I was recently asked to revisit my 2009 review of The Rat That Got Away, and create a longer essay on how it speaks to current issues in U.S. politics and public policy. I took on Jones' story again, but this time reading it against today's fierce debates over public education and community development; the fissure in policy over how to address poverty; and the academic battle royalty over the validity, utility, and relevance of the "culture of poverty" concept. Below is the new piece. Please feel free to share thoughts and feedback in the comments section, and also to look at the earlier review as well.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Thursday, December 2, 2010
There have been a series of commentaries and articles discussing the Council on Great City Schools recent report on young Black Males educational achievement. Below is my response to the report, and two excellent pieces: a great article by Mike Green in the Huffington Post, and a sharp commentary from Dr. Ivory A. Toldson on the Soros Foundation's Open Society blog.
I resoundingly agree with Mr. Green on the type of education we need--one that develops an agile, analytical mind. Here I feel he builds on something that I think Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) have correctly identified--the correlation between early childhood education and skill attainment. This connection must continue to be emphasized and worked on, and it also reinforces the greater need: to view educational outcomes as a "P-16" continuum--from preschool to college graduation. Further, it is important to create social programs that view child development as beginning at zero--translating to cultivating parenting skills during pregnancy.
In order to link social programs, educational achievement, and youth development into employment, careers, and better overall life outcomes for young Black and Brown men, we must begin to approach the situation strategically. However, it is certainly an urgent matter, and this is what makes Green's "from march to race" analogy apropos. In order to prepare these young men for our current job market we must be clear: it functions in a "the survival of the fittest" manner. While in the long-term we may want to create an economy and employment structure which does not reproduce inequity and uneven outcomes, we must prepare them for our current social reality. A radical change to curriculum and educational purpose could prepare students for the current job market, while simultaneously giving them the tools to conceive a different social structure (whether that be reform, revolution, or reviving older ideas). Regardless, both Green and the report point out that we are tragically under-preparing Black and Brown young men...from birth.
To that extent, we must look at how social reproduction occurs within Black and Brown communities. In that light we also must have sharp assessments of what our measures, statistics, and data means--what does it tell us exactly about groups, populations, communities, people. It is important to carefully explain and account for difference, without resorting to deficiency models and frameworks. Dr. Toldson correctly provides prospective on the meaning of the Black boys' "failures" by juxtaposing it with the "failures" of all U.S. students in the aggregate. Considering these educational outcomes, the Council's report is important for challenging political apathy and silence, calling for strategizing at the communal level, and impelling self-determination.
Yet not only does the report contain the methodology flaws and biases Toldson's points out, I think it also fails to account for the strong influence politics, legislation, and policy has had on creating this situation. The Council identifies how government officials at every level have failed to adequately address the plight of Black male students, but do not put forth an incisive analysis of how these stakeholders have either created or exacerbated the situation.
At minimum there are strong correlations between poverty and educational attainment; how this intersects with race, class, and ethnicity is an important socio-economic point, and directly tied to political decision-making. This is not deductive; one can point to the work of NYU's Pedro Noguera (and many others) to trace this trajectory. The ways poverty is perpetuated and inequality is accepted speaks to how entrenched racism and prejudice is structurally and ideologically. This recent analysis on U.S. dropout rates saliently illuminates these factors
In short, these complex social realities will need focused political attention, social action, and nuanced planning. This piece, along with the report, hopefully is a start.
Cultural Anthropology Doctoral Student
CUNY Graduate Center