The War Against Black Children

War Against Black ChildrenPublic Enemy or Talented Tenth? The War Against Black Children

In a predominantly Black South Los Angeles continuation school class packed with eleventh and twelfth grade girls, only half want to go to college, few can name role models of color and virtually none have been exposed to literature by women of color. Demonized as the most expendable of the expendable, Black continuation school students are routinely branded as too “at risk”, “challenged” and “deficit-laden” to be “college material”. Coming from backgrounds of abuse, incarceration, foster care and homelessness, these youth are already written off as budding welfare queens and baby mamas. They are at the epicenter of the war against Black children.

State-sanctioned terrorism against Black children is commonly understood as murder, harassment, and racial profiling — overt acts of violence which elicit marches, pickets, mass resistance and moral outrage. Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike fell all over themselves to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic murder of four African American girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Such overt acts of organized white supremacist terrorism against Black children have largely receded. Instead, they have been replaced by the socially acceptable state violence of school-to-prison pipelining, racist low expectations and the illusion of equal educational opportunity in the “post Jim Crow” era of re-segregated schools.

Last spring, in an offensive commencement speech to Morehouse College graduates, President Obama launched into his standard refrain about personal responsibility, sagging pants and absent fathers. Checking shiftless Black youth has long been one of his favorite presidential past-times. As progressive Black pundits have noted, this narrative not only plays well in Peoria, but on the global stage. For a nation brainwashed into believing the U.S. is an exceptionalist beacon, the underachievement of black students has become both shorthand for and explanation of its low standing in academic rankings. According to this view, the achievement gap between (lazy) Black and (enterprising) white and Asian students “drags” down the U.S.’ global academic standing. Steeped in a culture of pathology, native-born African American youth “squander” the opportunities seized upon by newly arrived immigrant students of color.

As a 2013 high school graduate and first generation college student of mixed heritage, Ashley Jones is well acquainted with toxic anti-black propaganda. She says, “Being Black and Thai…if I do well on a test or in class, then some people will comment, ‘that’s your Asian side.’”

Jones comes from a South L.A. school where it is not uncommon for teachers to reflexively track students into college prep, honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes according to race and ethnicity. She comments, “If you were to ask these same people about race, they would tell you we are all equal and anyone can achieve anything they set their mind to, but when you listen to them talk at nutrition and lunch, you hear Blackness constantly associated with violence, ‘being ghetto’, and a lack of intellectual abilities.”

A recent L.A. Times article about Kashawn Campbell, a high-achieving African American graduate of South L.A.’s Jefferson High School who struggled to get C’s and D’s at UC Berkeley, exemplifies these sentiments. The over 700 responses on the article’s comment thread were relentless: the young man’s plight was due to inflated expectations, laziness, outright sloth, and the natural intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Even the National Review picked up the piece and dubbed it an example of a “Devastating Affirmative Action Failure.”

War Against Black ChildrenWhy, many commenters howled contemptuously, didn’t Campbell’s slot go to a “real” achiever, i.e., a hardworking Asian or white student who genuinely deserved it? Missing from the near universal condemnations of affirmative action was the fact that Campbell’s freshman performance at UC Berkeley reflects the deficits of a neo-liberal public education system in which even high achieving students of color may be grossly underprepared for college work.

High-stakes tests, unqualified teachers, culturally un-responsive curricula, overcrowded classrooms, long term subs, high student-to-college counselor ratios and school climates that over-suspend, criminalize and push-out Black and Latino youth all influence whether a student thrives or languishes in a rigorous college environment. According to the Education Trust West, “Only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university if (these) current trends continue.”

Yet the myth of the lazy Black student, mascot of a shiftless pathological culture, remains a powerful theme in anti-public education and anti-affirmative action propaganda. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) entered into an agreement with several Alabama school districts to redress the under-representation of African American students in advanced, honors and AP course enrollment (as well as test-taking). The OCR found that advanced math was offered in the seventh grade at white middle schools, but wasn’t offered at predominantly African American middle schools.

High school AP courses are gatekeepers to top colleges and universities. A high score on an AP test allows a student to receive college course credit. Nationwide, African American students are less likely to be enrolled in AP classes, especially the “elite” math and science courses that are virtually required for admission to top STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. At 14% of the U.S. student population Black students comprise only 3% of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams.

