ONTD Political

Four Things I Learned from Coaching 'Poor Black Kids'

10:48 am - 12/29/2011
Here we go again: first Gene Marks’ simplistic Forbes column, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” and now the inevitable knee-jerk backlash. The song remains the same: “White folks” pontificating in broad generalities about “black folks”; and black folks lecturing white folks with the same tired arguments about the “historic” and “structural” causes of black male academic underachievement. You’d think the election of an African-American president would put an end to this nonsense, but it seems to have made it worse.

Here’s a suggestion: please, for the love of God, stop this obsession with race, and the polarizing, un-helpful discussion of “white privilege,” as if “white imperialism” is, was, and forever will be the cause of all that ails “people of color.” Instead, for once already, let’s talk about real people, as they are, not in some aggregated, delusional “white middle class male” fantasy, but in their fuzzy, messy, defiantly indefinable humanity.

Let’s talk about John, Jim, Reginald, Ryan, Jordan, and, yes, Kevin. Let’s talk about their individual struggles to succeed. Let’s talk about their highly particular schools and about the particular things those particular schools are doing, often against daunting odds, to insure academic greatness for their particular set of students. Let’s talk about these important things without all the leftist tropes trotted out to justify failure, including “historic inequality,” “classism,” “social injustice,” “race,” and the undeniable “privileges” that came by virtue of race (all you racism-cataloguing wannabe Cornell West’s, please hold your indignant finger-pointing for just a nanosecond).

When are we as humans, as Americans — right, left or center — going to get off this racialist obsession and, at long last, get granular with how we educate our citizens, regardless of what they look like, where they come from or what’s been done to their “ancestors.” If we group individuals into convenient categories like “poor black kid,” it’s an easy and effective way to write them off or, better yet, ignore our direct physical responsibility to them as humans.

However helpful Mr. Marks’ educational tech tips may be to not only his abstract, rarefied, and mythical “poor black kid,” but to all learners (regardless of demographics), his detached, slightly arrogant, paternalism is part and parcel of the problem. As a tech guy, he wants to “solve problems” from the clean, minimalist aerie of the computer screen. It’s one of the problems faced by the tech-and-metrics-focused Bill Gates and the noble and influential Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, the educational challenge faced by “poor black kids” is not a “tech problem.” If it was, all the fancy new urban high-tech classrooms would instantly solve our nation’s urban dropout epidemic. Rather, it’s a human problem.

Which is why, when I first discovered the depth and severity of America’s dropout epidemic, I took a different path to solving it. After the sudden death of my “white upper middle class doctor’s wife mother” on Christmas Day, 2002 (if you have ever lost your mother, you realize how hurtful and absurd these class distinctions are), I gave up my career as a travel writer for Monk Magazine, the Frommer’s Mad Monks’ Guides, Playboy and other outlets and a few months after graduation from St. John’s College headed to New York City. I wanted to give back. I wanted to serve. I was tired off tooting my own horn. I just wanted to, yes (Sincerity Alert), “make a difference.”

After a few necessary detours, I ended up coaching debate to at-risk black and Hispanic students at the Eagle Academy for Young Men, a pioneering all-boys secondary school in the heart of the South Bronx, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. Eagle’s exact original location, right next to the new Bronx Criminal Courts Complex, was no accident. The larger school in which Eagle resided — the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice — was built to deliberately showcase the two choices available to most South Bronx young men: school or prison.

As made clear by my forthcoming documentary about my six-year Bronx coaching odyssey, Crotty’s Kids, more than half of all black men in the South Bronx do not graduate high school. Of those black men who do not graduate high school, nearly 60% spend time in prison. Those statistical aggregates devastated me to tears when I first read them, and inspired me to take direct concrete action. Why, I asked, are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars “helping,” or waging wars in order to “help,” people all over the world, when we have an educational disaster right in our own cities?

I realized, in my very bones, it would do no one any good to just talk about the dropout epidemic. It’s what commentators of all races and economic backgrounds had done for decades. They seemed to enjoy picking at the sore. In fact, a highly profitable cottage industry of activists and academics had arisen to dissect the sore and assess blame for it.

