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Who will level the playing field for black boys?

African-Americans lag substantially behind other groups. At its heart, such educational inequality for black males is a moral issue; a challenge to fairness or justice in a society in which education is the major public instrument for ‘leveling the playing field’ (Levin 2007).

Why we need them
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

There is no doubt that black males are an endangered population in American society. There are many at risk factors plaguing black males. However, there is an overwhelming research consensus that African American males, in general, are at risk of educational failure.

Yet, on Tuesday Sept., 2, this Examiner witnessed dozens of African American males going to elementary schools in the City of Detroit who were bright-eyed, wearing neatly pressed uniforms, carrying backpacks, on time, and ready to learn. The latter overture is a very stark departure from the depictions that characterize black youth as thugs, perpetual law breakers, defiant, and untrustworthy.

Hype and misunderstandings

Often the media and silver screen capitalize on the pseudo-images of black men as violent, over sexed, misogynistic, the father of multiple children with dozens of different partners, and justifiably “something” to be feared.

Gibbs (2004) says that black males have been stereotyped and often described “…by one or more of the five Ds: dumb, deprived, dangerous, deviant and disturbed” And even though these words “…are seldom spoken or written, they reflect mainstream cultural values and are often reflected in educational policy and practice”. He further argues that black men have been miseducated, mishandled, mislabeled and mistreated.

Gibbs’ research and data might be overly exaggerated for some, but he is clearly in the ballpark of expediency for racial contingency.

Misnomers in the system

In theory, the American educational system purports the idea of an equal opportunity educational policy. This idea happens to require an equal access to the same educational facilities. However, persons of African heritage in America traditionally have had less access to the economic, political, and social opportunities that pave the way for equal educational opportunities.

Clearly, the political history cannot be discounted when examining the overall structure of the educational system in America as it relates to persons of color. Black males did not spontaneously become at risk of educational failure; there is a jagged line that can be traced to the source of this disruption.

Historical agendas have predetermined what persons of color can and cannot do in America’s educational systems. In 1895 the United State Supreme Court decided, via Plessey v. Ferguson, that equal facilities could be separate for blacks and whites. Plessey v. Ferguson created the “separate but equal doctrine” that was practiced until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education stated in part: “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal….and to separate them [black children] solely on basis of their color may affect their hearts and minds in a way likely ever to be undone”. Hence, the stage had already been set, prior to the ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education for black children to become marginally educated in America.

The United States’ government has been playing catch up for decades. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty (1964) which denied federal funds to public schools with racially discriminatory programs; a Nation at Risk (1981), which did not specifically target minorities but did adopt a curriculum for an overhaul of public education in America, and No Child Left Behind (2001), which was designed under the Bush administration in order to close the educational divide between urban schools and their suburban counterparts.

Each of these platforms was implemented for underrepresented children to gain the needed resources that would provide equal educational opportunities. Accordingly, black adolescent males have been [and are] shaped by “historical events and their residual effects” (Tatum, 2005).

Education levels the playing field in a country where the field has multiple entrances but only one entrance for blacks. Our history teaches us what we must not return to. Never have so many black youth been lost to the penal system, to the streets, to death by the hands of law enforcers, or to the undertakers. And as observed by Michigan State University sociologist Dr. Carl S. Taylor, there are those who prey on the lack of opportunity and education; thereby allowing organized crime units to emerge from underground and teach young minds the ways to a criminal lifestyle.

Criminologist, Elliott Currie states that the evidence is very compelling between inequality and crime and, “It is one thing for a college student to work at a fast food restaurant as a summer job. It is entirely different for a young person to take on this kind of job when there is little expectation of rising above this entry level.”

There is; there must; there has to be a point of intervention prior to the time our young boys go off to school and enter the first, second, third, and fourth grades. The playing field is still replete with mines, dead end detours, misleading signals, and a home base that moves farther away with each attempted home run.

There are no shortcuts to overcoming racial prejudice. Prejudice is a remarkably stubborn and resilient thing: it may go underground when it’s not safe to speak it aloud, but it burns on unseen, until something happens and it bubbles to the surface and boils over - and everyone is shocked and dismayed.

Athalie Crawford, Diversity Project Leader,


Gibbs, J.T., & Huang, L.N. (Eds.). (2003). Children of color: Psychological interventions with Culturally Diverse Youth, 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Levin, H., Belfield, C., Muenning, P., Rouse, C. (2007) The Public Returns to Public Educational Investments in African American Males. Economics of Education. Review. Vol 26. pp. 700 -709.

Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males. Portland, Maine. Stenhouse


Wells, S.E. (1990). At-Risk Youth: Identification, Programs, and Recommendations.

Teacher Idea Press: Englewood, Colorado.

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