Poverty & Race- What Education Can’t Do

In staying with the theme of poverty and education that I addressed in my previous post, I want to make readers aware of two different writings that have come out that explode the myth that education by itself is the tool of leverage that can alleviate poverty.  Both works are important, and I urge you to read them in their entirety.

The first, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case For Reparations, appeared on the cover of the Atlantic.  This article deservedly went viral. Coates describes the history of how America has continuously used race as a means of marginalizing those of color while at the same time privileging whites.  Though the article isn’t specific to education, it is necessary for understanding the history behind our equity gap.

The second can be found on the Colorlines web-site. Colorlines is a fantastic resource that has developed a continuing series on the impact of race in America called Life Cycles of Inequality. Why Young, Black Men Can’t Work  is an article from this series.  This piece does address the impact on poverty and race on education, and the reasons why education by itself offers little or no way out of poverty for the marginalized.

In following the attempts of the article’s main protagonist, Dorian Moody, to find work after graduating from high school, author Kai Wright writes,

“As he left school in 2010, he was among more than 40 percent of black high school grads aged 17 to 20 who had no job. That number has inched downward, but it remains at nearly 35 percent—significantly higher than any other race or ethnicity. Federal data isn’t granular enough to measure the idle rate among men in this group, but all other data suggests it is more profound than anywhere else. Take, for instance, the eye-popping statistics we’ve seen about joblessness among young black men for years. Indeed, even before the recession, way back in the boom year of 2004, a congressional study noted with alarm that joblessness among young black men had galloped away from the rest of the country. In New York City, 18 percent of black men were jobless in the year Moody graduated.”

And what is the reason for this intractable unemployment?  Following the privileged, conventional assumptions of most Americans, and of educational reformers, is it that Moody (and so many others disenfranchised like him) is lazy uneducated, not trying, and doesn’t  care?

Is he mired in a “culture of poverty”?

Doesn’t he just need to show more grit and then get access to the right charter school of his choice?

Not quite.

“… a growing mound of research gives the lie to the notion that black men who fail in the modern economy have brought it upon themselves. Rather, it’s increasingly clear that they have instead been locked out of the male-tracked, skilled labor jobs that, for better or worse, still make the difference between poverty and working-class for many families. Even when accounting for failed personal responsibility, more and more research suggests that white men with similar backgrounds—without a college degree, and even with a criminal record—find far more opportunity than their black peers. One pre-recession study in 2003 even found that white job applicants with criminal records are more likely to get called back than black applicants with identical resumes and no record.

This is an inequity that grows from tangled roots—historic labor market discrimination, ongoing residential segregation, stubborn racial biases among employers. But it’s also one with consequences that stretch out beyond the men themselves, and that will linger long past today’s troubled economy.” (emphasis added)

In spite of the efforts of many of those who are disenfranchised, in-spite of their attempts to access costly educational opportunities, in-spite of doing everything the American myth of success tells them to, they remain unable to access work in our economy.

As Wright’s article shows, education alone clearly is not the tool that will allow those like Moody access to our economic system.

Until we address poverty and the correlating American history of the encapsulation of race, we have no hope.

We will continue to drift, allowing the rich to get richer while leaving living humans behind and blaming them for their misfortune. (And thus, because education is the way out of poverty, this simplistic, misdirected argument of the elites continues, we need to improve teachers, principals and schools, and blame them.)

We need to look at the broader issues of class and race outside of the isolation of education.

We need to continue to listen to the authentic, radical message of American hero Martin Luther King, a message we don’t hear too often these days.  His words here perfectly illustrates Coates’ and Wrights’ work.  The sad news is, King spoke these words over 45 years ago.  When will we be ready to listen to him?



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