On Race and Social Justice

Matthew C. Whitaker

Matthew C. Whitaker

Written by Matthew Whitaker, Guest Columnist

On Saturday, October 10, thousands of Americans, particularly people of African descent, gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. This year’s theme, was “Justice or Else.”

I was in graduate school studying history at the time of the first march, and although I was not able to attend the historic assembly, I watched the better part of 12 hours of it on television. I recall vividly the excitement and hope it stimulated within the African American community, particularly men of African descent. I also remember the ideological impetus of the cultural and gendered – some say overly masculinized – harvesting of Black men.

In addition to our collective calls for atonement and reclamation among men of African descent, most supporters of, and participants in it, called for Black men to seek, secure, and leverage education for our betterment and that of families, institutions, and our communities.

“Knowledge or Else” was one of our implicit themes.

We were not, however, calling for just any education, we demanded, as rapper KRS-1 described, an education that embraces our worldview. We sought edification that accurately portrays our exploitation and ability to rise above it. We strove for instruction that effectively communicates the manner in which, and extent which, we have helped the Western world operationalize its rhetorical commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Supporters and attendees of the march knew very well that our struggles were, and continue to be, tied to our access to quality, culturally inclusive, and equitable curricula. KRS-1 was demanding what Common Core has endeavored to do, level the playing field and offer educational triage that meets the unique and disparate needs of all students. He told Black males, young and adult, “you must learn,” and he told the dominant society that: I failed your class ’cause I ain’t with your reasoning. You’re tryin’ make me you by seasoning. Up my mind with see Jane run, see John walk in a hardcore New York. Come on now, that’s like a chocolate cow. It doesn’t exist no way, no how. It seems to me that in a school that’s ebony. African history should be pumped up steadily, but it’s not. And this has got to stop, See Spot run, run get Spot. Insulting to a Black mentality, a Black way of life. Or a jet Black family, so I include with one concern, that you must learn.

Just like rubbing alcohol, the Million Man March pulled America’s racialized insecurities to the surface. The idea of one million Black men gathering peacefully anywhere, let alone the nation’s capitol, was simply an impossible proposition for many in White America.

This is why many marchers and supporters of the Million Man March, and the recent anniversary march, have made the case for inclusive curricula, diversity, inclusion, and cultural consciousness training for educators, and early college exposure and preparation for our youth. For Black America to advance, men of African descent in particular must address under-preparedness in our communities, and leverage our history of overcoming unspeakable adversities to inspire our youth to maximize their potential.

The challenge is real. According to researchers R. Jones, K. Becker, D.T. Conley, and the National High School Center at the American Institute for Research: 1) “The most at-risk students are those from historically underrepresented groups, first-generation college students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and ethnic minorities”; and 2) “93% percent of middle school students report that their goal is to attend college. However, only 44% enroll in college, and only 26% graduate with a college diploma within six years of enrolling.” Indeed, “there is a gap between students’ aspirations to attend college and their preparedness for college-level work. As a result, many students who enroll in college do not graduate with a degree.”

ACT agues in The Forgotten Middle that “the level of academic achievement that students attain by 8th grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate high school than anything that happens academically in high school.”

This means that our outreach efforts must be targeted, and if we fail to take aim at college and career readiness for the poor, immigrants, and people of color, particularly Black and Latino boys, by the 8th grade, these groups will be at a disadvantage that will intensify with time. In fact, young people who drop out of high school did so emotionally and mentally long before they stepped on a campus. The good news, as reported by Patricia Gándara and National Center for Education Statistics, is that communities and educational institutions who are aware of this, and are bold enough to address it, have created effective and equitable programs and partnerships that have “demonstrated an increase in the college-going rates of underserved students.”

Courage is especially needed in Arizona. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in Kids Count Data Book, demonstrates that “children in Arizona are more likely to be poor, uninsured and part of a family whose home has been foreclosed than most other children in the country.”

Moreover “overall child well-being in Arizona ranks 37th and in the bottom ten states in regard to teen birth and high school dropout rate; 40% of Arizona children live below 150% of the poverty level and 52% of Arizona children live below 200% of the poverty level. Higher than the national average.” In “Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education,” the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education indicated that “the chance for going to college by age 19 in Arizona is 30% while the college attendance rate in top states is 57%.”

Why is college so important? YouCanGO.CollegeBoard.org reveals that a college degree often leads to greater earning and wealth. Individuals with only a high school diploma earn $33,800 a year on average, whereas college graduate earn an average of $55,700 per year. College graduates are healthier, bonded closer to family members, have lower unemployment rates, and volunteer more.

How do you get there? knowhow2go.acenet.edu has encouraged parents, guardians, counselors and mentors to emphasize “THE Successful 7” with young people in their lives:

Get your mind right and ready (prioritize). Make a plan. Talk to adults who can help. Explore your interests. Learn the difference between the “Sticker Price” of college and “Affordability”. Visit colleges early and often. Seek and hear as many success stories as possible

The key here is to start thinking about and planning for college as early as possible. Parents, guardians, and mentors can help their kids by encouraging them to engage in creative and important activities, pursuits that are tethered to the past, present, and future of their community. As youth and their caretakers are learning, their custodians should be educating themselves about scholarships, student loans, work-study, and non-university employment. Their teachers and administrators should have a firm grasp on their district’s demographic data, performance equity, and matriculation rates, while utilizing summer camps and academies, assemblies, field trips, parent and student workshops, one-on-one mentoring, and academic counseling, to make going to college more than an abstract notion, but an informed expectation. This is must. The stakes are too high. Our underserved students, particularly Black and Latino youth, will do most of the working, defending, and leading us in the future. For America to survive, let alone thrive, it must be understood that knowledge and justice are inextricably linked, and that it is “Knowledge or Else” for our society’s survival and prosperity.

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