The spate of recent news about stellar Black teens being accepted to Ivy League intuitions has started quite a debate. While many have congratulated the young men on their accomplishments, others used the occasion to offer a diss to African-Americans by arguing, “More Black folks need to see this! Maybe they’ll take education more seriously.”
Though I typically roll my eyes at such pronouncements, a Reddit thread got me thinking about something that has bothered me for some time. When it comes to notions about Black Americans and academic achievement, some continue to disseminate the problematic stereotype that Black folks just don’t care about education.
A user by the name of unecessarilymargie wrote (note: emphasis mine):
Sometimes I stumble on the occasional uncle tom on reddit lamenting about how they were bullied because they spoke in full sentences and did not listen to rap music? They talk about how they can’t connect with other black people because it’s considered “white” to be educated. What in the flying fuck is this? I have never heard or seen any black person being called out for not using AAVE or not listening to rap music or going to college. Like how do this conversations take place…” Hey I studied blah in college” “Get the hell away you oreo”.
I feel like a majority of this things are completely fabricated and just ridiculous to see all the time. I have yet to see a black child getting bullied for doing well in school any more than a white child getting bullied for being a “nerd”.
Firstly, let me acknowledge that these types of stories do exist. On many occasions I’ve listened as people recalled being teased by their peers for “sounding White” or doing well in school, and as a teacher, I watched as some students seemed more interested in learning the latest rap song than passing the periodic assessment. Still, despite these experiences, the myth that Black folks just don’t care about education is just not true.
Mining my own life, it’s easy for me to refute this notion. My father is a teacher, and although my mother didn’t finished college, there was never any doubt that my brothers and I would. Moreover, the majority of my peers not only hold bachelor degrees, but many of them have one or more master degrees as well. If I relied on my personal experiences alone, I’d think the folks trotting out these notions are not only wrong, but also grossly misinformed.
However, we can’t simply rely on our own lives as evidence. The idea African-Americans no longer value education is preserved by the dismal statistics continually trotted out about the dropout rate, the false notion that there are more Black men in prison than in college, and the fact that Black entertainers and athletes are more recognizable than our CEOs and politicians (with the exception of President Obama, of course).
But the idea that African-Americans today no longer see the importance of education relies on stereotypes and stories, not facts.
Last year, the Department of Education reported that the high school graduation rates are higher than ever—across all ethnicities—and according to the Pew Center for Research, the White-Black educational gap has narrowed considerably. These days 86% of African-Americans ages 25 and over have a high school diploma, compared to 92% of Whites (in 1962, this number was 23% for Blacks and 49% for Whites). Moreover, among adults ages 25 and older, 21% of Blacks hold bachelor’s degrees compared to 34% of Whites (fifty years ago, the numbers were 4% and 10% for Blacks and Whites respectively). Additionally, there are more Black women enrolled in college than ever before, and Black women lead all groups in overall college enrollment, while African-American men are currently outpacing both White men and Latinos in enrollment.
The most damning part of the “Black folks don’t care about education” narrative, however, is that we continue to perpetuate it. And before someone claims that stereotypes are based in truth, NPR’s Gene Demby breaks down why this just isn’t accurate.
Discussing stereotypes in basketball, Demby writes:
People tend to think that stereotypes are honest reflections of what they see in the world. But instead, they often shape how we see the world, how we metabolize the data in front of us. It’s confirmation bias: if people see a lot of Jews playing and dominating basketball, and the common stereotype is that Jews are crafty schemers, in the popular imagination, the sport becomes about crafty scheming. And if someone were writing back then about why so few blacks were among the game’s biggest names, they’d probably fall back on hoary stereotypes about black players lacking the necessary intelligence or craftiness or work ethic.
It says something that when people explain why there are so few Asian-Americans in college basketball today, they summon the very tropes that once were used to explain why there were so many Jewish players. Jews are so crafty and short; of course they’d succeed at basketball! Asians are so intelligent and short; why would they be playing basketball?
Stereotypes rest on observations that appear to be superficially true: a lot of top basketball players are black. But over time, stereotypes transform from observations of patterns into rules, and eventually into self-reflexive explanations for those rules. Stereotypes become self-reinforcing. A lot of top basketball players are black because black folks are innately better at basketball. Eventually, they actually blind us to the complex mix of sociological, economic and historic circumstances that undergird those patterns.
So, while many continue to rely on skewed statistics or childhood anecdotes about being bullied for “acting White” because of their good grades or command of standard English, the fact remains, African-Americans are more educated than ever and continue to close the achievement gap despite the very real challenges of generational poverty, inadequate schools, and systematic racism that criminalizes Black students from the very beginning (starting in preschool).