Archive for November 2009

Blaming Racism for the Achievement Gap in Our Schools is a Dangerous Road to Take

November 2, 2009

Race and racism are complicated issues in our society that too many people try to simplify; which I believe to be a dangerous road with perilous consequences.

A recent article published by The News Tribune, a Seattle-Tacoma area newspaper, brings up the issue of race and the American educational system. The author, Patrick Welsh, apparently is a high school teacher in Alexandria, Virginia with a high African American population.

The author cites arguments made by educators that the “achievement gap” between white and black students (as if Latino, Asian, and other ethnic students don’t count) is caused by an education system that treats black kids unfairly, which allows white kids to flourish when their darker pigmented peers lag behind.

Calling this problem a “civil rights violation” is a convenient argument, especially when one looks at the numbers. If it is true that white students generally speaking get better grades than black students, playing the race card is definitely a tempting road to take. But Welsh argues that parenting should be more to blame.

He argues that his students weren’t achieving much in the classroom because “their parents just weren’t there for them – at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.”

I agree with the writer that blaming this problem on race alone is misleading, counterproductive, and downright dangerous. Children are impressionable; a fact that is true of children of all racial/cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Imagine the message this sends to our young ones; that the reason why certain kids don’t do well in school is because s/he is black, or the reason why s/he is going to college is because s/he is white.

If kids are exposed to this kind of thinking at a young age, it will develop into deep-engrained stereotypes that will eventually come back to haunt us. If black children grow up believing they can’t do well in school because of the color of their skin, that is just as racist as any of the unjust laws civil rights leaders fought against 50 years ago.

Likewise, if white students grow up believing their whiteness will guarantee them a better chance in life than darker skinned students, imagine the racist attitudes that could be borne out of that scenario. Scary, n’est-ce pas?

 It makes logical sense that exclusively playing the race card in this situation can create more problems than it can solve. If the “educational system” is racist, who then is to blame? Teachers? Administrators? The federal government? Students themselves? The list goes on.

If my understanding of American society is correct, public school teachers are some of the most liberal folks in our country. Teachers’ unions fight for liberal causes. A federally-funded public school system is itself a big-government cause. The argument that educators are at their heart creating a racist system holds very little water.

 Racism and race in America are too complicated of topics to generalize like that. There were those who were foolish enough to believe that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would signal an end of an era in race-relations in our country. That could not be further from the truth. While it is good to see an African American ascend to our nation’s highest office, this is no guarantee that our demons with racism will magically go away. I argued against such naivety shortly after the election and so far I am proven to be right.

Conservatives call this arguing “race baiting” by the left in an effort by liberals to ignore the real questions. I would not go that far, but I do feel they are slightly on to something. Playing the race card is, in my opinion, a tactic that is way overused by certain people, and only further destroys the debate by watering down the meanings of the words “racism,” “prejudice,” and “bigotry.”

We should not blame racism for our problems unless we are completely certain that racism is in fact the cause of whatever problem is being discussed. I do believe that crying “racism” all the time is similar to the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If we see racism everywhere (in schools, in church, in the media, in our neighborhoods, in our government, in businesses, in our politics, in homes, at work, etc.) and pinpoint every social ill we have on racism, eventually people will stop caring. If we’re all racists, what’s the point of doing anything to stop it?

And, of course, when a truly racist thing does happen, no one will blink an eye because they’ve already been there, done that. It is genuinely the Boy Who Cried Wolf, except it’s the Bleeding-Heart Liberal Who Cried Racism. We should be careful before using the dreaded “R” word.

But far right conservatives are wrong about the notion that racism is a dead horse. Racial prejudice is quite alive in our country; it just takes different shapes than it has before. Blaming racism in our discussion of public education might be one of those examples.

By saying over and over again that black kids are doomed to perform academically at lower levels than white kids, is that not a racist notion in itself? Does that imply that black kids are unable to overcome obstacles imposed upon them by our nation’s history? Isn’t it racist to pound into our children’s minds that their teachers are hateful bigots because test scores tend to be skewed? Isn’t it racist to say that Obama’s white heritage is the only reason he has become so successful? Sounds like it to me.

And what about Asian American children, like I once was? Well, I still am Asian American, I’m just not a child anymore. In many parts of the country, East Asian, Indian, and Arab American students are very successful in the classroom. Especially children of recently naturalized immigrants. Their parents worked hard to come into this country, so they have been taught at an early age to work hard in school so that they can live out the American dream. I suppose parenting does play a part in all this.

 If the system works against minority students, how do you explain the success of a good number of Asian American kids? Dumb luck? Maybe their culture of hard work has something to do with it.

Parents who had to fight hard to come into this country are more likely to teach discipline and the importance of an education to their children because they know how hard it is to succeed in life. Welsh is right that absent parents play a much larger role in the educational “achievement gap” than most people are willing to admit. Will making the school days longer, as President Obama recently argued, make our kids get better grades? I doubt it. We don’t need to urgently fix our schools. We need to fix our culture.

We need to bring back to our kids a sense of urgency at getting a good education. We need to teach them not nothing in life comes free, and that your race should never be an excuse for performing well or poorly. We need to bring back the “culture of learning” where reading books and enlightening ourselves are more important than watching reality television and other trashy pop culture garbage.

It all starts in the homes, not the classrooms. Teachers try the best that they can (at least most of them do). No teacher wants their students to fail. So why should be put all the blame on them? Besides, if racism truly is the problem in our schools, how do you propose we fix that? Should we require our educators to attend more “racial tolerance” seminars? Should we ignore all white students and focus more on minority students hoping that will somehow make our problems go away? Not bloody likely.

If any of you can successfully convince me that racism is the sole cause of our school system’s “achievement gap,” please inform, counter-argue, and persuade me and I will definitely write a blog post recanting everything I have said here. If not, then maybe we should tackle our larger problems instead of making up our own ones.