According to the College Board, “The vast majority of Black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.” Persistently racist attitudes about the academic and intellectual capacity of Black students are a major barrier to their placement in AP and college prep courses. In schools with diverse multicultural populations Black students are still routinely consigned to less challenging courses (even if they have high GPAs) and stereotyped as not being as capable as other students of color.

As one private college counselor argues, “With competition for college admission increasing every year, many students fear they won’t be accepted without five or six AP courses, and when it comes to the most selective colleges, they are probably right.” Eighty-three percent of colleges ranked grades in college prep courses as the single most important factor in their admissions decisions. According to the OCR, “enrollment in middle school advanced math courses – and, in particular, in 8th grade Algebra—sets students on the path for completion of the District’s highest level course offerings in math and science, including AP courses.”

Nationwide, African American students struggle with and are underrepresented in eighth grade Algebra courses. In Silicon Valley, fount of American technological innovation, fewer than 25% of black and Latino students successfully complete Algebra. Moreover, only 20% of Latinos and 22% of African-Americans “graduate with passing grades in the courses that are required” for admission to UC and Cal State universities.

Ultimately, the predominantly white and Asian make-up of Silicon Valley companies reflects the insidious ramifications of these disparities. Passing Algebra is a major predictor of later success in college. But if students of color don’t have access to college prep math in middle school (and then transition to high school taking less rigorous courses), gaining admission to and staying in college, much less graduating from college, will never be a viable option.

Despite the mainstreaming of discourse about “diversity” and culturally responsive teaching, there is little focus on the unrelenting violence anti-black racism inflicts upon even high-achieving Black students. The vitriol expressed toward UC Berkeley student Kashawn Campbell reflects the rawness of mainstream views about the moral failings of all Black students. Here, “even” high-achieving Black students are presumed to be “guilty” representatives of communities that reject presumably accepted “American” standards for academic success and personal uplift.

sikivu hutchinsonExceptional Black folk may delude themselves into believing that they can successfully manipulate this equation in their favor. But Obama’s destructive Talented Tenth palliatives merely reflect this nation’s deep investment in violence against Black children.

Sikivu Hutchinson
Black Femlens

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


  1. -Nate says

    But of course ~ the 1 % , in charge of the gop’s relentless attacks on Public Schooling , wants it this way because Educated Blue Collar Pople don’t remain working at McwallyMart forever……
    Of the four Foster boys of ours that graduated High School this April , three are off to College , hopfully to break this terrible treadmil of poverty & hopelessness .

  2. Mike Flynn says

    “The ‘Process of Synthesis’ needed for the Education of Inner City Youth”

    Until people look at what high level thinking is all about – inner City Youth will be denied the best opportunity to improve their lot in life. In NYC up in Harlem, back in 1988 -1989 I was part of the nucleus of faculty that put together the curriculum for an inner City program called ‘Borough Academies, which was launched in Fordham heights in the Bronx, NY. It was written up in the NYT as something that worked for inner City youth, high risk students and was expanded to all five boroughs, and while it was better than most satellite programs of its kind it still fell way short of its promise. I’ll quickly share what I learned teaching History and Computer Lab there, over the course of a few years before I was ignored one time to many, and went back to Corporate life to earn a six figure salary.

    It is essential to instruct students on how and why society labels people. It may sound funny but most of our students had never really thought about it, and how it worked against them and how they had bought into it, and tried consciously or subconsciously to live up to even the worst of labels. I came to understand that teaching to a test isn’t really teaching at all and that is a political problem. That teaching someone to think means teaching in debt from multiple source material, that students can then cross reference, compare, and write their own opinion, about an issue they evaluate information from various experts – achieving ‘Synthesis – a higher level of cognitive thinking – and acquisition of a level of expertise, most students in High School rarely flirt with who are textbook bound.

    It’s really not just about the Math or a good text book and that means politically your up against the regents, and parents who are only concerned with college entrance criteria in many cases. This can be the case even with under achieving students whose parents still have big dreams in mind for their futures and expect you to take those aspirations very seriously. I chose to treat Parents with respect but understood I was preparing students for college and life and that requires a person with the ability to think in the real world.
    I taught high level communication and presentation skills in my classroom and it helped with self esteem issues. They caught on very quick –I was really surprised at how creative and innovative they were in presenting material. In any case –I’ve got to run —

    Mike Flynn ‘Middle Class Mike’


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