Does Race Matter? The New York State Board of Regents Workgroup on Improving Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color

At the opening session of a graduate education course I was teaching I asked an “icebreaker” question: “In one sentence, what is your education philosophy or guiding principle?” The answers were mundane, (“All children can learn”) until we got to Muhammad, an Afro-American adult convert to Islam, “All whites are racist, the question is how do they deal with their racism?” All eyes turned to me, “Interesting Muhammad, let me think about it.” We returned to the question again and again throughout the term. Some students said they were forced to constantly explore their racial attitudes, other insisted that teachers must be color blind … it was a discomforting class, as classes should be. Over the years I have met students who were in the class, they invariably comment on the class.

The male teachers in an inner city high school dressed in sloppy jeans and t-shirts, high-fived kids for right answers and insisted on being called by their first names; I asked, “Would you dress and act the same way if you taught in Scarsdale?” A teacher answered. “Of course not, here we have to relate to the kids.” I asked, “Would it be unfair to call your attitudes racist?” A lively discussion ensued.

The subtext of every conversation is race, gender, class and I would add, ethnicity.

The achievement data for Afro-American males is more than troubling, it’s appalling and it has been for decades. From low graduation rates to low grades on standardized tests to high suspension rates to disproportionate assignment to special education classes, and, of course, to staggeringly high incarceration rates. Do the policies adopted by school districts create a pipeline to prison?

Report after report, commission after commission has studied and reported, the famous and infamous Moynihan Report is fifty years old,

In the introduction to his report, Moynihan said that “the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening
” … due to the collapse of the nuclear family in the Black lower class, the gap between possibilities for Negroes and other groups would persist, …”

Moynihan concluded: “The steady expansion of welfare programs can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States”.

The Report has been the subject is constant criticism,

From the time of its publication, the report has been sharply attacked by Black American and civil rights leaders as examples of white patronizing, cultural bias, or racism. At various times the report has been condemned or dismissed by the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups, and leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Critics accused Moynihan of relying on stereotypes of the Black family and Black men, implied that blacks had inferior academic performance, portrayed crime and pathology as endemic to the black community, and failed to recognize that both cultural bias and racism in standardized tests had contributed to apparent lower achievement by blacks in school. The report was criticized for threatening to undermine the place of civil rights on the national agenda, leaving “a vacuum that could be filled with a politics that blamed Blacks for their own troubles

Fifty years later, in our so-called post racial world of a Black president the data has not changed.

The May, 2014 My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report to the President recounts all the data that we witnessed decade after decade, from poverty to crime to education, and the report, as do all reports, ends with a long listing of recommendations.

The Council on Great City Schools, A Call for Change: Solutions for Black Male Achievement report contains a number of essays with specific recommendations to address the half century of negative data.

When the dust settles – why haven’t these reports and recommendations resonated?

They face the same problem that we see again and again in education: sustainability and scaling-up, the same issue that I explored a few day ago.

The New York State Board of Regents, embedded in the state constitution, is the policy-making body for K-16 education. The Board has established a “Workgroup to Improve Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color” under the leadership of Regent Lester Young.

The Workgroup is made up of a blue ribbon committee, fifty leaders from across the spectrum, academics from all levels, electeds in key positions in the state, leaders of advocacy organizations, mentorship organizations, both the old guard and new voices. In the morning a number of panels set the course: “The Critical Issues about Access and Opportunity: What is it About Being Black, Brown or Male in America?” discussion provided a “counter narrative to the notion that the problem is inherent in boys and young men of color;” rather “how do we repair district/school policies, practices, attitudes of professionals, curricula and ideologies to assure that boys and young men of color experience success in school and beyond.”

A “Lived Experiences of Young Men of Color panel allowed a group of current students to passionately recount their experiences, (“Why does our school have to be all Black?”)

A panel, “Practitioners That are Changing the Narrative,” showed us that high expectations, access to multiple opportunities, resilience, cultural responsiveness, family and community can transform outcomes.

In the afternoon the committee divided up into groups discussing the six priority issues: what is the problem, what are proposed policies, what are the obstacles? how can the obstacles be removed and the policies implemented?

For example, the “responding to structural and institutional racism” the group asked, “can we identify specific institutional systemic policies, practices, and structures which place young men of color at a disadvantage in relation to an institution’s racial or ethnic majority?”

You might ask yourself isn’t this “deja vue” again? Haven’t we discussed the same problem over and over again, wrote recommendations, and nothing changed? How does this effort differ from the reports filling the dust bin of history?

It is my hope that the infusion of new voices, new scholarship, much of which is discomforting, may lead to further discussions and policies that will actually come to fruition.

David Kirkland professor at NYU, who has just replaced Pedro Noguera as head of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools raised an issue with which I was not familiar, “White Fragility,”

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

Just as I responded to Muhammad I said to myself, “I’ll have to think about this …”

The Workgroup, under the leadership of Regent Young is off to an excellent start, and, with a tight time frame, a set of recommendations by December, in time for the legislative session, perhaps we will move from the writing of reports to actual policy implementation.

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2 responses to “Does Race Matter? The New York State Board of Regents Workgroup on Improving Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color

  1. I agree the concept of “White Fragility” is one that I have to think about. My first thought though is that its another manifestation of cognitive dissonance; the unwillingness to confront deeply held beliefs that are contradictory. IN this case it is the belief that “we” are not racist and the reality that we live in a society where racism still defines too many outcomes.

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  2. You might be interested in “A Hard Look at How We See Race” that appeared in Stanford’s alumni magazine (I’m not the alumni, our daughter is and now we get the magazine too).

    “Jennifer Eberhardt’s research shows subconscious connections in people’s minds between black faces and crime, and how those links may pervert justice. Law enforcement officers across the country are taking note.”

    https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=80755

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