Understanding Racism & Retention: The Crisis in Black Male High School & College Drop-Out
By Dr. Umar Johnson, Psy.D., NCSP, M.Ed.
Nationwide (August 27, 2012) -- It's that time of year again; Black boys and young men are preparing for their first days of high school and college life. They begin with optimistic vigor and good intentions, proud that they can now call themselves freshman. However, these next four years of high school or college, statistically, are likely to provide these young Black males with some formidable obstacles that will make graduating in four years quite difficult, if they graduate at all. You can call it an epidemic, a crisis, or a societal illness; regardless of what label you use to describe this war against Black males, you cannot call it normal. Still further, you had better not be one of those growing numbers of people in this society who are increasingly choosing to blame young black men for problems that are not of their making.
I have been working with African-American & Hispanic Male high school and college students for at least 15 years, and I am proud to say that I have never "lost" a young man in any program that I have developed. Still serving as a "minority male" retention expert on the high school and collegiate level, conducting staff trainings, parent symposiums, and student conferences/workshops for high schools, community based organizations, and colleges around the world, I have uncovered 7 core factors that either create or help maintain this crisis in underachievement amongst African-American male high school and college students. Obviously, there are much more than 7 factors, but this is an article, not a book.
Before you read further, let me say that these causes and maintainers are not exclusively based on institutional factors, nor are they purely based on individual personality traits. Since all problems are multi-factorial, and will require a diverse range of strategic points of intervention, responsibility lies with everyone, from parents to academic personnel, towards eradicating what I call "The Psycho-Academic Holocaust Against Young Black Males" which threatens to make Black & Hispanic Men a permanent underclass in this society. With private prison corporations demanding 90% criminal occupancy, the mis-education of Black males creates a feeder pattern that leads from high school and undergraduate classrooms directly to the jailhouse.
As I've always argued, mis-education is the mother of all crime/violence, with economic castration (i.e., the failure to employ) being the father of all crime/violence. Criminals are not born, they are "made." Made by societies who deliberately fail to provide adequate opportunities for all of its citizens, not just the privileged few. If a man cannot read/write and cannot find work a painful inferiority complex is initiated which sooner or later transforms into a rage against the society and community that failed to protect his basic rights; hence the explosive rates of Black-on-Black homicide in communities of color. Remember this, Black men who have a reason to live, aren't interested in dying. Black men who have responsibilities that they can fulfill, aren't likely to end up in jail. Happy people don't kill others, but unhappy people couldn't care less about whose life they take.
1. Failure of Superintendents/Local School Boards to Take The Lead: Every school district in the United States of America, and there are thousands, should have an office of "Black & Hispanic Male Retention & Success." It makes absolutely no sense for top public school officials, on the local and state levels, to be so apathetic and disengaged about this problem to the point where you find almost no serious meaningful programs directed at eradicating the core causes of Black & Hispanic male failure. Furthermore, this office should not just be ceremonial and symbolic (i.e., exists on paper but not in principal) but should have enforcement power to ensure that principals and classroom teachers are following its mandates. Simply throwing money at problems (i.e., hiring White and bourgeois Black "experts" whose academic training isn't the least bit effective in addressing the needs of the target population) through the offering of lucrative contracts to outside vendors has been a dismal failure of epic proportions. Even in school districts where I consult, my recommendations have been offered and suggested, but never required.
2. Black Parent Apathy & Disinterest: As a child therapist one of the most important findings of my career is that Black boys suffer equally from poor parental involvement regardless of whether their parents are on welfare or CEOs of a fortune 500 company. Poor Black parents are so busy working to make ends meet that they don't scheduled effectively to participate in their child's emotional or academic lives. At the other end of the spectrum are well-educated and financially elite Black parents whose pursuit of personal and professional status (i.e., tenure, political office, advanced degrees, etc.) find them equally guilty of emotional and academic neglect of their offspring. Racism cannot be blamed for Black parents who are putting their own agendas ahead of their children's lives. Hence the rapid rise in ADHD diagnoses/brain drug prescriptions for children who can't sit still because they need constant attention in school since they are not getting it at home. This is why I often re-define "Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" as a misnomer with "Absence of Daddy from the Home Disorder" as the more correct terminology in most cases involving African-American boys.
