Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Rebirth of Black Power Part 3 – The New Black Revolution Begins in the Classroom

The recent tumult within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) again highlights the frequent struggles and failures of public school districts charged with educating large numbers of Black children. In spite of federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the increased presence of charter schools and innovative policies such the Public School Choice Initiative that allows external groups to run district schools, Black children continue to perform at or near the bottom in all of the major educational indicators. A review of the 2009 California Standardized Testing Report (STAR) results substantiates concerns around the lack of intellectual development of our youth and more broadly, the ability of our community to compete in a highly competitive and technically savvy world.
In terms of math, 47% of Black second graders in LAUSD scored at or above a proficient level on the test. That number dropped to a deplorable 18% for Black seventh graders. In terms of English, 44% of Black second graders scored at or above a proficient level. Like math however, these scores declined rapidly to a paltry 25% at the seventh grade. Overall, Black children scored the lowest in both math and English – the two most highly used and necessary skills in the job market. In addition to the poor level of intellectual development our children receives, they are also missing another critical piece of the educational experience – a substantial exposure, understanding and appreciation of their culture and history. As great thinkers like Carter G. Woodson and Elijah Muhammad taught us, education is inherently linked with culture. Therefore, children will either develop pride in themselves and their people or take on an “I AM less than” attitude that makes academic achievement impossible. In districts like LAUSD, Black History and culture is often narrowed to a short lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in February or a hollow conversation about slavery. In short, Black children in LAUSD are being mis-educated and prepared to maintain a condition and lifestyle of dependency, servitude and death.
Thankfully, there are those in our community that refuse to accept LAUSD’s failure of Black students as the only reality. In the past there have been trailblazers like Dr. Anyim Palmer, who founded Marcus Garvey School in 1975 and established a national model for Afrikan-centered education. Today, a new model has emerged in the form of the Culture and Language Academy of Success (CLAS). Founded in 2003 by colleagues Dr. Sharroky Hollie, Janis Bucknor and Anthony Jackson, CLAS is focused on setting a standard of excellence in terms of educating Black children in Los Angeles. Although the school still has room for improvement, nearly half of its students – almost all Black – are proficient or above in math and English, which is much higher than Black children in traditional district schools. Moreover, CLAS utilizes a system called culturally responsive pedagogy, which attempts to attack the cultural isolation many of our children experience by creating a school environment that affirms the history and culture of the students. Every morning before class begins, students gather in a circle to repeat affirmation statements in order to ready themselves for the day’s learning. The ancient Afrikan principles of MA’AT adorn the walls of each classroom – serving as both standards of conduct and reminders of the great history the students have inherited. Armed with a successful system and improving student outcomes, the founders of CLAS recently attempted to spread its influence through assuming responsibility for the struggling Hyde Park Elementary School through the School Choice Initiative process. Rather than provide the school with an opportunity for change, the district retained control of Hyde Park. As education columnist Larry Aubry stated, the School Choice Initiative continued a pattern of ignoring the schooling needs of Black children and parents. This unfortunate scenario underscores the reality that we – as the Black community – must unleash a revolution that extends from the home and lands squarely inside the classrooms in which our children learn. However, we cannot depend on the status quo (i.e. LAUSD) to provide us with support in our efforts to develop Black children who have knowledge of self and skills to conquer the world. For this most holy of revolutions we are going to have to “do for self”. Black educators will need to come together – like the founders of CLAS – and develop school plans based upon our culture, history and expectation of excellence. While taking over district schools or opening charters provide some opportunities, we must develop truly independent structures in order to maximize our efforts. Of course, this would require Black people of all economic classes contribute their money and time to support the growing number of independent schools that will inevitably need to be come. We cannot build a community with flourishing businesses, safe streets and solid infrastructure without people with a strong cultural consciousness and skills that come from good schools.
Lets get to work.

