Friday, August 15, 2008

A White Liberal's Nightmare

I just came back from a week-long vacation with my in-laws at Turks and Caicos (look that up on a map, kids...I had to). My mother and father in-law are the only people whom I know well who routinely watch the Fox "News" channel, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and believe pretty much every opinion on both.

I'll bet you think you know where this blog's going, but you don't.

Eileen never wants me to talk politics with them, but I enjoy it. I am usually able to keep emotions out of it and ask questions that convey a genuine interest for their views. It's fascinating to me to see how the "other side" thinks. My most recent epiphany was that the real marvel of American right-wing talk radio and ideology is that it has convinced the most powerful people in our society, affluent white people, that they are victims.

Lazy welfare recipients are eating their tax dollars. Illegal immigrants come here to sell drugs and commit crimes. Blacks are racist because 85% of them are voting for Obama, apparently solely because he's African-American.

All of these are either paraphrases or direct quotes of things they said, and I disagreed with all of them.

However, there were two stories in the newspaper today that troubled me because when I was reading them, I found myself echoing many of the sentiments held by my in-laws.

Here's the first one, from the front page of the Chron:

If you're too lazy to read it, I'll summarize: All kids are doing better on standardized tests (a topic which is a different rant for a different day), but black students continue to lag farther behind all other ethnic groups in every area. Nobody really has any solutions for this, other than to continue to "monitor" the schools where it's really a problem and those where it's not as much of a problem.

The issue is especially troubling because in general, reading these test scores doesn't take a degree in education. Work in the education system, or read the chapter in the splendid book Freakonomics, and you'll see that almost without exception, student achievement, particularly on standardized tests, goes hand-in-hand with parent income and education level. This is true across race and gender lines.

Why are "good" schools good? Because the kids there have been instructed from an early age that education is important. It's been modeled to them as the way to be successful in our society. It has very little to do with the teachers at the school (sigh), the programs, or the school itself.

The troubling thing about the recent African-American test scores is that they don't hold true to this ideal. Even black kids with relatively affluent parents are performing at a level below other groups, even in some cases Latinos who are still learning the language.

So what the fuck is wrong?

Well, first we should throw away two possible explanations:

1. "Blacks are naturally not as intelligent. It's a genetic thing." This is so beyond stupid that it's not worth discussing. It has been proved by science ad ifinitum. I'm almost sorry I brought it up, but I know it's out there in some circles of thought, so it needed to be addressed.

2. "Schools/teachers are discriminating against blacks somehow, and the tests are biased against them." This one's a lot harder to easily disprove, and it dredges up bad memories of the whole "ebonics" controversy of a decade ago in Oakland. From a purely anecdotal point of view, I can assure Joe Public that if there are some sort of discriminatory policies/teachers in public schools, I have never witnessed them or even heard whispers of them. Great pains are taken in California schools to fairly represent (I would say in some cases even over-represent) all minorities, be they Special Ed, ESL, or ethnic minorities. The fear of lawsuit is palpable.

This school of thought also doesn't ably explain why African-Americans are unique in their lack of progress on the tests. Even taking into account the suspect argument that the black community speaks "another language," that doesn't explicate why kids who TRULY speak in a different tongue like Latinos and particularly Asians score much higher.

So, again, what the fuck?

Here's where I start to cringe. But if I'm going to be honest (and I feel that's best in one's own blog), then there's really only one conclusion to come to: African-American culture is to blame. Such are my liberal credentials and white guilt reflexes that it was truly hard for me to write that sentence. But it needs to be said. For whatever reason, education is not valued in the black community, or at least it's not valued enough.

Why not? That's a good question, and I don't know the whole answer. Certainly three centuries of discrimination (and bondage, of course) play some role. The U.S. told this group of people they were second-class citizens (or not citizens at all) for so long that many of them started to accept that role. However, and I hate to sound like a conservative...I really do, but that's a reason, not an excuse. There's nothing that can be done about that now (and please, no talk of reparations). It's time to take control of their own destinies and carve out a place for themselves.

Is the "hip-hop" culture at fault? I'd say at least "probably," although it's a useless query. Whenever I hear some rapper interviewed about the insanely immoral content of his lyrics (all the usual: womanizing, greed, violence), he invariably responds with: "I'm just refecting what's going on out there in the streets, where I come from." I have no doubt he's right, although the word I'd use is "glamorizing." I saw a kid at summer school with shiny plastic studs glued to his backpack to spell out "Get Money." By the way, this kid wasn't black, but he was clearly emulating "black" culture.

The problem is what to do about that. You can't outlaw music, or fashion, or a culture, nor should you. It must shift on its own. I really have no idea how to speed that change up. More money and resources toward education, particularly in inner-city schools would help, but it wouldn't solve the problem completely.

The main reason for that is something that typically only blacks can say and get away with, but unfortunately I believe it to be true: Ignorance is not just acceptable in many segments of the black community, but lauded. Chris Rock has a great riff about this mindset amidst his groundbreaking routine that I will not name because I already feel guilty enough. But one of his jokes involves an ignorant African-American being proud not to know the capital of Zaire: "I don't know that shee-it!" He also makes a joke about how to keep one's money safe: hide it in one's books.

These are exaggerations (sort of), but the point is clear. Many blacks are being left behind due to their own cultural outlook that school's not important. There are even more troubling elements of this mores, including the stats that show that African-Americans are far more likely to get std's, become pregnant as teens, go to prison, or be killed violently than any other group.

Again, I have little idea what's to be done about this. I applaud Barack Obama for pointing out recently that blacks must be better parents, particularly the fathers. That can only be a good thing: successful blacks modeling dignified, intellectual, productive behavior. They have the "street cred" that people of my particular pigmentation don't.

Unfortunately, many black leaders have figured out the way to remain popular is to wait around for a second-rate comic or disc jockey to say something bigoted and then swoop in with incendiary cries of racism. Jesse Jackson claimed he wanted to snip Obama's nuts off for having the gall to say that black fathers need to do a better job of sticking around.

This mentality is nearly as poisonous, because it ignores the much bigger problem: The black community needs to get its house in order. There are many of us who would love nothing better than to stop defending African-American culture and citizenry and start pointing out its achievements.

Whew! Again, I have exceeded my word count limit. This was meant to be a two-parter, but more ramblings on a somewhat different subject would be too much for one posting. On this entry in particular, I'd love to hear people's thoughts. Don't worry about sparing my (white supremicist) feelings.

1 comment:

PepperJack said...

When my dad and I taught at Prospects (one of those optimistically-named alternative ed. schools) in Antioch, we both had a number of gifted African-American students who left their respective "regular" high schools because they took so much grief for "acting white." Who hassled them? Other blacks. What was construed as "acting white"? Studying. As teachers, and Andrew can attest to this, we see this sort of behavior from a lot of white cliques (goths, metalheads, slackers, wiggers, etc.), no account losers pulling down any of their own who are trying to succeed. However, there's no serious stigma against studious white kids, at least in suburban schools. Unfortunately, it seems like there's only one popular path in black youth culture, and as Andrew points out, while hip-hop culture can't be blamed for creating it, they're doing nothing to discourage it. Besides, who would seriously rather listen to somebody rhyme about acing the SATs than pimpin hoes and rockin the mike?