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Cultural Diversity: Breaking Barriers, Widening Perspectives
The race war probably would have come to America a generation ago, led by angry disillusioned black men who had fought in World War II, Korea, and Japan, but for the flickering promise of “education.”
“Education is the answer,” I heard and read myriad times during my boyhood and young adulthood. The condescending meaning, of course, was that when African Americans got more education and culture and were not “just out of the trees,” as Nixon put it, white people would accept them and the two races would live happily ever after.
Normal black skepticism was intensified by the fact that in all of the South and most of the rest of America, whites made it very difficult for blacks to get that “education.” From drastic laws in the South forbidding whites to teach blacks to read and write to outrageous Jim Crow statutes to the gerrymandering of school districts in the North, whites ensured that precious few black people would be liberated by learning. Thus did whites protect their supremacy in business, commerce, and all other areas of American life; they limited the number of ex-slaves who might aspire to “social equality.”
Still, black people clung to the cliché “Education is the answer.” There was nothing else to resort to except total rebellion. Whatever else one might say about them, the ex-slaves were survivors. With education, they figured, they ultimately would outwit the most wicked of white men.
The first generation of blacks to get real education and legal acceptance opted first to widen the parameters of educational opportunity for black people. When Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues won the great Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, they really believed that education would be the answer, because they foresaw the end of tarpaper shacks and other grotesquely inferior elementary and secondary schools for black youngsters. When they won admission of blacks to the universities of Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi for African Americans, they thought the road was paved for annual armies of intelligent black men and women who, by virtue of their skills and character, could not be rejected by the gatekeepers of American business, government, and life in general.
The country came close to war with terrible riots in Detroit, New York, Washington, D.C., and other places, but they were always in isolated pockets. Every education triumph by the NAACP drove war-making anger away.
But then came another generation of white subterfuge and naked lawlessness in which black Americans were denied the education that had been proclaimed “the answer” Black disillusionment came on like a tidal wave, with millions of African Americans “drowning” in it, as a metaphor for drugs and crime, while others swam free full of rage, a metaphor for the uprising that is yet to come.
Now, near the end of the century, I find white people justifying their lawlessness, denying 33 million black people of learning opportunities. People actually believe in a “Bell Curve” that shows that education is not the answer, because African Americans can never absorb enough education.
I ask myself, how can Americans become so smart scientifically as they become so much stupider socially and morally?
I first began to understand the magnitude of the damage that disillusionment had done in 1987 when I read in the Washington Post that at McKinley High School in Washington when the honor roll was announced, many black honorees refused to stand when their names were called. Bright black kids could not stand against the peer pressure that said those who had made the honor roll were nerds, geeks and, worst of all, “acting like Whitey.” Youngsters who spoke and wrote well were treated as traitors to the black race, because their good grades exposed them as “using Whitey’s language.” How, I wondered, could any black kid believe that the language that had been used so beautifully by Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, and Whitney Young belonged to “Whitey?”
The white "intelligence” frauds had told black children, “You are dumb; God and evolution made you that way; those of you who show great intelligence are freaks, or impostors of white men and women.” Those honor students at McKinley acted as if they believed this — as if they really were ashamed of their own brain power.
That newspaper story infuriated me. It meant that the know-nothings had imposed their pressures in ways that made the claims of black ignorance and failure self-fulfilling prophecies.
I first expressed my outrage in a column in which I said:
I understand that the legacies of slavery and poverty are such that millions of young blacks still grow up in homes where there is no history of formal educational achievement, no appreciation of trained intelligence. I know that millions of teenagers have never understood or accepted the reality that ignorance is a greater enslaver than the Ku Klux Klan could ever be, and that learning has liberated more people than all the armies ever assembled by man. But I find it almost criminal that the know-nothings are successfully pressuring youngsters of great promise to hang back at their level.
This is one of those problems that cannot be solved by a civil rights law or a government grant. It requires that black people devise programs to counter destructive peer pressures. This means building up incentives and rewards that make it more than worthwhile for high-schoolers to reject anti-achievement pressures.
Praise and recognition by respected professionals could become as intoxicating as getting along with the gang.
Then it occurred to me that a journalistic expression of anger cost me nothing and would do nothing to change the attitudes of black underachievers. We black people were too much inclined to deplore negative things about our children and their environment, and too little inclined to do anything to change them. That is when I decided that this society was obligated to put on positive pressures to wipe out the overweening influence of the “know-everything” social scientists and the know-nothing high school peers. The nation needed incentives so powerful that they would inspire black high school youngsters to place their scholastic achievement above the social approval of their peers.
I had no idea of the efficacy or stupidity of my actions when I put up $i6,ooo of my money for a scholarship program I called Project Excellence. I simply hoped that my friends would donate in total another $t6,ooo so I could give eight $4,000 scholarships to black college-bound youngsters who had busted their academic butts to show that they were not doomed by inferior genes.
My friends, and many strangers, responded in ways that made me believe that this country would never let the professors of hate lead them to national doom. That first year, Project Excellence had $208,000 and gave $4,000 grants to fifty-two youngsters.
In the years since, black high school seniors in Washington, D.C., and the contiguous counties in Maryland and Virginia have fought doggedly to win nominations from their high schools for a Project Excellence scholarship. The Cafritz Foundation, the Freedom Forum, and an incredible array of individuals, foundations, and corporations responded so generously that by 1996 we had made more than $29 million available to just over sixteen hundred black students.
These youngsters have shown me, as no professorial
treatise ever could, the correctness of those who say that IQ
is a minor and often meaningless factor in deciding the potential
or the worth of human beings. Let me tell you the stories of a
few of those sixteen hundred youngsters who resisted negative
peer pressures and embraced excellence.
Reflection Exercise #5
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