The Rebirth of Black Power Part 2 - Black Elected Officials’ Role in Today’s America

Over a year ago many in the Black community temporarily suspended reality in order to fully enjoy and embrace the previously unthinkable – Barack Obama had became the first Black president in United States history. For that precious magic moment on November 4, 2008, centuries of racism, disproportionate poverty, and police brutality seemed like a nightmare that had been erased by shouting, crying, embracing one another in victory, and repeating YES WE CAN over and over again.
Unfortunately, all moments in time must succumb to the enduring nature of reality. No matter how great and historic Obama’s victory was, it could not permanently mask the deep rooted problems that impact Black people in particular. On November 11, 2008, Dontaze Storey Jr., a 28 year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by LAPD officers. Exactly one week after Barack Obama trounced John McCain to win the presidency, an unarmed Black man was shot in the back and mouth in front of his pregnant fiancĂ© on a busy Los Angeles street corner.
Perhaps more tragic is the fact that Obama’s victory has seemingly failed to embolden Black elected officials to take stronger stances – especially on behalf of Black people. In the aftermath of Dontaze’s murder, no Black elected official wanted to acknowledge and/or assist the family in finding justice against the officers and department responsible. Even in the era of Obama, these “community leaders” found holding the LAPD accountable for their actions way too risky. From their estimation, taking that kind of stand puts them at risk of not receiving hefty campaign contributions from law enforcement organizations or getting re-elected.
This train of thought is particularly damaging considering the fact that Black people marched, registered to vote, and mobilized to elect Black politicians like Tom Bradley, Shirley Chisholm, Kenneth Gibson, and yes Barack Obama because we believed that having someone from our community as a decision maker would protect us from police terror, open up educational and economic opportunities, and help lead us to a brighter tomorrow.
Despite that legacy, however, many Black politicians have become accustomed to playing it safe. Instead confronting unjust individuals and groups that negatively impact our community, they would rather play the game “let’s make a deal”. On many of the issues that have long plagued Black people – poverty, violence, police brutality – Black politicians have been silent and/or grossly ineffective. It begs the question, “Why do we even keep voting for them?” In the aftermath of Obama’s great victory, many Black young adults are beginning to wonder, “What difference did voting really make?” Rightfully so, we are wondering what good is it to have Black elected officials if the Black community in which they represent remains largely without jobs, full of poor schools, and littered with drugs and disrespectful police.
However, I must state that I firmly believe that the Black community must be represented by Black leadership. It must also be made clear that problems within the Black community are not the sole fault or responsibility of Black elected officials. Surely, we need a united front of principled and hard-working Black people from various sectors (i.e. churches, labor unions, students) to come together. However, Black elected officials, in my estimation, are currently the most visible symbol of community empowerment. We cannot ignore the fact that they are involved in making crucial decisions on a daily basis. Therefore, as a community we must demand more from them. Furthermore, Black elected officials must demand more from themselves. Whether they’re a City Councilperson, County Supervisor, or President of the United States, they must see themselves as custodians of a legacy covered in the blood and heroism of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and Ella Baker. Thus, they cannot allow the illusions of the Obama era or political convenience to numb their passion to protect and provide for Black people in particular and all people who seek truth and justice. In this spirit, I humbly offer the following recommendations:
1. We must immediately end divisive political camps within the Black community. Many hard-working and intelligent people are kept from working with each other because two Blacks elected officials don’t get along. This situation has prevented many good ideas from being developed and implemented
2. Black elected officials must lead a serious and sustained organizing effort to re-connect themselves with the broad concerns of the entire Black community in order to act upon them. Too often Black elected officials listen to a relatively small circle of supporters and allies. Often that circle is defined by socio-economic class and geography. A series of townhalls, house meetings, and other community-based events should take place anywhere Black people live
3. Do serious political work anywhere Black people live. In Los Angeles, there is a tendency to concentrate efforts in the Black community to the Crenshaw District, Baldwin Hills, or Leimert Park. However, we also live in areas along Normandie Avenue, neighborhoods in Mid-City, and in the low bottoms on the Eastside. I suspect that much of the hesitancy to work in these areas are a result of class-bias issues within our community
4. Lastly, Black elected officials must play a leading role in developing organizations – independent from political parties – that unify the diverse spectrum of the Black community, develop the next generation of Black leaders, and carry out the work of the people. In the 1960s, they called this the “Black United Front”.
Lets get to work.