3. Lack of Culturally-Competent Black Male Teachers/College Professors: Let's face the facts, 93% of all teachers/professors in America (Public, Private, Parochial, Charter) are middle-class European-Americans; and on the public school level we are looking almost exclusively at a White Female teaching core. The failure of Black boys has to be viewed from the perspective of a serious culturally-based disconnect between the teacher and the student. The schoolhouse represents not only a clash of races, cultures & classes but also an autocratic dictatorship where the cultural opinions of the teacher are considered superior to those of all 20-30 of his/her students. This type of classroom-based "Jim Crowism" feeds Black male uncomfortability in a school where 90% of all the employees already don't look like him. The rumor that not enough Black males are interested in education and school psychology is utter nonsense. The truth of the matter is that not a single district/college (except Historically Black Colleges & Universities) in this country has EVER undertaken a serious and impactful Black male teacher recruitment drive. There are several national teacher recruitment programs (NTRPs) that award emergency certifications and classroom employment to bachelor-degree-holding professionals with no experience, but a desire, to teach. Not one of these national models places emphasis on recruiting Black male professionals whose presence is much more needed in the classroom than their European counterparts. In fact these NTRPs further increase disparities in the teaching corps by giving instructional positions to underprepared non-Black professionals when well-experienced, credentialed and committed Black teachers are unable to find employment. Why hasn't president Obama sought to do just that? Because the two largest public school teacher unions in this country wield considerable financial and voter influence on election day; upsetting the racial & gender dominance that have ruled public school since the beginning of this country could be detrimental to his political future.
4. Special Education Mis-Use & Abuse: In 1975, Congress passed the nation's first special education law, PL-94-142, the "Education for All-Handicapped Children Act." In its short 37-year-old career, this program has sent more African-American children to "learning disabled," "educably mentally retarded," and "emotionally-behaviorally-disturbed" classrooms than any other racial group in this country. Special education has become, for most large urban districts, a highway to drop-out, prison, and functional illiteracy. It has become a trash can where "undesirable" Black boys are sentenced when staff/faculty don't want to be bothered. I recently consulted on a special education lawsuit, where a school district placed a YBM in special education without parental consent or notification! In fact, I would argue that special education is one of the primary reasons why so few Black males gain entry to college, or fail to finish, as it awards high school diplomas to young men and women who have been ill-prepared for collegiate level academic responsibilities. The special education learning disability is a weapon of mass destruction that has destroyed more lives and diminished the academic ambitions of more Black youth than any other institution except prison itself. In fact, special education and juvenile incarceration should be viewed as two sides of the same coin: two institutions that have caused way more harm than good in the lives of Black boys/young men.
5. Mega-Churches Missing in Action: I have no problem with religion, which is a neutral institution that could be used for good as well as for bad. However, I must take serious issue with all these churches, temples, masjids, and spiritual centers who are doing little to absolutely nothing to stem the rising tide of Black male failure on the high school and collegiate levels. Churches (used plurally to include all religions and their denominations) are filled with educators but where are the free tutoring and mentorship programs that our young men so desperately need. It is so ironic that institutions that teach collective responsibility and duty to God are robbing the Black community with "blind faith" and giving them back nothing for their years of loyalty. We complain about ethnic minorities, with their "Stop & Go" markets selling cigarettes and alcohol to our underaged youth, running off with the wealth of the Black community, but rarely do we recognize that the Black church is doing the exact same thing. It may be time for another sit-in movement & another freedom rides initiative, only this time we need to boycott all Black churches/masjids/temples who are doing absolutely nothing to help save our sons. Black people collectively and nationally give the Black church at least $3 Million every weekend; that's $156 Million every year, and what do they have to show for it?
