According to EdWeek, 62 big-city school systems have pledged support to President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative dedicated to improving academic outcomes for African-American and Latino males.1 But keeping this pledge will require educators, throughout Michigan and across the nation, to address the often uncomfortable issues around how they feel about and deal with young males of color. It also means moving beyond negative stereotypes and preconceptions. According to Dr. Darron T. Smith, "Negative representations of African-American males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through the news, film, music videos, reality television and other programming and forms of media."2
These negative representations can affect how individuals interact with African-American males, often without those individuals consciously knowing it. For example, did you know that African-American males are overrepresented in suspensions and expulsions? That they are underrepresented in advanced placement and college preparation classes? As a result, African-American male students often feel the education system is out to get them. Consider the following conversation:
Elijah: There were times when my friend C.J. and I would talk out of turn and they tried to put both of us on Ritalin and certify us as stupid. Meanwhile, my White Friend threw temper tantrums where he flipped over tables and flung scissors. The principal would be called in, and the world would stop while everyone talked to him gently. Had I done that, they would have just put me in handcuffs.
Rachel: From my viewpoint, watching this happen, all the kids acted like kids, but Elijah and C.J were picked on if they so much as dropped their pencils.
Elijah: I felt like they were trying to prove a point with me. Let's just catch him. I constantly got pulled aside and tested. I tested two grades higher than my grade level, and they couldn't explain it. They were kind of shocked. What does this mean? What do we do now?
How should educators address the issues around negative assumptions and preconceptions of African-American males? A big part of the answer is to get to know—really know—your African-American male students as individuals. Get to know their dreams and the aspirations; learn who their heroes are, which African-American male professionals they look up to. That means doing some of our own homework, because if we as teachers know more negatives than positives about African-American male students, we can't really know them. More importantly, if we only focus on the negatives about African-American males, how can we inspire them?
It is hard to feel optimistic about the future when you hear more negative statistics about your ethnicity than positive. And it's hard to have high expectations of students when all you hear are negative stories. The fact is, African-American males are far more successful than is reported in the media, and every young African-American man brings both strengths and assets to school, not just deficits. Here are some statistics you can share to inspire and encourage your African-American male students and enlighten your colleagues.
Have some of your own to add? Visit us on Facebook and let us know, or post them on Twitter #positiveblackstats.
1 Superville, Denisa R., "Urban Districts Pledge Progress for Boys of Color," Education Week Online, Nov. 3, 2014. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/11/05/11boysofcolor.h34.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1
2 Smith, Darron T., "Images of Black Males in Popular Media," Huffington Post, March 14, 2013. www.huffingtonpost.com/darron-t-smith-phd/black-men-media_b_2844990.html