Want to Prompt Action on Black Male Achievement Gap? Take Out the Word “Black”

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“Black males are in crisis.” So begins a new study from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), which finds that black males have fewer opportunities and perform lower than their peers on nearly every indicator, from infant mortality through to career prospects.

The data are appalling. I am not sure, however, that there is anything CGCS or any other advocacy group can do to make the country believe that this is a crisis.  As the authors note, the story has been told before.  We know the gaps.  America can do and should do better.

But it won’t.

Why not?  Because America, writ large, is not embarrassed by these data.  Parsing and packaging the data won’t change minds.  The data will make those sympathetic more depressed.  Even more dangerous, they will make those who are unsympathetic more strident and might make those who were undecided more concerned that nothing can be done.

The report reviews factors that impede readiness to learn, such as poverty and lack of access to health insurance. Most Americans know this; what they don’t know is that these factors can be overcome with programs that more than pay for themselves.  Restating the problem without offering clear evidence of cost-effective solutions is not an effective way to generate momentum.

I cut my teeth on the black teenage pregnancy problem which, in the 80s, was really the black teen out-of-wedlock birth problem.  For years, the same case was made about why black teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births rates were so high.  Not much was done.

Then two things happened:  the white rates got into the danger range, and data analyses showed that birth rates to black, white, and Hispanic teens were virtually identical once you controlled for family poverty and basic skills.

Combining these two pieces of information allowed me and other advocates to recast the problem.  Teen pregnancy was no longer a black problem.  It was a national problem, and the solution—beyond sex education and contraceptives—was to ensure that young people had good life options in their present (for example, addressing the effects of poverty) and their futures (such as preparing them for college and work). This Life Options movement always had low-income and minority teens as its target, but it never had them in its title.

I have mixed feelings about calling for a White House Council on Young Black Males as the CGCS does, because the problems articulated in its report reflect a cascade of system, family and community failures that start at birth and march through to young adulthood.  In the 90s, many thought that the solution was not to create population-specific interventions (such as special programs for black males), but to increase our capacity to screen all children for risk factors at every stage of their development and increase our commitment to do something to address the risks that those screenings found.

That was naïve. It didn’t take long to realize that in schools where 90 percent of the students required Individual Education Plans (IEPs), it made no sense to do IEPs—we needed school improvement plans.

And we need to get beyond just school data, to data about students that also reflects their broader well-being and competencies, and the quality and quantity of supports they get from family, community and school.

The call for more consistent disaggregation of data to expose the gaps in services makes sense, but let’s go further: we need not just school data, but data on students that reflects not just their academic status but their broader well-being and competencies and data on the quality and quantity of supports they are receiving from family, community and school.

In order to get to right solutions, we need data that allow us to compare outcomes (like student progress) to outputs (like school, family and community supports).

There are other worthwhile recommendations, but my main objection is this: take out the word Black.

I desperately want this country to be committed to closing the gaps between white and black males’ access to good schools, counselors, mentors, neighborhoods, job opportunities.  But it’s one thing to explicitly create these assets for black males and another to redouble efforts to create these assets in the schools and communities that need them the most, then make sure that they reach black males.

I’m not sure that the country has the public will needed to achieve the second goal.  I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have the commitment to achieve the first.

During my short stint running the President’s Crime Prevention Council, I learned very quickly that the emotion that propels most Americans to think about black males is fear and that the solution that calms fear is not education but prison.  The fact that prison costs more than education was not compelling to those driven by fear because they were convinced that the young people who would avail themselves of the opportunities were not the dropouts who would mug them.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment, which produces the website Spark Action.