07/25/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

Why "Courageous" Dinner Conversations Are Important

I try to be a gracious, well-mannered dinner guest, and a good listener; or so I'm told. It's what I reflect about over the dinner that may give people indigestion and pause. As acquaintances and friends sometimes ask me:

"Eric, why do you often steer dinner discussions toward issues of racism?"

"Why are you critical of television programs and news broadcasts that fail to meet your standard for featuring black and brown people?"

"And why do you always seem to complain that black and brown people are insufficiently represented in discussions about education reform?"

I am guilty of all of the above -- and I am not the least bit sorry or ashamed. For I believe race continues to matter. Some may argue that the United States is no longer a society defined by race. But my own history, the history of this country and even the headlines we read every day suggest otherwise.

I am an African American and an advocate for quality education for all. I came to this career from the recognition that education is the best way to provide the sort of opportunities needed to level the playing field so that more people might experience the American dream.

For me this is a personal calling. My family rose above poverty in Peekskill, NY, through a belief in the ideals of this nation, hard work and education. My father dropped out of New York University just short of his degree to take a job with the United States Postal Service to support his young family. My mother continued her education through Hunter College and then Columbia's Teachers College. Both parents vowed their three sons would learn the importance of a college education. Though the journey was wrought with many setbacks -- racist beliefs about our capacity, financial challenges, teachers and counselors that didn't think we were college material, and physical fights on our way home from school due to racist taunts -- my brothers and I ultimately benefited from our parents' relentless pursuit of this goal.

The late Augustus Hawkins (1907-2007) was the first African American from California elected to Congress. He authored some of our country's most respected legislation, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, and the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. He later founded the National Council on Educating Black Children ( to bring together top educators dedicated to preparing black children for academic success and productive, fulfilling lives.

Like others, Mr. Hawkins discovered that too many black children faced problems in school simply because they were black. For that reason, he believed that "Black people are proxy for what ails American education in general. And so as we fashion solutions which help black children, we fashion solutions which help all children."

Were he still alive, I can't help but think Congressman Hawkins would have to conclude that America remains stuck in racial muck.

  • A 2012 Associated Press poll found a majority of non-blacks had anti-black prejudices -- and a significant number of those holding those bigoted views were under age 30.
  • Many Americans justifiably were outraged by the apparent police abuse of the late Eric Garner in New York City and Marlene Pinnock in California. Both recent incidents were caught on videotape, leading some to call for all police arrests to be recorded to ensure equal treatment.
  • A July 2, 2014, piece by Braden Goyette and Alissa Scheller of Huffington Post laid out 15 unassailable reasons the United States is not in a post-racial society. Among those related to education were the likelihood that black and Latino students attend poorly funded schools and that many schools remain segregated.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said when a majority of the court struck down a college affirmative action initiative in April, the court "ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."

So, yes, American education is an important cause for me and for my colleagues at the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education. We believe education is a major pathway that, when combined with policies that address housing, transportation, health and jobs, can begin to address these alarming statistics:

  • In some cities, the high school dropout rate for black males is above 50 percent.
  • Black people comprise 12 percent of the general population -- but nearly 44 percent of the prison population.
  • By the time they reach their mid-thirties, six of 10 black high-school dropouts have spent time in prison.

As comedian/educator Bill Cosby and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, implored in their 2007 book Come On People, it doesn't have to be this way. Personal responsibility is essential, as they advocate, but so is institutional responsibility, i.e., that which is required to address the racial stereotypes that continue to shape the culture of America.

This is why I direct dinner conversations toward "courageous conversations" whenever I can. I want answers to what seem to be intractable issues of institutional racism. Answers we have seen in our work, where school district and school-based educators have enabled students to rise above their challenges and succeed.

It also is why I engage in counting games to see whether people of color are well represented in business, media, and the political arenas that shape our society.

I count in hopes that one day, in my lifetime, I no longer will feel the need.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.