Black Boys in Crisis: “Black People Can’t Be Doctors”
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
When I was in elementary school (the mid-1980’s) one of my teachers periodically brought professionals from the area to our class to talk about their careers. On one occasion, she brought in a black male doctor from a local hospital. He spoke for about fifteen minutes and then opened up the floor for questions. One of my friends (also a black male) raised his hand. “Are you really a doctor?” he asked. The man replied that he was, and my friend retorted, “Black people can’t be doctors!” To be honest, my friend echoed what the entire class must have been thinking. I know that thought had surfaced in my own mind.
Sure, we had seen black doctors on television and movies, but we thought they were make-believe, like the cartoons we watched on Saturday mornings. We only believed what we could experience or see for ourselves. And since we had been to plenty of family clinics and hospitals and had never seen a black doctor there, we automatically believed that he was not being truthful. That was how brainwashed we were.
Recognizing the Crisis
There is a crisis in America today. It’s a crisis in education; a crisis that predominantly affects minorities. And perhaps the most affected subgroup is young African-American males. This is my background: I was a black boy growing up in one of the poorest counties in America, in a school district so dismal it was eventually taken over by federal authorities. Though I succeeded in pulling free of the mire, many of my classmates did not. Shortchanged by their education and left with few prospects, they fell into a cycle of criminal activity, drug use, and jail time. From my time as a student and, later, as a teacher in the Mississippi public school system, I know firsthand the struggles, temptations, and apathy black boys face. But I also know what it takes to turn a life around; I know what it means to watch a flower spring from trampled ground.
One out of three black men in America will be incarcerated in his lifetime, and more than a third of the prison population is black. But this unequal rate of discipline does not begin at adulthood: it has its roots in the schools. Federal data indicate that black students account for 15 percent of the total K-12 population but make up over one-third of those students who are suspended once from school, nearly half of students who are suspended more than once, and over one-third of students expelled.
Over half of black young men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma. And of those dropouts, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point. It should be apparent that this crisis does not just affect the African-American community: the enormous costs associated with retaining students, supporting dropouts who cannot find a job, and incarcerating large numbers of young men are borne by society as a whole.
This series aims to serve as both mirror and roadmap. I have pulled out the seven issues that I feel are most critical in the lives of young African-American males: income inequality, incarceration, racial stereotypes, anti-intellectualism, etc. The series will begin by addressing those issues with statistics and stories culled both from my personal experience and from the experiences of others. They will move on to a more general discussion of the topic and examine efforts to overcome the difficulties. I intend to hone in on what works; on practical steps to move us from the current crisis to a future of parity and promise.