I teach English in a small, inner-city high school where the student population is predominately Black boys from low-income homes. I love my students and I love teaching, but quite frankly I am worried. I am worried because for every 100,000 18-19 year old Black men, 1,547 of them are in prison. Even more startling is that for every 100,000 20-24 year old Black men, 4,594 of them are in prison. There are seven times as many Black men imprisoned than non-Hispanic whites, and Blacks only make up 12 percent of the nation’s population. Black men are imprisoned at disproportionate numbers, mostly due to harsh drug sentencing, and I am trying to keep my students from falling into that trap.
When homework is not complete and book chapters have not been read, I begin to rattle off statistics in my classroom. “Don’t you know how many Black men are in prison?” I ask them. “Do you not understand that most inmates are poorly educated,” I stand on this soapbox almost daily because I am determined to get them to choose education over imprisonment, but I often wonder if they hear me. I teach some extremely bright young people who can accomplish anything that they want, but some choose delinquency over academics. I ask myself how they could continue on a downward path when they know it leads to prison and possibly death. I wonder why they do not embrace academic achievement as a means to escaping their environment and living their dreams.
The high school and college graduation rates of Black males are considerably low in comparison to that of their white counterparts. Only fifty percent of Black males graduate high school nationally, and less than that graduate from college. If they make it to college, many Black men are not adequately prepared to survive the scholastic environment and face financial issues that prevent them from remaining enrolled. The odds are definitely against Black men when it comes to education, but these odds are nothing that a little will power cannot overcome. Great men such as Obie McKenzie and Ben Carson have used education as a vehicle out of poverty and into success, but how do we convince Black young men that education is worth their pursuit? In order to find a solution, we must first identify the problem.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that humans seek to satisfy certain needs before others. For instance, if the needs for food, sleep and safety have not been fulfilled, then humans cannot seek to fulfill their needs for love, esteem, or self-actualization. Perhaps young people from low-income backgrounds are so busy trying to survive that they are not as concerned with education.
Perhaps low-income Black boys are unable to mentally connect school with personal success. Who is successful in their lives? Drug dealers, professional athletes, and hip-hop stars. If this is their measure of success, then they have little to no reason to achieve academic excellence. Who do they want to be like? In my experience it is not Barack Obama, Spike Lee or Dr. Steve Perry, but Lebron, D. Wade, and Weezy. These men are their heroes, but these men have achieved a type of success that most young Black boys can only dream of.
Maybe purpose is the word that I am looking for. For our boys to avoid incarceration they have to find purpose in some area of their life, and why not school? Author Michael Gurian of the Gurian Institute writes that African-American boys need to be a part of purposeful communities that provide opportunities for them to obtain success and respect. He indicates that schools have failed to create such environments and suggests in-school male-mentorship and rites of passage programs as ways to create purposeful communities for Black boys.
Federal, state and local governments play a major role in reversing the mis-education of the low-income, Black young man. The NAACP reported that in 2009, funding for K-12 and higher learning institutions declined, but in the same year thirty-three states spent a larger portion of their budgets on prisons than they did the year before. The report indicates that states have misplaced priorities and calls for an investment in education rather than prisons. The government has a job to do, and so do we. If young Black men can be convinced that prison is not the place for them and are determined to stay on a path that leads to positive success, then all we have to do is support them. Let us re-educate, inform, and hold up our young men so that they win, and an unfair and biased prison system does not.
Charday Ward is a freelance writer, playwright, teacher and founder and director of a mentoring organization in Detroit, Michigan. Follow her blog at bconscious.tumblr.com and on Twitter @IamChardayRenee