Black Boys Know Too Well What it Feels Like to be a Problem — Let’s Channel that Knowledge into Innovation

Shaun Harper

Shaun Harper

Two recent reports regarding black student achievement set the proper framework for others who write about why institutions struggle to educate all students, particularly black boys and young men.

University of Pennsylvania professor and researcher Shaun Harper updated his “Black Male Student Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports” – the inaugural release occurred in 2012. And Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics for Education Trust, penned “Rising Tide II: Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase?” with Kimberlee Eberle-Sudre and Meredith Welch.

Both of these reports emphasize that institutions and not students are failing to catch up to the needs of students and not the other way around.

Related: Brainy black and Hispanic students might benefit most from “honors” classes

The data presented isn’t surprising. Harper found that institutions that are committed to fielding teams with black students lack devotion for enrolling students who aren’t athletes. “What I deem troubling,” Harper writes, “is the disgracefully small number of Black male students in the undergraduate population versus their large representation on revenue-generating sports teams.”

Harper never waivers from seeing black males as students not malfunctioning projects whose brokenness warrants experimentation and tinkering.

In “Rising Tide”, Nichols found that “among institutions that have improved overall graduation rates from 2003 to 2013, more than half of them (53 percent) didn’t make the same gains for black students as they did for white students — widening gaps between groups.” Again, the expectation is on the institutions to improve so accountability can be properly place.

There’s nothing wrong with black male students.

Related: Leading by example: Black male teachers make students ‘feel proud’

In some states, fewer than 90 percent of black boys are reading at grade level and dropout rates for males of color continue to be much higher than for other groups. We certainly need solutions, but we don’t need any more “gap closing” measures.

Gap closing implies a white male standard, which actually is the source of institutional racism that needs to be fixed. In this regard, the achievement gap is a process and product that we need to smash up in tiny little pieces.

No one should be surprised that while black males achieve in schools and colleges a gap remains or has even grown. Success won’t be declared when black men and boys catch up to white men; organizations need to catch up with justice.

The achievement gap is a process and product of privilege that excludes solutions that address root problems – institutional injustice.

Every day I meet incredible black men and boys who don’t chase white standards to meet the needs of black men and boys. We shouldn’t be surprised that Harper and Nichols’ blackness provides the proper vantage point to find solutions that don’t assume that black men need fixing.

Related: Veteran black principal lifts New Orleans school with strength and love

Black men who work on the education of black boys and young men have to manage the cognitive dissonance that stems from working with copious amounts of black male brilliance then constantly reading and writing reports framed within the achievement gap construct.

Working toward psychological internal consistency requires creating scholarship, programs and initiatives that honor the real life interactions that many of us have.

So who is most likely to deliver solutions? I’m betting on the black men and women who have neither internalized nor benefited from the achievement gap framework.

Black smartness isn’t an anomaly – black power is.

From Pre-K through college, institutions fall far short of educational parity and not because of a lack of ideas. Let’s get real. The treasure trove of black male achievement disappears from the stories, reports, schools and initiatives focused on the topic. Again, the achievement gap frame is a tool of privilege that suppresses solutions especially ones that validate black lives. Well-intended scholars and practitioners who see black men and boys as problems are making matters worse.

Black boys and young men know too well how it feels to be a problem.

It’s time that we turned that knowledge into solutions.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).