A College Degree Won’t Make You Free

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A lot of people who’ve read Carter G. Woodson’s famous 1933 treatise, The Mis-Education of the Negro, believe the book’s message is still applicable today. The oft-quoted passage that perhaps evokes this thought more than any other is this:

“When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.

“You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

If anyone needed proof that Woodson’s back door theory still holds up in this so-called “post-racial” era, fresh evidence is found in a recent New York Times article, In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap.

There was much to perturb the soul in this article, which sought to shine light on the issue of why racial gaps in employment not only persist, but are in fact more pronounced among America’s college-degree holders than among those without degrees.

“Education, it seems, does not level the playing field,” New York Times national correspondent Michael Luo wrote in one of the more striking passages of the article. “In fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.”

Luo bases his claim on an analysis of figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which show that the unemployment rate is wider between black and white college degree holders than it is between blacks and whites who don’t have college degrees.

The article failed to note that college degree-holders still have higher overall employment rates than do than non-degree holders, irrespective of race or ethnicity. Luo says he intended to focus not on the disparity between the educated and uneducated, but on the issue of parity among educational equals.

 “It wouldn't have hurt to add a clause about how the [unemployment] rates are lower for the more educated,” Luo told Youth Today via e-mail. “But my focus was on the evenness of the playing field, the disparity between blacks and whites by educational category.”

As America’s college access movement continues to build a case that a college degree is the means to a better life, the quantitative data in the article is particularly useful. However, as other aspects of the article demonstrate, the benefits of holding a college degree must be balanced with some harsh realities that transcend what data can show.

Graduates Scrap Blackness

The most disturbing part of the article is not its quantitative data, but rather its qualitative content – in particular, Luo’s eye-opening interviews with black male college degree-holders and what they’ve been doing to try to secure a place in America’s corporate structure.

If you read the article with Woodson’s back-door theory in mind, you’ll find interviews with college-educated black men who are not only economically broke, but spiritually broken as they seemingly search for what Dr. Woodson referred to as their “proper place,” even if it means going through the “back door.”

Exhibit A: Johnny R. Williams, 30, a former JPMorgan Chase employee and University of Chicago business school graduate who, after not finding much success getting job interviews, decided to “retool his résumé, scrubbing it of any details that might tip off his skin color. His membership, for instance, in the African-American business students association? Deleted.”

“If they’re going to X me,” Mr. Williams told Luo, “I’d like to at least get in the door first.”

Exhibit B: Barry Jabbar Sykes, 37, holder of a mathematics degree from Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, “now uses Barry J. Sykes in his ongoing search for an information technology position, even though he has gone by Jabbar his whole life,” Luo’s article states.

Jabbar, incidentally, means “mighty” and “comforter of the oppressed and distressed” in Arabic and is actually considered one of the attributes of God by adherents of the Islamic faith. But it seems Mr. Sykes been conditioned to bank on the luck o’ the Irish instead.

Exhibit C: Winston Bell, 40, of Cleveland, who has been searching for a job in business development, said of his mindset during a job search: “You want to be a nonthreatening, professional black guy.” Bell took things a step further and “drew an analogy to several prominent black sports broadcasters.”

“You don’t want to be Stephen A. Smith. You want to be Bryant Gumbel. You don’t even want to be Stuart Scott. You don’t want to be, ‘Booyah.’ ”

Mis-Education Redux

When Luo found black men trying to comport themselves professionally and socially in order to fit into a corporate world that is run largely by whites, some may have seen it merely as a case of individuals trying to do what it takes to pay the bills.

Be that as it may, it’s hard to refute the notion that this is concrete evidence of black men engaging in self-emasculation, obliterating their black identities and essentially Caucasianizing themselves, if you will, in order to find their “proper place” in this so-called “post-racial” era that was supposedly ushered in by the presidency of Barack Obama.

The relevance for youth workers and college access advocates is this: If this is what it takes to get or keep a job in today’s economy – in addition to a college degree – and if this is the kind of future that youths who go to college have to look forward to when they graduate, then maybe being a college graduate is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if it doesn’t enable or empower a person to be who he really is.

If education leads to inequality and psychological enslavement, like that shown in Luo’s article, then it’s not an education at all.

It is, as Woodson stated so profoundly back in 1933, a mis-education.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He can be reached at Jamaal@youthtoday.org