The Common Good

'If I Were White, I'd Be Better Off'

Via American Promise Facebook page
Via American Promise Facebook page

"I bet if I were white then I'd be better off … Isn’t that true?” - Idris

A 9-year-old African-American boy lay on the couch, rubbing his head, and told his dad that if he just went to another school, life would be better. If he were just white, life would be better. He clarified, “I’m not saying I want to … but isn’t that right? That’s what everyone else is saying.”

When a 9-year-old boy can see the sad reality of white privilege and understand that the color of your skin is what defines you in our society, we have a serious problem. We can talk about the progress we have made to move civil rights forward over the past 50 years, and many in my generation are grateful for this movement, but we have a long, long way to go.

According to the Black Boys Report, the high school graduation rate for black males is at 52 percent, while white students graduate at a rate of 78 percent. As a nation, we are proud of our success and power, yet our education statistics do not predict the kind of achievement that we expect for the future of our society. In the midst of a major demographics shift, our nation can no longer afford to accept the growing education gap that has become normative in recent years.

American Promise is a documentary following the lives of two African-American boys from kindergarten through high school. The boys attend Dalton, a private school in the upper east side of Manhattan. As Idris and Seun make their way through years of schooling, the film chronicles the truths of our education system and the lack of social and emotional support offered to students of color in America’s schools. The filmmakers, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, are the parents of Idris. Through their son’s journey, the hardships of being an African-American boy growing up in today’s society are documented, and struggles of parenting are examined through an entirely new lens.

“They say you can’t read something when you can … they say it’s too hard for you … I get really frustrated.” - Seun

In social psychology, what Seun experienced is called expectancy theory. This is the idea that people are motivated when they expect their performance to produce a specific result. For example, if a teacher is motivational and inspires students by predicting their successes, they will perform at a higher level. In contrast, if a teacher limits students based on their current abilities (i.e., reading level), the student will come to believe that all they can do is perform at their current level. Teachers do not often explicitly tell students of their shortcomings, but their attitudes and implicit beliefs are perceived in their behaviors toward students. This influence combined with a peer environment that highlights other students’ successes can be discouraging. The expectancy effects, or the results that occur when the subtle behaviors of the teacher are communicated to the student, often lead to poor academic achievement among boys and minority students.

In our culture, expectations of both excellence and failure are often reinforced by deeply ingrained stereotypes. As a society we send our black boys to school and then treat each boy as if he was a statistic. We treat black boys as if they are expected to perform poorly, as if they are expected to drop out, and as if they are expected to have behavioral problems. In turn, our pre-judgments predict and lay the foundations for the behaviors of future generations. American Promise showcases the expectations of excellence and failure that are present and influential factors both in low-income areas and affluent areas. So what do we do about it?

“There’s a cultural disconnect between independent schools and African-American boys, and we see a high rate of kids not being successful, boys not being successful, and the question is why? Where is the disconnect?” - Dalton teacher

How do we address implicit biases? It’s an age-old question that social psychologists have researched extensively, yet it comes down to the way one person perceives another. With social norms, patterns, and values constantly influencing every belief we have, attitudes we possess, and actions we take, it is difficult to escape patterns of discrimination. But escaping from the implicit and often unconscious biases we believe is necessary if we are to become a more just society.

For the sake of students like Idris and Seun across the country, we need to ask ourselves an important question: “What makes a child feel safe enough to learn?” It is finding someone they can relate to — someone they look like who may be able to understand the world from a vantage point similar to their own.

While at an American Promise panel discussion, a black mother stood up and asked why there aren’t any African-American teachers in her child’s school. She is on the school board, and she has had meetings with the principal, yet the ethnic makeup of the teachers in her child’s school is not changing. African-American students rarely see themselves reflected back in the faces of school faculty. As a result, black students often miss the deepest sense of belonging and safety so desperately needed by adolescents. We are not doing all we can to socially and emotionally support the learning and development of African-American young people in our society. In order to strengthen our education system, we need to empower minority youth and fill our schools with ethnically diverse teachers, mentors, and administrators.

As David J. Johns, a participant on the panel, said, “We want our children to be whole, happy, and healthy people. It’s not enough to make sure they’re smart.”

As studies have shown, children of color attend preschool at a much lower rate than white children. We need to make sure all children of all racial and ethnic identities are being enrolled in pre-school. President Obama stated in his 2014 State of the Union Address , “as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K that they need.” The president is correct to highlight the necessity of quality pre-kindergarten education. Children who attend preschool are cognitively better prepared for the future as well as less likely to commit crimes, less likely to drop out of school, and less likely to become teen parents.

As our demographics shift, we need to address the inequity in our education system. We need to raise our expectations to match the level of respect and encouragement due to anyone who bears the image of God. We need to embrace diversity and use our classrooms as training grounds for the diverse world to come. We need our history classes and social studies classes to become places for deep dialogue on race, class, and societal injustice. And this dialogue must extend to white parents, educators, and school administrators as we discuss cultural discontinuity and help them realize that the ethnic identity of every student is important; it is something to recognize and embrace, not ignore or simplify.

Idris’ mother said: “There is a cost to perpetuating these inequalities.” She was right. Either we do what it takes to meet the challenges of our changing world or we will pay the cost.

Jessica Breslin is Mobilizing Assistant for Sojourners.

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