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African American boys: ‘Too important to fail’

Date Published: 09/23/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President, Growth & Justice and Shawn Lewis, Board member, Pan African Community Endowment of St. Paul Foundation


PBS documentary and Minnesota test scores underline peril, potential

If we can accept the premise that huge banks and insurance companies and major U.S. automakers are too big to fail, why can’t we embrace the notion that an entire generation of millions of African American boys is too large and “too important to fail?”

That’s the compelling message of a new documentary with that title that aired on TPT-TV last Sunday. This one-hour jewel, both blunt and uplifting, is authored and narrated by Tavis Smiley, a talk show host and advocate who overcame his own childhood disadvantages and has been ranked the second most powerful media “change agent” (behind only Oprah Winfrey) in Ebony magazine’s Power 150 list. Smiley also made Time magazine’s 2009 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Finding out what’s working right now — and breakthroughs are being achieved at various charters and public “turnaround” schools all over the nation — may be more important than sorting through all the whys and wherefores that created this situation. And that’s the strength of Smiley’s work.

Smiley’s documentary lays out heartening examples of shining success. And even as last week’s statewide test scores in math were being analyzed, the Star Tribune noted that Harvest Preparatory School and Best Academy in north Minneapolis exceeded the state averages with enrollments that are overwhelmingly poor and African American. Both schools have a strong emphasis on high expectations and on cultural awareness and pride.

John Thompson, a historian, a white former inner-city schoolteacher and a blogger for the Huffington Post, opined last week that the most important contribution of the documentary is its “call for a return of black studies to the classroom. Schools must help black males see themselves in the country’s narrative,” Thompson writes.

And as we look forward, it’s worth at least briefly reviewing the great stain in American history that got us here. Smiley, in a recent book by the same name as the documentary, neatly summarizes the litany: “overcrowding, underfunded schools, poverty, lack of positive male role models, inattentive adults, misguided policies and poorly conceived mandates, and economic stagnation… It’s also about race in America and the cultural differences inherent in our complicated history. It’s a problem that cannot be solved without taking an honest and clear-eyed look at how race factors into the reality of lost young lives in a land of promise and opportunity.”

The statistics that tell a story of perhaps the worst disparities of any demographic subdivision in America are depressingly familiar: a high school graduation rate that routinely falls some 20 percentage points behind the national average; a suspension rate from school 250 percent higher than that of whites; and 12th grade reading levels that are significantly lower than those for men and women across every other racial and economic group.

Scholars in the documentary boldly ask white Americans to just try to imagine this shoe on their foot. Here’s the observation of noted educator, author and lecturer Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu:

“If 53 percent were the dropout rate for white males, it would be unacceptable; if 41 percent of their children were being placed in special education, that would be a major crisis. If only 20 percent of their boys were proficient in reading in eighth grade, that would be a crisis. If only 2.5 percent of white males ever earned a college degree, that would be a major crisis in America.”

Those statistics are even more glaring and embarrassing in Minnesota, which has long prided itself on a progressive and egalitarian culture. For more than a decade, test scores and attainment rates for our African American students are lower than they are in most other states.

This is not somebody else’s problem or a fate that we can separate from our own. What happens to African American males will impact what happens to our economy and community at large.

Business leaders in Minnesota have been warning that within the decade, 70 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require postsecondary education. And we simply won’t have the educated work force our economy needs unless achievement and attainment gaps are closed.

White population growth rates are flat or declining as a percentage of the total in Minnesota, but the number of African American children and young adults, ages 5 to 24, is expected to grow 24 percent between 2006 and 2020. Put another way, the public and private sector will increasingly rely on racial and ethnic minorities, including African American males, to make up the highly educated work force necessary to attract the knowledge-based companies that have made our economy strong. An economy that will desperately need smart labor cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

The best of our black and white leaders, past and current, have exhorted us to do the right thing, appealing to both self-interest and the loftiest instincts toward justice and fairness.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his enduring letter from a Birmingham jail, wrote that he could not “sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Mike Ciresi, a Minnesotan who happens to be white and one of the most prominent lawyers in the nation, and whose Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children strongly supports efforts to address the equity gap, brought this message home at a recent reception in Minneapolis celebrating Teach for America, a corps of young teachers working in under-resourced rural and urban schools. Improving racial equity in education outcomes is “the civil rights battleground of this century,” Ciresi said. “Unless and until we do this, the America we grew up with will not be there tomorrow.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, September 22, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

Shawn Lewis is a board member of the Pan African Community Endowment of the St. Paul Foundation and a trustee of the Minnesota 4-H Foundation.

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