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Can the Educational Gap Be Closed for Black Boys in America?

There is an overwhelming consensus that African American males are at risk of educational failure.

There is an overwhelming consensus that African American males are at risk of educational failure.

Prejudice Is a Remarkably Stubborn and Resilient Thing

"There are no shortcuts to overcoming racial prejudice. Prejudice is a remarkably stubborn and resilient thing: it may go underground when it’s not safe to speak it aloud, but it burns on unseen, until something happens and it bubbles to the surface and boils over—and everyone is shocked and dismayed." —Athalie Crawford, Diversity Project Leader

This writer engaged in extensive research examining the lives of black males and the educational system in America for a dissertation proposal. The findings of the research are detailed in the following paragraphs.

At Risk of Educational Failure

There is no doubt that black males are an endangered demographic in American society. There are many factors plaguing black males; however, there is an overwhelming consensus that African American males, in general, are at risk of educational failure. Still, the end of summer vacation will give way to countless African American males going back to school, bright-eyed, wearing neatly pressed uniforms, carrying backpacks and ready to learn. But the characterization of black youth as thugs, perpetual law breakers, defiant, and untrustworthy continues to devastate their educational struggles.

African Americans lag substantially behind their counterparts in education. Such educational inequality for black males is a moral issue; a challenge to fairness or justice in a society in which education is the major public instrument for ‘leveling the playing field’ (Levin, 2007).

The Problems of Being Educationally Disenfranchised

A sound education levels the playing field in a country where the field has multiple access points, but only one entrance for blacks. Never have so many black youths been lost to the penal system, to the streets, to death by the hands of law enforcers and by their own hands. And as observed by Michigan State University sociologist, Dr. Carl S. Taylor, there are those who prey on the lack of opportunity and education; thereby, organized crime units emerge from underground and teach young minds the ways to a criminal lifestyle.

The image of black males in America is very perplexing. Carter et al (2016) reminds us that racial stereotypes are deeply embedded in American history (2016). The media and silver screen capitalize on the pseudo-images of black men as violent, oversexed, misogynistic, the father of multiple children with dozens of different partners, and justifiably “something” to be feared. Shiv R. Desai, professor in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico, feels that children of color will never be treated equally until we change how they are perceived.

Gibbs (2004) maintained that black males have been stereotyped and often described “…by one or more of the five Ds: dumb, deprived, dangerous, deviant and disturbed” And even though these words “…are seldom spoken or written, they reflect mainstream cultural values and are often reflected in educational policy and practice”. He further argues that black men have been miseducated, mishandled, mislabeled and mistreated.

Gibbs’s research and data might be an over-exaggeration for some, but he is clearly in the ballpark of expediency for racial a contingency.

Historical Educational Agendas Lead to Current Educational Inequities

In theory, the American educational system purports the idea of an equal opportunity educational policy. However, persons of African heritage in America traditionally have had less access to the economic, political, and social opportunities that pave the way for equal educational opportunities.

Clearly, the political history cannot be discounted when examining the overall structure of the educational system in America as it relates to persons of color. Black males did not spontaneously become at risk of educational failure; there is a jagged line that can be traced to the source of this disruption.

Historical agendas have predetermined what persons of color can and cannot do in America’s educational systems. In 1895 the United State Supreme Court decided, via Plessey v. Ferguson, that equal facilities could be separate for blacks and whites. Plessey v. Ferguson created the “separate but equal doctrine” that was practiced until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education stated in part: “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal….and to separate them [black children] solely on basis of their color may affect their hearts and minds in a way likely ever to be undone”. Hence, the stage had already been set, prior to the ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education for black children to become marginally educated in America.

The prophetic vision of the Court’s ruling which states “…to separate them [black children] solely on the basis of their color may affect their hearts and minds in a way likely ever to be undone” validates an ominous foretelling with an undeniable truth.

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The United States’ government has been playing catch up for decades. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty (1964) which denied federal funds to public schools with racially discriminatory programs; a Nation at Risk (1981), which did not specifically target minorities but did adopt a curriculum for an overhaul of public education in America, and No Child Left Behind (2001), which was designed under the Bush administration in order to close the educational divide between urban schools and their suburban counterparts.

Accordingly, black adolescent males have been [and are] shaped by “historical events and their residual effects” (Tatum, 2005).

The Experts Weigh In and the Data Speaks

Prudence L. Carter, professor from the University of California at Berkeley contends that Brown v. Board of Education was intended to counteract stereotype and bias but desegregation has allowed little true integration. Educational inequity must be addressed by assessing the role that race plays as it relates to racial disparities in the classroom (2016).

U.S. News and World Report (2015) maintains that our unequal educational landscape illustrates a painful reality. More than one-third of whites held a bachelor's degree or higher in 2013, 19 percent of blacks did. An equal educational landscape, however, would not be a total cure.

A 2014 study in The Atlantic’s Politics & Policy Daily found that the unemployment rates for black college graduates was much higher than the rate for white graduates. Studies on labor market discrimination have shown that even when black and white candidates have the same qualifications, the black candidate is less likely to be called back for an interview.

A Gap of Immense Proportions

The reality of the American educational system is far from exemplary for persons of color. Yes, many youths get through the system with hope of achieving a better life. The authenticity of a racial divide, crumbling structures, lack of books, and bias curriculum quickly dampen the hopes of a child and impedes the strength of a nation.

This writer taught speech for 10 years at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit—at the same time working as a peer mentor with an elementary school in the city. In each elementary class there would be approximately 30 students. More than half were little black boys. In the speech classes at WSU the enrollments would run around 25 pupils for each semester with five or fewer black males being enrolled. The overwhelming question that has plagued this writer is, where did all of the little black boys go?


Gibbs, J.T., & Huang, L.N. (Eds.). (2003). Children of color: Psychological interventions with Culturally Diverse Youth, 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Levin, H., Belfield, C., Muenning, P., Rouse, C. (2007) The Public Returns to Public Educational Investments in African American Males. Economics of Education Review. Vol 26. pp. 700–709.

Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males. Portland, Maine. Stenhouse Publishers.

Wells, S.E. (1990). At-Risk Youth: Identification, Programs, and Recommendations. Teacher Idea Press: Englewood, Colorado.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Joy Johnson

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