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Our Youth Don't Need Bootstraps, They Need Us

09/03/2010 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Upon reading Yvette Carnell's recent column, "Low Black Male Graduation Rates Indicate a Failure in Faith, Not Circumstances", I found it hard to believe the author was suggesting that young Black Males, a term she inexplicably says is devoid of love, merely need an attitude adjustment and self-love to achieve in the classroom and meet their full potential in life. This 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' admonition rings hollow.

Certainly true self-esteem and confidence are positive attributes, but Black youth face a particularly grim daily reality that threatens their healthy development from their first step inside the public school system. The Black male achievement deficit is only a symptom of interrelated factors conspiring against them, including but not limited to, widespread disenfranchisement of the right to equal educational opportunity, limited job opportunity and disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.

A recent Schott Foundation report, "50 State Report on Black Males and Education", showed the Black male graduation rate is woeful nationwide, less than fifty percent. The latest U.S. Labor Department figures show Black teens have the highest unemployment rate of any group, 40.6 percent. Meanwhile, young Black males have disproportionate contact with the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems at a higher rate than all other groups.

Nationwide, K-12 public schools have become dramatically institutionalized with students treated as commodities and their value increasingly measured only by statistics, i.e., test scores. The aim and purpose of school policies overwhelmingly is discipline and conformity, not growth and social development. Youth who do not produce under this oppressive, industrial education approach are eliminated, i.e., either marginalized and removed from general education track to isolated and ineffective special education programs or they are literally removed from school by suspension and expulsion under severe discipline policies. Often special education is just a weigh station before ultimate removal by zero tolerance school discipline policies. Black youth face dual disproportionate rates of special education assignments and school discipline removals, including referrals to the court system. They are literally banished from 'good society' and deemed worthless at a young age. Is it any wonder that their educational experience is widely described as a school-to-prison pipeline?

The promoters of these oppressive methods employ numerous myths to disguise and justify their systematic disenfranchisement of Black youth. The 'soft bigotry of low expectations' was one such myth promoted by former President Bush in justifying the No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced high stakes testing and 'teaching to the test' as the new millennium definition of learning and curriculum. But we cannot afford to buy into these myths or give any credence whatsoever to the idea that our youth deserve the inhumane treatment they receive from the increasingly tandem education and criminal justice systems. As adults, we should do better than blaming our youth, even those labeled troubled or wayward, and we should save the 'No excuses' mantra for those seeking to destroy our younger generations. And their pending destruction should be cause for community-wide intervention because it threatens to destroy the fabric of our communities.

Certainly, personal responsibility and self-sufficiency are important character traits to be learned and can breed success but no child should be expected to have the savvy to self-negotiate the deliberate landmines set throughout our public educational system. To point the finger at our youth in the face of these facts is an abandonment of our responsibilities as community members. There isn't a bootstrap long enough for an entire generation of Black youth to save themselves from this systematic oppression; they need a lifeline with multiple hands of concerned elders pulling them to safety.

Now, what are we going to do about it?

As a community, accept that special education is not a diagnosis and it shouldn't be a curse. Demand that school districts test youth to specifically identify the special need, instead of general catch-alls, such as learning or emotionally disabled. Then demand the school district provide services to meet the special needs for all children, not just children of higher income families.

Instead of only focusing on the achievement gap, demand accountability from school boards for any racial disparity in special education assignments and disciplinary removals by demanding school district statistics, then filing complaints with state and federal education agencies to document the disparity. It is illegal to use segregated special education programs to warehouse 'troubled' youth away from the general education curriculum, as is any unjustified over-representation of minority youth.

Demand the use of culturally relevant practices in the assessment of students for special needs, as well as discipline. We are all equal stakeholders in public education, so there should not be any cultural bias in educational decision-making.

An oppressive reality is what Black youth face everyday, but admonishing our young Black males to have faith and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is overly simplistic, and actually absolves and promotes the further disenfranchisement of their right to equal educational opportunity. Before our communities suffer the dire consequences of a lost generation, I think it is time we work to protect our Black youth, and all youth, from a broken educational system, instead of blaming them for it.

Ernest Saadiq Morris is a youth rights advocate, civil rights & liberties lawyer, and founder of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice. You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.