Striving to Succeed, Daring to Fail

The achievement gap between young black and white Americans is like the Energizer Bunny: It keeps going and going and going. And there are latent fears about whether the achievement gap can be closed.

These fears were stirred recently by John McWhorter, a 34-year-old African-American linguistics professor (University of California) whose book, “Losing the Race,” raises the question of self-sabotage. Citing statistics on lingering differences between black and white achievement – that the children of black parents with $50,000 incomes score lower on tests, for instance, than do white children whose parents earn just $10,000 – and reflecting on personal and professional experiences, McWhorter calls black families, communities and educators to address attitudes that push many black students to dismiss achievement as “a white thing.”

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy pushed the argument even further. Writing on Jan. 14 about the near-fatal attack on Dino Sawyer, a recent Job Corps graduate who was beaten and stabbed because he wasn’t wearing designer clothes, Milloy laments, “We have raised a generation of boys who use clothes to cover up their shortcomings and insecurities, believing that a name brand on their backs, butts and feet will somehow make up for what’s missing in their hearts and minds.” Like McWhorter, Milloy concludes that blacks have “the makings of a culture of ignorance that thinks it’s looking good even as it self-destructs.”

Anyone who has worked with young people has probably harbored these feelings. But these concerns should be aired more publicly, and not just on editorial pages. They should be discussed with young people and their families in their communities. What are their conscious and unconscious assessment of odds and opportunities? What can be done to improve the odds? Three other recent stories help answer these questions.

From the Washington Post, Dec. 22: “Promise on the Mend: Aid Pours in After D.C. Students’ Scholarship Hopes are Dashed.” Money flows to aid 40 students after a would-be benefactor reneged on his promise to pay for their college if they graduated from high school. Two facts undergird this story: The youths graduated because they had a tangible opportunity to succeed. And they will go to college because they offered an affluent population a manageable opportunity to do some good with its money. Generic calls for college scholarship pledges would not have netted the same response.

From the Washington Post, Dec. 24: “Prescription for Glory.” Three African-American high school buddies worked their way out of impoverished Newark via a pre-med scholarship fund and received the Essence community service awards. Their journey to success started when one of them found an announcement that Seton Hall University was giving full scholarships to minority students who wanted to become doctors. “B” students who’d had brushes with the law, the friends pledged to stick together. The recruiter sensed their commitment. All three were admitted. The full scholarships didn’t materialize. The recruiter, school and families pieced together loans and grants.

From the New York Times Magazine, Jan. 7: “Algebra Project: Bob Moses Empowers Students.” Moses was a leader in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. For 18 years he has crisscrossed the country, teaching teachers to teach algebra to more than 10,000 low-income minority students in 28 cities. Evaluations have shown that students in the program enroll in upper-level math courses at twice the rate of their peers (topping 90 percent in some areas). The object isn’t just math proficiency; it’s access to college, economic security and full citizenship. Moses has taken the civil rights struggle of the ’60s inside the classroom – organizing communities to demand algebra (read: college prep classes) for their children.

Different stories, different solutions. Each speaks to the importance of opportunity and support. Each suggests power in numbers. Dino stood alone and was beaten. The Newark friends stuck together and succeeded. Classrooms of students worked hard and reaped rewards. Visibly improve the odds for enough African-American young people – taking families, classrooms or city blocks rather than individual students as the unit of change – and they respond. There is safety, and power, in numbers.

Karen Pittman is chairman of Youth Today’s board of directors and senior vice president of the International Youth Foundation. Contact:


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