Stuck in the margin of the dream

M. Patricia Fernandez

July 12, 1991|By M. Patricia Fernandez

SOME BELIEVE there is a conspiracy against people of African descent in the United States. I do not share that opinion, although the evidence is mounting that there is at least a mixture of indifference, mean-spiritedness and lack of political will, all of them combining to exacerbate the problems of impoverished blacks.

Take, for example, the public education system that for generations has been the envy of the world. Public schools still work well in many parts of the United States where the population is white and comparatively affluent. But in inner cities, where blacks and other minorities are concentrated, public schools resemble custodial operations where children can be graduated without knowing how to read and write, let alone having any of the sophisticated skills needed to survive in our information-based economy.

Part of the problem stems from the way public schools are financed. It does not take a rocket scientist to speculate that, against the background created by redlining, lack of community investment and the movement of money to the suburbs, schools simply do not have the resources to do their job well. This goes a long way toward explaining the abysmal levels of competence among the poor, many of whom are black.

Yet committee after well-intentioned committee continues to squander time and money debating the merits of class size, self-esteem and -- that most popular of all cliches -- commitment to educational improvement. Apparently no one ever told this to such Brahmins as Harvard, perhaps because in those rarefied environments it is taken for granted that commitment, appropriate class size and self-esteem flourish nicely.

Simply put, schools do better when they are well-endowed, and FTC teachers are likely to be effective when they are paid well and respected. When we ignore these facts, whom are we kidding? Are we displaying ignorance or calculated ill will?

I have a personal reason to ask these questions. My reason is 8 years old, female and the color of cinnamon. She is my godchild, Letitia. Letitia was born in the ghetto amid squalor and strife but, incongruously, there is nothing wrong with her yet. A few weeks ago she completed the second grade at a public school in West Baltimore, one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. In testimony to her good work, she received a small trophy inscribed with her name

Letitia was very proud, gobs and gobs of self-esteem radiating from her face. That was only a few days before she took a battery of tests that I hoped would help place her in a private school.

The results were dismal. By comparison to children her age enrolled in independent schools throughout the country, she fell in the lowest ranks in reading and mathematics.

A sympathetic counselor stated the obvious: The child is highly motivated, sweet, well mannered and eager to learn, but academically she is losing ground fast.

Her potential is anyone's guess, impossible to determine because of how far behind she is. The counselor refused to discuss Letitia's IQ score with me. "Meaningless," she said. "There's no way to know what the results indicate because a lot depends on age-appropriate knowledge that she hasn't been exposed to."

I know that in four years, Letitia won't need overt discrimination to stay glued on the margins of the American Dream. She will have been disqualified already by an indifferent system that allocates comparatively meager resources to elementary and secondary schools. Because she is not stupid, she will be angry, contemptuous and self-hating. It will be too late then, only four years from now, to shelter her from the dangers of pregnancy, drugs and crime.

I know all of this because Letitia's 13-year-old cousin, Raymona, was much like her a few years back. Nine months ago she dropped out of school and the same week that Letitia received her trophy, Raymona was caught shoplifting.

M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly is research scientist and associate D professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University Institute A for Policy Studies.

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