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Achievement gap: It's still about race

Imagine a report that reached the following three conclusions: In Maryland, 35 percent of males passed Advanced Placement exams, but only 8 percent of females passed them; 70 percent of males who took the AP exams could pass them, but only 28 percent of females could; and nationally, an estimated 79 percent of females who could succeed in AP courses were not even being offered them. The outcry over such differences by gender in achievement and access to AP tests would result in a massive public outcry over obvious systemic failures to educate males and females equally. The injustice would be obvious to everyone.

Now consider the reality: Those same numbers were recently reported, but the "males" were whites and the "females" were blacks. Listen for the outrage. Listen for the calls for immediate reform. Listen for the cries of injustice. Nothing of this sort is to be heard. Why?

Let us now be honest. The results from the first scenario would run counter to the expectations of every parent, teacher, citizen and legislator. It would be clear that something was wrong. The results of the second scenario are exactly what most parents, teachers, citizens and legislators expect. There is no cognitive dissonance because nothing is perceived to be out of the ordinary.

This thought experiment makes clear that racial stigma and racial injustice remain entrenched in our society, our education system and our politics. It also demonstrates three significant problems with the recent analysis of the achievement gap in Maryland. First, it is insufficient to claim that the problem is now more one of class than of race when the poor remain disproportionately black. Second, to argue that educational success is primarily a matter of personal responsibility and effort on the part of students and parents logically entails that black students and parents are far more likely to be irresponsible than their white counterparts. This is racism in pure form. Third, the stigmatizing effects of such analysis eliminate any sense of necessity and urgency for systemic reform.

More black students have succeeded in schools where greater success by white students is still very much the norm. Black success in schools that are predominantly black remains rare. Therefore, noting that the achievement gap is closing in racial terms will still not change the face of success or the face of failure. Nor will it do to pretend the problem is now only a matter of class rather than race when, in Baltimore City Public Schools, 86 percent of the students are black and 84 percent of the students are low-income.

Every student and every parent is responsible for taking education very seriously. But this obvious truth does not explain who is responsible for differences in educational outcomes. In the imagined scenario of differences between males and females, it would still be true that all males, females and their parents should take their education seriously. But when drastic differences in educational outcomes are considered, it would be assumed that factors other than the effort of the students and parents are responsible. Otherwise, one would have to conclude that female students and their parents are somehow to blame for the differences.

Yet, too many are happy to blame black students and parents for their lack of effort and, in doing so, wash their hands of any concerns about systemic injustice. They conflate questions of responsibility for individual actions and responsibility for racial inequality. Additionally, they suggest that the success of white students is strictly a matter of merit, rather than systemic and historical advantages.

The question is not why this or that black student has such poor educational outcomes. The question is why there is such a difference in educational outcomes between whites and blacks. To conclude that this difference is explained in terms of individual responsibility requires us to conclude that blacks as a group are intellectually and morally less capable of educational success than whites. This creates an obvious stigma that robs all blacks of opportunity — even the successful ones. Even blacks who achieve great things, not to mention those who achieve only average success, will still live under a public cloud of suspicion that the problems characterizing blacks a group are simply lurking under the surface of their lives, waiting to reveal themselves at school, at work or in communities.

Unless we reject this stigmatizing logic loudly and at every turn, we will never begin to address questions of racial injustice. We will continue to make the likelihood of educational and economic success depend far too much on skin color, and we will all be complicit, willingly or not, in supporting the ongoing triumph of white supremacy in our country.

Joe Pettit is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University. His email is morganprof@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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