The first thing you write on a grant proposal is what they call "The Statement of the Problem." It's a description of why you think something needs to be done. I was working on a proposal for a program at my school last week-end and after I read it over a few times, I decided that "The Statement of the Problem" deserved a little more attention than it may ever get in its current application. So here it is. Keep in mind as you read that it is not referring to every single male of color on every U.S. college campus, but I see far too many on mine that fit the description.
A strong desire to imagine and purport that racism no longer exists in the lives of most African-Americans masks its presence and effects in the United States today. Despite the disappearance of immediately visible and enforced racial segregation, what some sociologists now call “neo-racism” results in such broad manifestations that statistics in every area of daily life document the up-hill climb success remains for many African-Americans even after decades of supposed progress.
Not only are African-American males four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American males at every educational level, but young Black males are infinitely more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than their European-American counterparts. This is, unfortunately, all too common knowledge. Further, White family’s average net worth is still 11 times that of Black families, even when we control for income, education, and family size. And largely African-American urban centers are disproportionately likely to be poverty-stricken and crime-filled without the presence of adequate compensating opportunities for any kind of personal development. In such an egregiously difficult social context, many African-American males arrive at young adulthood filled with grave self-doubt and little sense that they can, in fact, (and deserve to) access a successful future for themselves.
These particular young men often struggle with poor educational backgrounds, traceable to poor schools, poor nutrition during formative years (because of chronic poverty), and the lowered expectations of those authority figures and even teachers with whom these young men have been forced by circumstances to interact over their entire lives. But, as if this is not enough, these same young men have a far greater struggle inside themselves, as they deal with the pain of believing that they are incapable – of learning, of performing, and of achieving beyond the lowest possible goals. Those that are fortunate manage to get into college, but often with just enough of an edge to get in, and no idea whatsoever what to expect or how to negotiate the shoals of college life, still in many ways presented at the average university as a middle class White experience accessible only to specific students of color.
Nowhere in the United States are racial inequalities more apparent than they are on the public university campus, where many young men and women of color are allowed to enter, but expected to fail, where they can watch others successfully acquire the knowledge and skill sets necessary to seamlessly move into the job market as fully prepared workers, but where they nevertheless all too often carry the constant frustration and pain of not being able to find enough belief in themselves to complete that same journey.
A study by Claude Steele at Stanford University in 1999 and since replicated many times, for example, showed that when college students about to take standardized tests were told that the exams were simply for practice, Black students tended to score roughly as well as White students. When, on the other hand, the students were instructed that the tests would be used to rank them for placement purposes, the Black students scored lower. Worse, the best Black students showed the greatest effect in a demonstration of what was apparently their even more heightened fear of not measuring up to White students.
Universities are using such research now to justify creating programs for the purpose of reaching out to and retaining students of color. How successful can these programs really be, however, if they do not take into consideration the fact that the overall society in the United States still relegates these young people to the back of the social bus? Even as they study, even as some become computer-literate and learn how to pass classes, many of them suffer with broken hearts and a sense of their own unworthiness, a condition supported by the default position of White Supremacy in a nation where this reality is not only ignored, but denied. How can they come to believe in themselves when the society in which they live their daily lives continually communicates to them their reduced status?
As long as this situation exists, no amount of superficial programming will do much more than teach students of color and most particularly Black males how to “act White” better. No matter how committed they are or how hard they work, if they do not, as Bob Marley sang, “emancipate their minds from mental slavery,” in the end, the best they may be able to hope for is to someday find themselves able to afford a flashy car, while never actually reaching their full potential or being comfortable in their own skins – assuming they graduate at all. The entire African-American community struggles under the hardship of this truth.