Addressing black teens' ills carries big burden

September 09, 2000|By Gregory Kane

DURING MY freelance days, writing op-ed pieces for the now-departed Evening Sun and The Sun, I wrote several columns theorizing that the appalling homicide rate among young black men could be traced to an insidious macho culture running rampant through Afro-America.

That sparked several reactions from other blacks. My theory was either dismissed or ignored, or I was 'buked, scorned, reviled and treated like a Tonton Macoute. You'd have thought I advocated abusing the baby Jesus. I was called - and am still being called - a sellout, handkerchief-head, Uncle Tom and house Negro.

Why C. Thomas Williamson III would want any of this abuse is beyond me. Maybe it's because he's a white guy and the worst they can call him is a racist. But he sent a letter recently, covering pretty much the same topic.

"The recently released report on national SAT scores highlights a central problem within the African-American community," Williamson began. "The report indicates that although the performance gap between black and white students continues to persist, African-American girls are actually beginning to close ranks. Why is this instructive? Because it directs attention to what I believe is the core issue behind the failure of African-Americans to substantially improve their station in American society over the past 30 years, despite the benefits of affirmative action and a regime of state and federal laws designed to break down institutional barriers to equal education and employment."

Williamson is 47, a Philadelphia guy who got a bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University and a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He heads his own business that puts together law firm mergers and acquisitions. This topic, he said, is on the minds of most members of his generation, but few dare talk about it. The few times he's broached the subject with other whites, they've dummied up. He hasn't brought up the subject with blacks at all.

But he can sure write about it.

"The performance of black males on the SATs not only has continued to lag behind that of their white contemporaries, it has actually widened over the past two decades," Williamson continued. "The reason, I believe, has less to do with the quality of schools and teachers in black communities, as is so often cited, than with the communities themselves. African-Americans, particularly those born after 1970, have increasingly turned away from American society at large. Over the last 30 years, the black community has developed a culture that largely rejects as `white' educational achievement and professional careers.

"Even some black scholars, such as John McWhorter [author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America," who, contrary to Williamson, argues that blacks have "substantially improved their station in American society over the past 30 years"], have lamented the clear shift in the African-American community from the ideal of inclusion to a renewed notion of black separatism."

A little history needs to be injected here. There is no "renewed notion of black separatism" in black America. Separatism, or nationalism, has always been an integral part of the African-American community. Black nationalists and integrationists have been cussing each other out and banging each other upside the head - often figuratively, sometimes literally - for generations. Marcus Garvey tapped into the nationalist fervor in the 1920s and created the largest mass movement ever among African-Americans. The nationalist mood died down for a while, and the integrationists dominated, but it returned again in the late 1960s, just as white America started a rightward drift.

But back to Williamson.

"The rejection of the ideal of an integrated adult society has, in turn, led to the emergence of an anti-intellectual ethos among black teen-agers."

Ah, you have to admire the delicate way Williamson put it. "An anti-intellectual ethos among black teen-agers." The great black youth drift into tater-headedness, I call it. And, as Williamson pointed out, it's mainly young black males. Not many black folks will admit it. The Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People still insists the poor performance of black males in county schools is the fault of the recently departed school superintendent. The county NAACP is wrong, but few dare oppose it. No blacks in education have. A black principal of a racially mixed high school in this state said blacks are the lowest-achieving students in his school, cause the most disciplinary problems and have told him, flat out, that learning and education are not on their agenda. He can't say that publicly, he told me, because his county's NAACP branch would run him out of his job.

So it's left to white guys like Williamson to say it. Or to black college professors like McWhorter who, while grossly mistaken in some passages of his book, hits the mark about 80 percent of the time. Or curmudgeonly black newspaper columnists with overly large foreheads who figure African-Americans need to hear the truth whether it's from a white - racist or no - or a sellout, handkerchief-head, Uncle Tom, house Negro.

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