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This book takes a look at the current state of minorities in America, focusing specifically on black minorities, evaluating their plight through the lens of significant past events, present day events and the future, and offers perspectives on the current state of affairs.
In all societies the world over, the idea of equality is clearly bankrupt. The goal in any given society should be to allow every citizen the opportunity to have an equitable stake in their country’s political, social and economic future. They (citizens) should be able to have an impact on others, and in turn, their own lives. Having done an analysis of the prevailing forces that continue to shape race relations in the United States, some suggestions for the empowerment and equitable participation of minorities in the American society will be discussed.
For more than a hundred years now, the United States has been pursuing the ideal of equality. In recent years the new political environment in American has re-awakened this discussion. Equality assumes that by some form of social engineering, we have the ability to make people equal. Imagine a situation in which a couple has three sons, the physical, social and educational abilities of the three sons will naturally vary. Their choice of clothing, friends and even their perception of the world will differ. No matter how close these boys appear as brothers, from a genetic and social standpoint, they will always remain as different individuals. The parents for their own part cannot in good conscience wish anything else on these boys. If three kids from the same genetic gene pool, one family can end up as such vastly different individuals, even after being exposed to the same environment. How can society or the government for that matter, expect to engineer people to be equal? This point is precisely one of the failures of certain political systems. One of the roles of any government is to ensure that each citizen is equal before the law and legally has the right to purse a productive and happy life. This however, is quite different from the concept of a government engineering an equal outcome for all citizens. Provision of equal opportunity suffices. It is the absence of equal opportunity and the discriminatory actions by some against minorities that derails the dream for a productive and prosperous union amongst all Americans. This is not to say that efforts should not be made to correct society’s injustices. This simply means that any effort by the government or from private citizens to address societal injustices has to be focused on the opening up of opportunities for minorities, a hand up and not a handout. This would mean providing them opportunities to survive, to thrive and to contribute positively to society. Imagine how much more prosperous the United States would be if all of the minorities who are at the fringes of society were gainfully employed and being utilized to increase the productive forces of the country.
Some of the more obvious paths or solutions out of the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, indolence and denigration continue to elude minorities in the United States. The question is when and how do minorities break out of the routine paths or molds that society appears to have relegated them to? One could argue that education, economic empowerment, individual responsibility and hard work are obvious solutions to the plight of the underclass. However, a careful analysis of the issues, faced by most minorities, points to a more complex situation that requires an even more careful analysis into what some may describe as cultural poverty.
Education is a critical part of the solution to the myriad of problems plaguing minorities and other marginalized groups in society. In fact, some would argue that education is the single most import objective on the road to emancipation. However, the schools in the inner cities and poorer neighborhoods are underfunded and tend not to attract the most qualified, or more experienced teachers. Such disadvantages create complexities for the young people in these neighborhoods. This problem is amplified by the fact that a disproportionate number of the children in these neighborhoods are growing up in dysfunctional homes and are exposed to violence, crime and poverty at a very young age.
However, it must be pointed out that poverty can never be an excuse for not learning or not being given the opportunity to learn, especially in a country as endowed as the United States. This simply means that the challenges faced by young people in poorer minority neighborhoods are quite unique and present some very significant obstacles, not just for these young boys and girls, but to the American society as a whole. Gladly we all know that these obstacles are not insurmountable; education is the key to solving these problems.
For most of society education usually starts, at least informally, in the home. A child’s first exposure to learning language is usually in the home. Such learning is usually in the form of routine parental interactions. We have learned that reading to our children is an important part of the learning process. Some parents read stories and sing songs to their children. Parents intuitively teach their children through some of their most basic interactions. From infancy, parents encourage language development through vocal interactions with their infants. When mothers and fathers “talk” to their infants and speak in the high pitch voices, that babies seem to like, and in turn, when they respond to their baby’s vocalization, they work on developing their child’s interest in the world around them through interactions with nature. They foster investigation in science even if it is just done by giving the child an opportunity to play with their food. In essence children learn from this common interaction, through the normal interaction they learn about love and empathy from the very nurturing that they receive from their parents they learn to receive love and to give love in return. Also, once they receive appropriate nourishment and proper care they can continue to develop normally. However, many kids in poorer neighborhoods at a very young age are often forced to fend for themselves and grow up under very difficult circumstances. Kids from dysfunctional homes who grow up without a role model, be it a parent, an uncle or auntie, a grandparent, a sister or brother are at a significant disadvantage and often end up in trouble.
