High-achieving blacks are America's silent minority

Freeman A. Hrabowski III

March 20, 1991|By Freeman A. Hrabowski III

JOE has maintained a perfect academic average through his 12 years of schooling. So has Tonya. Both Charles and Tyrone are presidents of the National Honor Society and captains of the football team at their respective schools. Bill earned a 780 (out of a possible 800) on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

America's high schools are proud to produce such high achievers and to recommend them to leading colleges and universities. And thoseinstitutions vie keenly with one another to recruit them. That is especially so for these five 17-year-olds because they have one thing in common: They are all African-Americans, and their grades and test scores have placed them in the top 2 percent of the nation's class of 1991.

This year, these students were among the 71,000 blacks who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test. And they were among the minuscule 1,200 -- fewer than 2 percent -- who were to score 600 or above in mathematics. These are students who have the ability and skills to become the nation's scholars, doctors, scientific researchers and engineers of the 21st century. Theirs is a distinction which, in the near term, most of their black contemporaries will not achieve.

Oddly, these students have another shared characteristic. They are the silent minority. They are the valedictorians, salutatorians, National Achievement finalists, presidents of French and Spanish clubs and presidents of student government associations. They have the aptitude and skills to achieve. What they seem to lack is the personal awareness that they are special, even though by their grades and scores they are the lonely exceptions to the rule.

Isn't it extraordinary that these young people, with SAT scores in mathematics in the 700s and high 600s, who are graduating with A's and B's in advanced placement calculus, chemistry and physics, do not see themselves as superstars? Not only is this unusual; it is a travesty.

My observations about this phenomenon continue to be confirmed as I look at a select group of these students, mainly Marylanders, who are enrolled in a program dedicated to educating black scientists and engineers. They are the freshmen and sophomores at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who are current Meyerhoff Scholars together with the 50 graduating high school seniors who are this spring's finalists for the 1991-1992 entering class.

Not only are many of these students reticent to talk about their achievements; they are embarrassed to do so. For black students, especially males, it is just not cool to be smart. They are proud and prompt to speak of their athletic medals and musical ability but are decidedly uncomfortable in mentioning academic achievements. For too many black students the only positive (and legal) role models are black sports figures and entertainers who have achieved stardom, financial success and superstar status.

The educator's challenge is to change at an early stage the perception that success among African-Americans is limited to sports and music. We must send the message to our communities, to our schools and through the media that to be black and smart is not just OK; it is great and necessary. We all know the value of athletics and music in our lives, but for too many young people, sports and music are the only paths to success. Too few students understand that these routes are fleeting for most of those who would pursue them. Too few students understand that there are other values that lead to success. All of them, irrespective of their academic ability, would benefit from knowing that a disproportionate number of those high-achieving African-American students place special value on religion and family.

Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley, is nationally known for his ability to prepare black students for success in mathematics. He describes this silent minority of high achievers as a national treasure. Even so, much of the funding for the education of minorities goes to sorely needed remediation, not to promoting the most promising students. We assume, incorrectly, that those students will make it without help. Were that the case, much more than 2 percent of the doctorates in the sciences would be earned by African-Americans.

But high-achieving black students will not be national treasures until they see themselves as such. We must remove them from their isolation. Somehow, even in predominantly white high schools, colleges and universities, we must expose them to one another.

I have seen what happens when the silent minority is gathered together. There is an incredible energy in a room filled with excellent black students. They realize for the first time that there are others like themselves. They see that there are more than one or two blacks who are excited about math and science -- and that earning all A's is not inappropriate.

And they begin to see themselves as the new professionals, the future leaders in a nation whose work force will be increasingly technological and, thus, increasingly dependent on them.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is executive vice president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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