6. Over-Valuation of Athletic & Entertainment Careers: The worship of pop culture in the Black community feeds the lack of commitment that YBMs (Young Black Males) have towards their academics. Unfortunately, this mentally has infested the Black high schools and even predominately White universities where Black athletes are heavily recruited but cannot be found on graduation day. In fact, Black athletes who are not drafted into the NBA/NBL/NFL, and who attempt to complete their degrees after four year of eligibility, are told by their former coaches that they cannot give money to non-athletes, regardless of the millions of dollars these athletes have brought to their schools. On the high school level, I receive regular emails from teachers, Black & White, who often complain to me that student-athletes who should be failing are made to pass, by the school principal, who is under pressure from coaches, the media, recruiters and the local neighborhood to ensure that their star athletes are ready to play on game day regardless of the fact that many of them are functionally illiterate. Only 1% of all high school athletes will ever turn professional; most of them will have to earn a living in something other than sports. Black men (fathers, coaches, principals, community at large) need to check ourselves and stop promoting this idiotic athleticism which is breeding poor academic outcomes on the high school and collegiate levels. Second only to athletics in the singing/rapper ambitions of so many of our youth, who often skip school, and forego studying, to spend endless hours writing and recording music with hopes of breaking into a career with odds even lower than those in professional sports. When do we recognize the role that that Black community is playing in the "Psycho-Academic Holocaust Against Young Black Males?"
7. Elimination of Trade Skill/Blue Collar Training Programs from High School/College: Beginning in the 1970s, as part of America's War Against Black Men (now disguised as a War Against Drugs), and in preparation for the chemical warfare to come (i.e., the 1980s Cocaine to Incarceration War Against Black Male Youth) inner city high schools, many but not all, were stripped of the trade skill training programs (TSTPs). Until 1980, many YBMs could not only learn auto repair, carpentry, electrical repair, masonry, heating/air conditioning, auto body, wood working, plumbing, etc., but could take their state licensure/certification exams and graduate high school and enter the world of work, with a liveable wage income, the very next day. However, the Black community has since fallen for a bourgeois approach to success, that diminishes working with your hands, and replaces it with a mentality that sends all Black high schoolers to college with most of them destined to return home with enormous amounts of loan debt, and unable to find a job to help pay it all back. We have to reassess the messages that we send to our youth. The elimination of TSTPs from inner city high schools puts the future of the Black community on the shoulders of college-educated youth who have minds filled with academic ideas and theories but very little practical skill that will ensure they are able to feed their families after gradutation. There is an excess of unemployed college-educated Black youth who cannot find work. The building trades offer a lucrative alternative to a life of high post-collegiate debt and underemployment. A man who can work with his hands is much more employable that one who can only regurgitate fancy postulates and academic ideologies. This is not a push against college, as we need our professional class (doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, etc), it is simply a warning against sending children there who we know have no interest in finishing. This mindset is also feeding high school dropout rates, as many YBMs who feel that since the only option for life success after high school is college, then why bother going to high school at all? Similarly, too many YBMs are enrolled in four-year colleges when a two-year building trade program would have been much more enjoyable, useful and efficient.
Dr. Umar Johnson is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Certified School Principal, Political Scientist, Freelance Writer, Motivational/Informational Speaker and Mentor. He provides workshops/trainings/conferences centered on Black Male Retention in High School & College. He provides trainings to educators/parents on multiple topics including eliminating disruptive behavior without Medication & special education/learning disability issues. A blood relative of Frederick Douglass, the late 19th century abolitionist & orator, & founder of the National Movement to Save Black Boys (NMSBB), Dr. Umar, as he is known to friends and family, speaks regularly around the world. He is currently searching for a temporary one or two-year visiting professorship/principalship at one of America's colleges or middle schools. He can be reached for radio/television interview and/or lecture scheduling at www.DrUmarJohnson.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 989-9858.
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