In our society we often see a troubled minority kid as an individual challenge, however, the scourges that such individuals develop often leaches out onto others in society. One lost child who drops out of school and pursues a life of crime can quickly become your problem and mine. How does society remedy this problem? We must first recognize the importance of education, and not only formal education, but the quest for knowledge in general. While it may be true that society may not owe everyone the same level of education, society does owe its citizens a stake in the country in which they were born or have adopted as their homeland. This level of obligation is achieved by ensuring that at an early age, all citizens learn how to read and write.
At a minimum reading and writing must be a mandatory requirement for individuals to be accepted as part of a larger society. Literacy should be an obligation and not a privilege. We often hear stories of black athletes who are pushed through the educational system because of their athletic prowess and are not even given the obligation to be literate. Some of these athletes have graduated high school and some even college only to come out to reveal that they are barely literate. This is not fair to the athlete, their families and even to society at large. Literacy rates must improve. After all, how can individuals who are eligible to vote and participate in the political process contribute in any significant way if they cannot read, and do not understand the issues? Can they even advocate for themselves in society? What kind of future could they possibly have?
The alarming dropout rate of minority high school students is a significant contributing factor to the plight of minorities in this country. About one in every two minority children leaves high school without graduating. These teens end up not being able to compete in the ever increasing competitive environment that they find themselves, many are functionally illiterate, hence their prospects for living above the poverty level is largely diminished. These individuals will potentially become a liability to society, depending on the government, and in turn tax payers, for support and tapping into the healthcare system more significantly than the average working person. This is largely because we know that poor Americans and those who are the working poor tend to demand more healthcare than the average working American.
Statistically, the high rate of teenage pregnancy in the black community is quite alarming. A lot of young minority teenagers are making babies, these teens are ill equipped to take care of the children they bring into this world. As a consequence, the teens, as well as their offspring suffer far reaching consequences. About 5% of all female teenagers between the ages of 15 to 19 will give birth as a result of unintended pregnancies. Birth rates for teenage women in this age group by race in 2006 was approximately 8.2% for Hispanics, 6.5% for blacks and 3.6% for whites.1 Many of these teens will not obtain a high school diploma and furthermore the effects of the unintended pregnancies on their future are confounding. In many cases, the children raised to these parents will live in poverty and the parents will be challenged by the fact that it will become even more difficult for many of them to complete their high school education as they juggle the responsibilities of being a parent with the necessity of working to earn an income to take care of their families. However, it is interesting to note that “Black teen mothers are more likely than Hispanic or white teen mothers to earn a diploma or GED by age 22. More than two-thirds (67 percent) of black women who had a child before the age of 18 went on to earn either a high school diploma or GED, compared with 55 percent of white women and 46 percent of Hispanic women in this category.2” In spite of this, we should not rest on these laurels, we should be striving to eradicate teen pregnancies and at the minimum, increase the number of teen parents who complete high school or their GED.
One could argue that young people today are not being fully sensitized or educated on the dangers of having sex at an early age. The dangers of having premature sexual encounters should be emphasized in schools, by including and designing classes that depict the dangers of unprotected sex. These classes should emphasize the dangers and consequences of teenage pregnancy, the associate responsibilities and consequences of bringing a child to the world and sexually transmitted diseases and even the possibility of death from diseases such as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
The challenge facing most teenagers is far more complicated than what is portrayed by popular television. Teen parents face problems that are not only a consequence of a lack of education but also a reflection of their immaturity. Many teens are not mature enough to make the many sacrifices that are needed to be made when raising a child or building a family. For some teen parents the child is seen as an obstacle to their ability to enjoy themselves and quite often the child is not their priority. As a result, children that are raised by teenage parents are at a very high risk of going astray and running into trouble.
The challenge to society is how best to address the issue of unintended teenage pregnancies and to develop appropriate resources to help to alleviate the problem. Sex education is a critical first step; some have even advocated community centers and the more controversial experiment in which some school health programs have even provided contraceptives such as condoms to students. For some, the latter is considered to be an indulgent and encouraging practice; however, many believe that these are practical solutions to a problem that has far reaching ramifications. Once teenagers have babies, their lives tend to go in a different direction and a lot of their dreams and aspirations might have to be put on hold as they struggle to raise their child.
