Sunday, January 25, 2009

Black American Life Chances Under Obama

I heard it multiple times this last week amid the euphoria of President Barack Obama's inauguration and first days in power: Black children now have a role model in the world's most powerful office. Obama has fulfilled the dream of every American, but especially African-Americans, who can rightly claim that "anyone can be president of the United States."

Well, expectations are high, and certainly not unwarranted. But let's get real: President Obama takes office at at time of existential crisis for many in the black community. Charles Blow, at the New York Times, wrote last week that if we really want "change," it's going to take a revolution in personal responsiblity as well as a public commitment to lift the black underclass from the depths of poverty and social pathology. Check out
these numbers:

• According to Child Trends, a Washington research group, 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Also, black children are the most likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods. And, black teenagers, both male and female, were more likely to report having been raped.

• According to reports last year from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 60 percent of black children live in low-income families and a third live in poor families, a higher percentage than any other race.

• A 2006 report from National Center for Juvenile Justice said that black children are twice as likely as white and Hispanic children to be the victims of “maltreatment.” The report defines maltreatment as anything ranging from neglect to physical and sexual abuse.

There was a big controversy in 1965 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then Assistant Secretary of Labor, delivered his report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." One of the most controversial public policy documents in American history, the Moynihan report declared that the breakdown of the traditional black was the basis for the crisis of dependency, poverty, and social disintegration for that community.

it's practically taboo to focus on the tangle of issues underlying the report's conclusions, especially the problems of teen pregnancy, out of wedlock births, and the scrouge of family abandonment by the black male. On top of this, we've seen develop over the last couple of decades an oppositional culture among blacks which finds large numbers of youths adopting attitudes that reject the norms of educational attainment and traditionalism, attitudes that instead facilitate a culture of victimology.

How do we get out of this mess? More "social" spending? More "aid" to education, or more "qualified teachers" in our inner-city schools?

I was reading the Vegas Guy's blog the other day, and he's teaching at a school this semester that features a student-body demographic that is "98 or 99 percent" black. This passage was especially striking,
where he discusses his class assignment of Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail":

I've been working on a new unit dealing with Dr. King's "Letter From A Birmingham Jail,"which I think is his most impressive work, including his speeches. Despite the fact that most of my students are black, very few know that he wrote a letter from jail, much less the content or even what prompted him to write it in the first place.
The Vegas Guy also spoke of a school assembly, which the principal had called because he had "been hearing our students call each other nigger (or is it nigga?) while in the halls ..."

I'll be discussing these issues in more detail as we get deeper into the Obama era, and I want to recommend to readers Juan Williams' essential book on the black crisis,

For now just note that there's some research that says that Obama's presidency itself can help black student performance, and thus the president's role modeling will improve black life chances in the United States.

The New York Times had a piece Thursday discussing a research variant of the "
stereotype vulnerability" hypothesis, which holds that "racial and gender stereotypes interfere with the intellectual functioning of those taking the tests." According to the Times story, "Study Sees an Obama Effect as Lifting Black Test-Takers," education researchers have found that "a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election."

Apparently, the research sample wasn't large, and the paper has just been submitted for peer review, but the authors were "surprised" to find a statistically significant "Obama effect" on black testing performance.

I don't doubt there could have been such an effect, but the notion that President Obama's accession to the White House is going to magically lift generations of black youths to the heights of educational and socio-economic success is a bit too optimistic for me. Like the Vegas Guy, I work in a "disadvantaged demographic." While Latinos are the largest ethnic group at my college, I teach large numbers of traditional inner-city blacks. After ten years at the college, I can recount only a handful of students from that population that I'd subjectively label "Harvard material." And that's sad, too, from a personal level of having been brought up in an educated household and culturally-rich living environment.

What is happening today in the black family is one of the most important social challenge facing the nation. Well before Barack Obama was even close to winning his party's nomination, a saw a sense of the tremendous promise for black America that an Obama presidency might hold.

That promise will not be realized if researchers, teachers, and the progressive education establishment push worn-out models of relativist pedagogy and touchy-feely learning paradigms that lift the responsibility for learning off the shoulders of today's youths and their families.

I'll have more on this in future essays.


Norm said...

I agree with Charles Blow of the NY Times...a change has to come from within the black community. If you did not come from the inner city, like me, you can watch the recent HBO film "Hard Times At Douglass High" to understand the emergency situation existing within the black community for the past few decades.

What is so important for everyone to understand is that the USA needs every kid, no matter what color or ethnic background to succeed in school. Today, no employer gives a hoot about their employee's skin color or's the resume that counts. Every child that does not succeed in his or her education is a loss for the United States. We all must work at changing the black student's attitude towards school.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Donald. I for one have absolutely no faith that the black community is going to be lifted out of their condition just because of a black president. Why? Because Barack Obama has promised his black electorate the same thing white Democrats have: entitlements up the wazoo and the mentality that society owes you.
The Jewish Republican's Web Sanctuary

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Thanks for the track-backs. Glad someone knows how to do them! It will be interesting to see how big an impact Obama has on the inner cities. I hope that he example of a stable marriage with two kids will show people that a traditional two parent family is the way to go.

Righty64 said...

I think that President Obama's election is a good sign. But, not the answer to lifting those who are black and or any other ethnic minority up the ladder. It is changing people's attitudes. It is making these people realize that anything is possible. Norm, you are so right. We need EVERY kid to succeed in school. And those that go on to college. And those that go onto graduate school. Or, those that go to a trade school. It is not just changing the attitude towards school in general but what the education does for the individual. Raising the individual up is the only way to raise many up. I hope that it is something President Obama can address and not in knee-jerk, partisan ways.