August seems to be the month for racial disparities in education. Last week, the Education Trusts released a report on the abysmal graduation rates among African American college students, and this week, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released its "50 State Report on Black Males & Education," which highlights the atrociously low high school graduation rate among African American men.
Overall, the Schott Foundation found that, for the 2007/2008 school year, the graduation rate for black men in the U.S. was a dismal 47 percent. The 10 lowest performing states for black men -- New York, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, District of Columbia, Indiana, Alabama and Georgia -- had an average graduation rate of 38.9 percent, compared to 65.3 percent for white men. At the bottom of the list for states was New York, with a 25 percent graduation rate for its black male students, and at the bottom of the list for counties was Pinellas County in Florida, with a dismal rate of 21 percent.
The situation is too complicated -- and the achievement chasm too vast -- to hold a single thing responsible for this crisis, but it suffices to say that this is a massive failure of our educational infrastructure; simply put, the majority of African American men in most states are failing to complete high school and entering adulthood without skills necessary to achieve -- or even have a shot at achieving -- economic success. Indeed, it's hard to understate the extent to which this is a bona fide catastrophe; high school dropouts are dramatically more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated. On average, high school dropouts will earn 37 cents for every dollar made by high school graduates, and over their lifetimes, high school dropouts will cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wages.
Yesterday, John McWhorter sparked a long discussion of the role "black culture" plays holding back "black progress." For my part, I think these discussions are a little silly (despite my willingness to participate in them); "black culture" might be a little more cohesive than the cultures of other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, but it's certainly not monolithic, and the norms of an African American community in West Baltimore are different from the norms of an African American community in North Minneapolis. Put another way, "black culture" is too diffuse and too heterogeneous for it to contribute to an educational failure of this magnitude in any meaningful way.
To ameliorate this problem, we'll have to spend less time talking about some amorphous and ill-defined "culture," and more time looking for ways to repair and reform our broken institutions. There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good work on this end, but when it comes to our political dialogue as a whole, I can't say that I'm too optimistic.
-- Jamelle Bouie
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