The responsibility of society in addressing and stemming the tide of the very high dropout rates amongst high school teens should be viewed as a national priority. Teens who drop out of high school tend to do so for various reasons, some of the reasons include: a lack of commitment and discipline on the part of their own parents, many of these parents lack education themselves or were too young to have children when they did; some teens complain about being bored and disengaged from the school system, while others complain about their inability to comprehend the material being taught. There are a myriad of reasons why young people do not complete their high school education, but the most significant influence or cause appears to be related to the homes they come from and the communities in which they live. The school systems nationwide can be improved but the primary responsibility for a child’s education should start in the home and this is the responsibility of the child’s family.
The federal and state governments can improve schools by working more diligently on identifying their student’s strengths and weaknesses and ensuring that there is a career path for each and every student in their school system. Some children thrive through the traditional path of a science or liberal arts education while others may be better suited to a technical school. The school system should celebrate these divergent types of students and promote their particular path as important and viable alternatives.
Many young people, some of whom have already dropped out of high school, could benefit from technical schools. Many of them could gain the necessary education to become, HVAC technicians, carpenters, mechanics, draftsmen, plumbers, electricians and a host of other professions that give them the opportunity to support not only themselves, but their families as well. However, for many, a failure down the traditional educational path seems to lead to a life of failure as they settle in dead end jobs and do not acquire any tangible skills.
Most of the best elementary, middle and high schools in the country are in the wealthier neighborhoods where there is significant funding, mostly due to the higher tax base. On the flipside, a lot of the schools in the poorer neighborhoods tend to be underfunded and as a result have difficulty attracting talented teachers. The No Child Left behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was a government initiative intended to ensure that the quality of education in America is enhanced and that all children benefit from the school system not just the wealthy. The key aspect of NCLB was the institution of mandatory state testing for every student in order for the states to continue to receive federal funding. NCLB is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough in resolving the gap in educational standards between communities with wealth and those in the poorer neighborhoods.
As a practical solution, charter schools are cropping up all over the country and there is ample evidence to show that we may be headed in the right direction. Many of these schools are providing a very good educational experience for many children who would otherwise be marginalized in the traditional public school system. Charter schools are institutions that result from a charter which is essentially a contract between the school and a local agency or the state government that provides public funding for the school for a specified time. In return, the schools are held accountable to achieve pre-stipulated achievement goals that are spelled out in the charter. In return, charter schools are given autonomy in the day to day running of the school while keeping them accountable for meeting stated objectives. 3 This is not to say that the performance of all charter schools have been stellar, in fact, in relation to their performance against public schools, charter schools have received mixed reviews. However, there is convincing evidence that in poorer neighborhoods minority students have benefitted more from charter schools than they have from attending the public school systems in their neighborhoods. 4
One critical aspect that is missing in the education of the future leaders of America is that there is a disconnection between the funding for schools and the educational outcomes, measured by the performance of schools in both state and national standardized exams. The discussion and the process should include outcome based school incentives and increases for teachers. Teachers that are incapable of achieving at least an 80 to 90 percent success rate for each of their students should be held accountable. Rewards have to be tied very closely to performance and the measurement of performance can only be determined by the number of students who succeed in the classroom.
However, this is not to say that parents should be left out of the equation. By no means should parents be left off the hook. In fact parents have an integral role to play in this equation. This is because the responsibility of parents in the educational outcome of their children cannot be overstated. Our homes create the foundation for all of our future endeavors and ultimately who we become and what we end up doing in our lives.
Other factors play an important role in the development of our young people. The role of communities, churches and the school systems, are also a critical component in this equation. The brightest child on earth who happens to unfortunately be born to poor parents, living in a crime ridden neighborhood, is at a significant disadvantage when it comes to cultivating her or his talents and may very well be relegated to a life of substandard performance and even to a life of crime. Should society as a whole accept this outcome? Should children be destined to a life of poverty and non-inclusion even when they could potentially be the next Einstein, Gates or Jobs, simply because they were born poor? The answer to this question is obvious and the solutions to the problem are not too radical or abstract in nature. All great nations decide on what they want to focus on and how they want to utilize their resources and human resources are the most important and valuable resource any nation possesses.
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Debbie Adadevoh is a wife and mother of three boys and works for a non-profit social organization in New Jersey. Debbie enjoys mentoring and guiding young people through challenges and helping them to set goals in order to realize their own potential. Debbie believes that many of our youth are simply looking for someone to encourage them to believe in themselves.