This Is History Now: Is the “American Dream” Over for Black Boys?

(Photo: pathdoc / Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)(Photo: pathdoc / Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)

As a parent of three children, including one son, I have witnessed Black boys start to lose interest in their studies in elementary school.

Years ago, I walked down the hall of my neighborhood Chicago public school, and outside one classroom sat a little boy on the floor. He had been kicked out of the classroom by his teacher and relegated to a space on the floor in the hallway. I don’t know how long he sat there, but I do know time spent in the hallway was time away from learning.

Author Jawanza Kunjufu in his book, Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys refers to the “fourth grade failure syndrome,” when Black boys begin to lose interest in school. Unfortunately, this may also be a time that schools, teachers and administrators also lose interest in Black boys. Forty percent of Black boys in urban public schools drop out of high school. Boys who drop out of school are more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline by becoming involved in criminal activity or simply being outside of supervised, structured environments that can help to shield them from crime and danger.

The recent video showing young Black elementary school students in Atlanta exuberantly dancing on tables after hearing they would be guests at a showing of the movie Black Panther is both an amusing distraction and a reminder of how we have failed Black boys in school and beyond.

The Marvel comics film has earned more than $500 million at the box office to date, and its predominantly Black cast centers on a good-versus-evil battle of a villain whose rage is fueled by the pain of his childhood, against the Black Panther, who wants the best for his people.

Placed in Wakanda, a fictional African country emerging from its seclusion, it is a metaphor for young Black children — particularly males — to symbolically emerge from the sidelines to claim their rightful place in the US. But contrary to the success of the fictional King T’Challa and his brilliant nemesis Killmonger, who graduated from MIT at the age of 19, children remain in the shadows of educational systems that are failing Black boys in particular.

Since 1968, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has collected mandatory data from all public schools on civil rights indicators related to access and barriers to educational opportunity from early childhood through high school.

Data on disparities in discipline, access to high-level math and science courses, and availability of experienced teachers in the classroom has remained intractable. For example, Black students are twice as likely to be expelled without educational services than white children. Moreover, Black children are also twice as likely as white students to be disciplined by law enforcement.

To be sure, barriers to educational equity for Black boys is not the sole purview of public schools. Private institutions can also be complicit.

A recent piece in the Grio tells the story of Josh Crayton, a senior at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, who was expelled five months before graduation for allegedly “raising his voice” at his white English teacher.

Since adolescence is known to be a developmental period where youth are prone to make mistakes, it is particularly important that teachers are in tune and skilled at teaching Black boys in urban communities.

Regrettably, the route to prosperity via education is not played on a level field. For many Black boys growing up in urban and impoverished neighborhoods, an equitable and quality education is elusive.

Factors such as teacher preparation, large teaching loads in understaffed schools with lower economic resources and teacher expectations about the ability of their students to succeed can contribute to sub-optimal outcomes for Black boys.

Similar circumstances may also contribute to the fact that Black boys are more likely to be placed in special education classes, and less likely to be classified as “gifted.” Black boys are also more likely to be punished harsher than other students for the same rule infractions.

One answer is to hire more Black teachers because students of color do better when taught by teachers of color. The US teacher workforce is 80 percent white, so additional solutions are needed. White teachers must be intentional about learning cultural competency skills that enable them to adjust their unconscious bias to see their students clearly.

But they need not to just see Black boys; they can actively immerse themselves in the communities where they work so that they understand the contexts of the lives of children, families and communities.

White women are the largest demographic of the teaching workforce, and authors Moore, Michael and Penick-Parks in their 2017 book The Guide for White Women who Teach Black Boys are explicit in their guidance for teachers by stripping away the illusion that the race of teachers and students doesn’t matter. This book teaches white educators to foster learning environments that help Black boys thrive in school, change school culture so that Black boys can be their authentic selves and recognize their unconscious biases to truly connect with Black boys.

Far too often, when it comes to Black boys and men, the answer to societal woes is to invest more in the criminal legal system than educational equity. Recent University of California-Los Angeles protests were directed toward Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for proudly taking credit for a brand new multimillion dollar Police Training Academy while simultaneously closing high schools in Black neighborhoods. This is another example of Black boys facing discrimination and ongoing disadvantage.

As a nurse, I have also seen the devastating impact on the physical and psychological well-being of Black boys and men when this society does not value who they are or what they have to contribute to this world.

To combat the real-life inadequacies we give to Black boys, we must offer appropriately prepared teachers and equitable educational options for students, rather than limiting the opportunities and possibilities for students of color.

This is real, and no Marvel superhero, no matter how popular, is going to change the landscape for us. We have to care. We have to act.