Looking beyond the color line
LOS ANGELES — Scott Phelps, a science teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif., must have known the letter he sent to fellow teachers a month ago would not stay private for long. In it, he lambasted black students for chronic bad behavior.
The rage and debate it ignited when it quickly roared out to the public continues to reverberate through public and academic circles. Here was a white teacher who openly trampled racial and political correctness and said black students fail not because of poverty, racism, indifferent administrators, inexperienced teachers, or cash-starved schools, but because of what Mr. Phelps terms social deficiencies.
Because the term is so vague, we're left to fill in the blanks: high father absenteeism, supposed disdainful attitudes toward learning, antiauthority rebellions, a propensity to be involved in criminal behavior, etc.
Phelps was slammed as a racist, a bigot, and his letter ripped as hateful and racially divisive. But is Phelps right?
In its latest report on school discipline, the US Department of Education found blacks comprise nearly 30 percent of students kicked out of the nation's public schools, yet they make up less than 20 percent of the student population. Though few teachers and administrators - white or black - would dare publicly brand black students as educational malcontents, legions have long contended that they're more prone to pick fights, deal drugs, or pack guns at schools than their white counterparts.
While white students have gone on murderous rampages and, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, are just as likely to use and deal drugs on high school campuses as blacks, their drop-out and suspension rates are far lower than those of black students in schools where they sit side by side. But the graduation rates and test scores of white students are higher. Yet, while the facts and anecdotal experiences of many educators seem to back Phelps, the question remains: Why do so many think so poorly of black students, and why do so many black students behave negatively?
The escalating violence in big cities by so many young black males this year stokes public fear that they are eternal menaces to society. Many young blacks further validate racial stereotypes by exulting the thuggish bluster and behavior of gangster rappers who revel in the bad actor lifestyle and play hard on an us-versus-them volcanic rage. They reap a king's ransom exploiting a violent, outlaw image. This further convinces many Americans that the thug lifestyle is the black lifestyle.
But reflexive finger-pointing at the tumultuous and self- indulgent world of some rap music to explain the self-destructive violence of some young black males is far too simple. The internalized anger of many black males from decades of alienation is transforming into a desperate search for self-identity and esteem. Many education experts cite these as the far more compelling reasons for the failure of some blacks to achieve academically - not, as Phelps implies, because of inherent family and behavioral problems often attributed to race.
The tough talk, swagger, and mannerisms of many young blacks are defense mechanisms used to boost esteem. A personal challenge or criticism is often taken by an insecure black male as an affront to manhood. That perceived challenge often spirals into violence. Many teachers and school administrators regard this as ingrown social incorrigibility that must be swiftly and severely punished.
But the racial prejudices and personal discomforts of many administrators are probably one reason many more blacks are suspended than white kids who may exhibit the same bad behavior as blacks.
Teacher discrimination, however, is only one part of a larger picture. Teachers and administrators in many urban school districts see countless examples of young blacks who don't fit the accepted racial myths of warped racial stereotypes. These students do well in school and don't misbehave. Even Phelps admits he'd walk the extra mile to help students who want it. In fact, former students of his, white and black, who have gone on to college and successful careers, praise his efforts today.
Many black students desire to achieve educational excellence, and are every bit as motivated, studious, and serious about graduating as their white peers. One reason they succeed is because some teachers are dedicated and determined that all students attain academic excellence.
Phelps publicly said what many teachers and administrators have privately whispered for years about black students. I give him credit for daring to declare his criticisms and sparking debate on black educational underperformance. But telling one part of the truth is not enough. There are reasons some students exhibit bad behavior, and they go beyond what Phelps ill defines as their own cultural deficiencies.
We must examine all the reasons far too many black students fail and why so many inner-city schools are underserved: These schools don't have the facilities, the PTAs, or the administrators providing support for students who find it nowhere else.
• Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).