Failing Our Young

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Commentator Lester Spence says the story of an African-American girl struggling to find her career path says a lot about the misguided priorities of schools, churches and other community institutions. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.


The phrase black leaders gets thrown around as if there was a formal board of directors for the entire race. But even worse, says commentator Lester Spence, some of the most visible national figures don't dig deep enough into African-American problems.

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): A few weeks ago, I received a call from a political organizer. Let's call her Laura in St. Louis. She'd begun to mentor a younger sister, a product of the St. Louis public school system who expressed interest in hotel management. While Laura was and is an excellent political organizer, hotel management and the study of hotel management was not her gig.

Now it's not like I'm much better, but I at least knew of a couple of schools that are fairly strong in that area. Now in the process of answering Laura's questions about schools, about the types of scores her mentee would need to get in, it dawned on me: Why wasn't this kid talking to her school counselor? Turned out that the sister had already graduated from one of the vocational schools in the area and was trying to figure out her options. She was working 70 hours a week at three different jobs and wanted to do something else with her life.

Now this made me even more confused, and a bit sad. Why didn't she think about this in high school? Did she ever think to talk to her high school counselor? For a second, I thought that maybe she was just a poor student and didn't think about her future when she was in high school because she wasn't serious about her studies. So I asked Laura what her grades were. The girl was the valedictorian of her high school. Yup, I was floored. Then sometime last week I got an e-mail forwarded to me entitled, what we need to do for our survival.

To cut to the quick, rather than focusing on getting police officers to do their jobs or in figuring out constructive ways to get kids to perform well in school, what black people needed to do most was get black boys and black girls to stop wearing baggy pants. Yes, with black communities that are poor and sicker than almost any other community, the first thing we should be concern with is getting people to pull their pants up.

Bill Cosby and Juan Williams have both blasted working-class black men and women for the role they played in our current circumstances. And as an aside isn't it funny how often we hear this line, yes, sure, some racism still exists, without anyone actually saying what this racism looks like, how it works? But I digress.

While acknowledging racism is real, Williams believes that most of our ills could be solved if we just emphasize a few things: not having children before getting married, staying in school and graduating, and generally keeping out of trouble. And I guess keeping our pants from sagging around our waists. Now I can't say anything about how low she wears her pants. I don't know her like that. I do know, though, that it shouldn't matter.

Because of the focus on black people who supposedly don't care about excellence, who don't care about academic success, who care more about how low their pants are than anything else, we've neglected much more important issues. This student is struggling because she graduated first from a low-performing high school, full of bureaucrats who don't care about her wellbeing because she doesn't live in the right neighborhood. She is struggling because of nothing she has any control over.

I've had enough of jackleg analysts giving knee-jerk solutions taken from the back of a cereal box. It's not too late for Laura's mentee. The plan is to help her enroll in a local community college in hopes that she can later transfer. But I know that there are thousands of kids like Laura that are being ignored because their schools don't care about them, their churches don't care about them, and the people who are supposed to look out for them don't. And I wish we'd spend more time figuring out real ways to help them rather than sitting around talking about how they're dragging us down.

CHIDEYA: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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