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Pet Sins October 2009

Black American under-achievement in education - moving beyond stereotypes

I travel outside the country regularly, specifically in Southeast Asia. Through reading local media and interacting with local people, I noticed that there's a prevailing stereotype among individuals and media in those countries that "Black Americans are academically weak," and while it's not always explicitly stated, people seem to assume the problem is genetic rather than social. Such stereotypes are also held by Asian communities in the US. While negative stereotypes against Latino Americans, and to a lesser degree, Native Americans, exist, they come no where near the intensity of negative opinions held by Asians against blacks. In the minds of many Asians, 'bad academic performance' and 'being black' are automatically linked.

Now I'd be the first to admit there's a problem in our communities - blacks are under-represented in colleges and over-represented in prison. We should address that. BUT statistics show that black Americans are actually performing comparably to, and in some cases, better than less-vilified minorities. According to an ACE report dated 2003, the high school completion rate for African Americans was 76 percent over the past 20 years, while the rate for Hispanics was 59 percent. In 1998-2000, the college participation rate of 18- to 24-year-old black high school graduates was 40 percent, compared with 34 percent of Hispanics. For college students, the graduation rates for American Indians and African Americans were 41 percent.

I'm not quoting statistics to show which minority group is 'worse off' educationally - that's not my point. My point is that stereotypes and emotional reactions don't always reflect reality - people have argued that blacks earned the negative stereotypes that others hold. But if that's the case, why aren't other minority groups that perform at similar (or inferior) levels academically tarred with the same broad brush?

Now I issue a challenge to all those people, non-black or black, who sit around wasting their energy bad-mouthing the state of education in the black community - if you have that much energy, get off your butt and do something about the problem you talk about. Join or support The Black Star Project, The Technology Access Foundation, or any number of organizations working to close the educational gap for African Americans or for Americans of color in general.