I was not going to off-load my personal responsibility to the educational experts, the left-wing blame merchants, or the right-wing pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school choice fanatics. The only way to solve this shameful problem was to put my body on the line. I had to get involved. And I did.

So, when I read blacks and whites shouting in grotesque written generalities about what a “poor black kid” should do, know, or feel – especially against the backdrop of Mr. Marks’ well-intentioned, but short-sighted Forbes piece — I just have to smile. For it is clear, from the very nature of their antagonistic, backwards-leaning, black-and-white discourse, that most of these self-righteous folks have never worked on the front lines of inner city education.

Below, please find my four noble truths (take what you like and leave the rest), earned on those very front lines. This list won’t get much love on the Forbes home page. It won’t get Mr. Marks’ million+ page views. But, hopefully, it will inspire direct action (not just commentary) on proven ways to improve the educational status of all kids, and not just “the poor black” ones.

ONE: There is no such human as a “poor black kid.” At least there’s no such person that one can draw generalized conclusions about. The attempt itself is absurd on face. The manifold differences in background, desire, context, genetics, learning styles, parenting, and a welter of other factors are so complex and overwhelming that to reduce a group of highly specific, radically diverse people to “poor black kid” status is to make a mockery of their individuality.

That is the first big lesson I learned coaching debate in the South Bronx: labels are useless. There is only initiative or lack of initiative. Alternately, as I put it to my debate charges, there are only excuses or “no excuses.”

At that key moment of learning – when a young male has to make a decision to focus, to study, to listen, to learn – all those “factors” that academics and pundits spend so much time heatedly debating go out the window. Even the knowledge that 50% of young black men do not graduate high school is a hindrance.

At that key moment of learning, it comes down to choice, not race, not background. Do I jack around or I do push through the distractions and decide to learn? Do I ask for help or do I cover up my need for help? Do I text my friends, zone out to music, play a game, make a joke, or do I do my homework and debate work? Black, brown, Asian, white, red, rich, poor, middle class, whatever the background, whatever the classroom, that is a decision made everyday across America. And, as I saw with my own eyes, that decision to learn was made by kids who had very good reasons to call it a day.

However, if some self-important Foucault-misreading, Freire-following, Alinsky acolyte, whispered to my students, “Hey, kid, you are a victim of educational racism,” or “Hey kid, you are a victim of social injustice,” guess what? My kids would have had some powerful backers and ammunition behind a decision to quit. On all sorts of grounds, based on all sorts of real or perceived grievances.

But I urged them to make the best of their situation. And they persevered, while I ran subtle interference, from deep within the Soros-backed, ACORN-loving Urban Debate League matrix, to shield them from the blame-based, self-defeating, collectivist clutch of the cult-like disciples of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” I worked extremely hard to get them to believe that they were individuals with distinct identities, not just a collection of “poor black and Hispanic kids” serving someone else’s political agenda.

TWO: The black and Hispanics kids that I coached in debate, almost without exception, wanted to learn, wanted to grow, wanted to succeed. This idea that black and Hispanic males have a resistance to learning is overblown. Yes, some come from broken homes, or families where academic learning is not as prioritized as in other families, or where there are distractions that prevent learning, or where there is insufficient cultural capital (books, news magazines, a reputable daily newspaper, discussions about politics and economics around the dinner table, let alone a tech-savvy “middle class, middle aged Dad” like Mr. Marks). But such impediments can occur in wealthy black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American families too (where abuse, alcoholism, divorce, excess materialism, and outright ignorance can greatly affect a child’s ability or desire to learn). But these are the exceptions, not the rule. My consistent experience was that black and Hispanic parents were deeply concerned with the success of their young charges, and wanted the very best for them, even if they didn’t fully appreciate the value of an afterschool program like competitive debate.

THREE: If there’s any generalization we can make about “kids,” it’s that over the millennia they tend to take their cues from adults. And when the adults in their midst support sports over debate, pop music over great books, polarizing opinion over deep critical inquiry, you can guess the result.

