Day after day I read more grim news about the status of Young Black men and African Americans in general. Despite what seems to me to be the most over-analyzed ethnic group in our society, we seem powerless to slow the trends toward more and more negative outcomes. Where did we go wrong? There is always some "gee whiz headline" to get our attention:
"More Black men in jail today than were enslaved in 1850"
"One in three Black Males will go to jail in their lifetimes"
"Freed slaves better off than most young US black men today"
"Black youth arrests... lead to the 'school-to-prison pipeline'"
"Black Men Have Made Little Progress On Racial Equality Since 1970"
There is plenty of blame to go around. We blame Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, our leaders, the President, bad cops, racist legislators, corporate greed, white privilege, the new Jim Crow, etc. Worse, the crime and social devastation seems to be more and more self-inflicted.
Supreme Court Leads Push for Integration
I grew up at the end of the first Jim Crow era, when "separate but equal" was the political policy doctrine. It was during this era that the push for integration gained momentum with the Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren's declaration, that"Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
This declaration set us on the path to integration. When the National Guard escorted the Little Rock Nine to school in 1957, we sent our best and our brightest. When MLK led the March on Washington, we were represented in large measure by young Black college students who wanted the best of American opportunity. When Lyndon Johnson led the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, the goal was equal opportunity. In all of these efforts, integration was a mechanism to facilitate our progress. Not the goal of our efforts.
Somehow, integration became the goal -- resulting in busing across school districts, affirmative action quotas, the creation of corporate diversity programs, and a shift from lifting our community to high profile cameos in every aspect of American life -- Black faces on the news, increase in Black enrollment on white college campuses, recruiting of the best Black athletes for elite college athletic teams, and the upsurge of Black professionals in corporate management ranks.
Integration became a symbol of our presence, and not a representative indicator of achievement of equality. We became satisfied with token representation while our community schools were declining. Even the next generation after the so-called high achievers of the 70s and 80s experienced diminished outcomes. Our children will be the first generation that is less well off than the previous upwardly mobile generation. Black families crumbled at a faster rate, Black communities fell into economic ruin, Black community schools became chronic low performers. There is more integration but our progress seems to be stalled.
Integration works best when we show up and continue our striving for excellence. It is not a destination or a goal, but a mechanism to facilitate our goals. It seems that many among us have lost sight of the effort required to sustain our progress. Affirmative action spoiled some into a mindset of entitlement.
The very qualities that launched the Civil Rights Movement -- education, strong families, community unity, striving for excellence, the pursuit of equal opportunity -- no longer defined us. In the resulting integrated schools, our children are the most highly disciplined and expelled, and the achievement gap that was supposed to decline from access to equal facilities increased instead of closing. It seemed that some among us declared victory by simply showing up, and stopped our striving toward excellence in outcomes.
Unintended Results from Integration
The result of integration efforts was a shift in housing and employment that resulted in re-segregation of our urban schools. Our best and brightest abandoned our traditional communities to live in integrated suburbs. However, it appears that our children didn't perform higher in this new environment. More importantly, the backlash of the 2008 economic downturn exposed the weakness of our "keep up with the Joneses" lifestyles. Hence, the greatest loss of wealth in the history of Black progress. So, integration didn't protect us from our weaknesses. Black families tended to have more debt, less equity in their homes, less tenure on their jobs, and no safety net.
Looking back at the launching pad of our path of progress, many of our HBCUs are in serious decline. Instead of attracting our best and brightest, they are hampered by admitting too many who are not college-ready. This increases dropouts, and focuses too much energy on remedial activities, while endowments decline and financial crises are the order of the day.
The Harsh Reality of Closing Gaps in Achievement
There is a reality that we seemed to have forgotten. My grandparents, and parents, and community leaders reminded us every day that we had to work twice as hard to be considered equal. They didn't tell us this because it was a cliche' that described the discrimination we faced. They knew that this reality was the result of past discrimination, 400 years of slavery, and current institutional racism. The reality was -- and is -- that WE REALLY ARE BEHIND, and that WE MUST WORK HARDER to catch up. The playing field isn't level, and those who have an advantage will not give away that advantage. We must work harder to outperform those ahead of us.
There are many stories of the improvement in achievement of immigrants who arrive on our shores penniless, unable to even speak English. They overcome the language barrier, work at jobs no one else wants to do, and push their children to achieve at levels that now place African American students at the bottom of the achievement ladder. The opposition to every initiative of President Barack Obama demonstrates how difficult the path forward can be -- even for the top position in our country. So, none of us can expect that the barriers to our progress will become easier to overcome. The struggle for excellence must continue.
Integration is not the complete answer to our progress, nor the problem. Progress is achieved through a commitment to excellence and unity among our achievers. It is true that we were placed in our position of disadvantage as a group over a long historical period. This history still shapes the view of African Americans versus other ethnic groups to a large degree. More importantly, this history shapes our view of ourselves. Ultimately, we want full participation in the opportunities and fruits of our citizenship in America. By definition, this means we must be integrated into the greater society. The challenge is to accomplish this objective without denying our heritage as Africans. We cannot create a separate society within the whole, nor accept isolation and denial of access to the ladders of upward mobility.
Moving forward, we must look among ourselves and make a stronger commitment within our own community to improve outcomes. Then, we can take better advantage of integration as a mechanism for progress.