authentically black, because they don't fit the caricature of black people in the culture.
Williams cites Cosby as arguing that the legacy of the civil right movement is betrayed by the indifference to education among much of today's black youth. Civil rights leaders paved the way to opportunity, Cosby said, but "What did we do with it? The white man, he's laughing, got to be laughing. Fifty percent dropout rate, rest of them in prison."

From my own experience teaching, I know not all African-American students fit these negative images. What's troubling, though, is that so many do. Current black education issues form the basis for the most important civil rights battles in coming years. Williams cites Cosby as arguing that solutions can be found not only in better schools in poor black communities, but also in better parenting at home, which holds the greatest promise for returning hope to today's black kids.

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