I am a huge sports and entertainment fan. I am an active athlete. But the balance in this nation has shifted far too much towards bread and circuses. Thus, it is no surprise that in this country a disproportionately huge number of kids dream of becoming either sports or entertainment stars.

This phenomenon is not unique to the South Bronx. These are national obsessions. And if we want to change those obsessions, we as adults need to start role modeling what alternate career options look like.

To that end, I routinely promote STEM careers as one such high-paying, high-need category that needs to become a national obsession if we are to reverse our inexorable economic decline. But there are many others. With more successful male mentors, from a variety of professions, on the ground in at-risk neighborhoods (equivalent to the number of troops we put on the ground in Iraq), combined with genuine, consistent, and dependable financial support behind academic sports like debate, we can light that competitive fire in the belly of any willing young person of any ethnic background.

FOUR: In the end, despite everything I’ve written above about the need to focus on the particular needs of particular kids in particular places and at particular schools, the education of any young person, let alone Mr. Marks’ “young black kid”, comes down to one thing: choice. The apologists for failure, the excuse-makers, the blame gamers, absolutely loathe the word “choice.”

But in this respect, even a detached technologist like Mr. Marks is correct when he writes that remedies will only work if kids “want to be helped.” In my experience, in an urban classroom, face-to-face with a room of thirty, high-energy male high school students, that inescapable conclusion stares you right in the face.

There are, in almost every classroom across America, let alone urban ones, a group of young men whose sole ambition in life is to not only prevent their own learning, but to block the learning of every other person in that room. Whatever it takes. This cohort of anti-intellectual anarchists is not stupid. They know precisely what they are doing. They are not victims. They are having the time of their lives. They often have smart phones, fashionable clothing, even nice jewelry. Most of them have color TV’s, portable computers, and Internet access in the home (as well as at school). They are not starving or even undernourished. They have simply made a decision not to learn.

And, frankly, I am powerless to help them. That is not my calling in this life: to drag a horse to water when he doesn’t want to drink. I want to help the kids who want to drink the water get the best possible water available. It’s precisely my view of democracy promotion: you have to be starving for it in order to fully appreciate its value.

For every kid, no matter what his background, there is a moment when he is starving to learn. And, at that moment, however brief, the background of racial discrimination or “white privilege” or all the other bogus arguments of “the culture of complaint” — for whom white people must forever pay “reparations” with their time, resources, and very health without acknowledgment in order to expunge the guilt of “white imperialism” — do not enter his mind. It’s just that kid, his classmates and a teacher (who usually shares the same skin color that he does). Moreover, at that same moment, everyone in that kid’s classroom can make a collective decision to learn.

Unfortunately, in my experience in inner city classrooms, it’s not the lack of supplies, the condition of buildings, the quality of teachers, or even the access to technology that is the ultimate arbiter of educational excellence. It’s the decision by the students in that room, whatever their race or background, to choose the path of listening and learning, instead of the path of disruption and failure.

And no matter how many perks a school, a foundation, a community, a nation bestows upon those at risk of dropping out, or how lenient the entrance standards, how vast and extensive the affirmative action, how generous the grants, how robust the after-school programs, the mentorship, the tutoring, or the test prep, the ultimate solution is uniquely individual. A kid has to decide to learn.

Millions of kids from extremely difficult backgrounds, from all sorts of races and ethnicities, make that decision everyday. And we must give those kids the resources and the environment in which to succeed, instead of spending precious time, resources, and personnel on trying to reach those who have already made the decision to resist, to goof off, to make excuses, to be a victim, to fail.

And that’s the ultimate lesson that I learned from coaching “poor black kids”: at the core level of those moment-to-moment choices that build long-term character, they are no different from me.

Source.



Teal deer: "Original paternalistic white man telling poor black kids how to succeed... I reject your ignorance and substitute my own."
simplefaith08 29th-Dec-2011 09:32 pm (UTC)
JUST BECAUSE YOU PUT IT IN QUOTES DOESN'T MEAN THAT IT DOESN'T FUCKING EXIST GODDAMN.

If I had the power of, like, super-embroidery, I would stitch this on a million pillows and send them to every privileged writer I could find.
This page was loaded Oct 24th 2014, 10:25 am GMT.