The Achievement Gap, What is the Cause?
By Damon L. Fordham, MA
Recently, Supreme Court Justice Antoni Scalia caused quite an uproar with these words- “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them, I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some — you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks, admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less.”
I take it the Chief Justice is referring to the “achievement gap” between black and white students in the US. Has anyone who made such remarks thought to examine why such a gap may exist in the first place? One has to consider that for generations, Black Americans and to a large extent, poor whites were educated under this idea expressed by future president Woodrow Wilson to a conference of High School teachers in 1909. “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privileges of the liberal education and fit them to perform specific, difficult, manual tasks.”
In other words, one group was educated to run things and the other was deliberately undereducated to be run as a permanent class of cheap labor.
In our state of SC, in 1895 Sen. Benjamin Tillman created the Jim Crow constitution that among other things enforced separate but unequal schools. Many rural areas had schools open only a few months a year for blacks well into the early 1950s and many did not have access to libraries or bookstores until the 1960s. As Tillman was preparing this plan, the great educator Booker T. Washington, who was born in slavery, walked 400 miles from his home in Malden West Virginia to be educated at Hampton Institute and went on to build the still thriving Tuskegee University boldly told Tillman on November 4, 1895,” You, honored Senator, are a student of history. Has there ever been a race that was helped by ignorance? Has there ever been a race that was harmed by Christian intelligence? It is agreed by some that the Negro’s schools should be practically closed because he cannot bear his proportion of the burden of taxation. Can an ignorant man produce taxable property faster than an intelligent man? Will capital and immigration be attracted to a State where three out of four are ignorant and where poverty and crime abound?”
South Carolina and some other states’ chickens have come home to roost to this very day from the accuracy of what Mr. Washington predicted. They should have listened.
Not only did Mr. Washington’s warning come to pass, these conditions are directly responsible for the fact that in spite of the success of people such as Mr. Washington, George Washington carver, Mary McLeod Bethune, and others too numerous to mention, there were many African Americans whose spirits broke under the conditions of an enforced limited education. Many came to see success as something elusive to black people. As Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther movement said in his May 15, 1967 essay in the Black Panther newspaper, “Fear and Doubt,”
“The lower socio-economic Black male is a man of confusion. He faces a hostile environment and is not sure that it is not his own sins that have attracted the hostilities of society. All his life he has been taught (explicitly and implicitly) that he is an inferior approximation of humanity”
Dr. Newton continued, “His psychological development has been prematurely arrested. This doubt begins at an early age and continues throughout his life. The parents pass it on to the child and the social system reinforces the fear, the shame, and the doubt. In the third or fourth grade he may find that he shares the classroom with White students. When the class is engaged in reading exercises, all the Black students find themselves in a group at a table reserved for slow readers. This may be quite an innocent effort on the part of the school system. The teacher may not realize that the Black students feared (in fact, feel certain) that Black means dumb, and White means smart. The children do not realize that the head start White children get at home is what accounts for the situation. It is generally accepted that the child is the father of the man; this holds true for the lower socioeconomic Black people.”
On a personal note, this is something I witnessed firsthand in my own youth. In 1970, as public school integration became mandatory in South Carolina, I was sent to the local predominantly black elementary school, which served a mostly rural population. The majority of children there came from parents who were menial or farm laborers who came from backgrounds of limited education. As the son of a schoolteacher, I already knew how to read and enjoyed doing so, but this was not the case with my classmates. The teachers there would just give me a book to read during the day while they worked with the other children. My parents learned of this and transferred me to a predominantly white elementary school. When I was reunited with the children from the black school upon entering high school, I was shocked to learn that most were still at a low reading level.
It is important to look below the surface of the matter. It is not that black children are incapable of learning, as so many have been led to believe, but most have been taught that for so long that many of come to believe this is the case, which, as stated earlier, was done to ensure the supply of cheap labor. This is why generations of blacks who escaped this trap have told their children that they had to work tow or three times harder than anyone else in order to succeed in life.
With conditions like this going on as long as they did, which affected the mindset of so many people who are still with us today and who have passed these results to their children and grandchildren, we have to consider the following-
The surprise is not that so few of us have succeeded in spite of all of this, but that so many of us have succeeded at all.