by Ise Lyfe
A little girl growing up in Oakland, California climbs into the backseat of her mother’s car and closes the door. As she fastens her seatbelt and answers her mother’s questions about her day and what she learned at school, she looks out the window at a group of her classmates chasing each other around aggressively on the front lawn of her elementary school.
They are Black boys, and though Black boys don’t make up the majority of the school population, they are at the front of the popular social order of their school. They have the coolest (or at least the most expensive) shoes and everyone knows them. They’re fourth graders but they swear and talk about sex. They know about a lot, except reading, basic math, and self-control. Some are even violent and it is common for adult teachers both male and female to be physically afraid of them. Yes, physically afraid of a fourth grader.
Of course, it isn’t fair to pin these generalizations on every Black boy at the school, but it is applicable to a large enough majority of them to have a general expectation that is unfair, racist, and detrimental to their development — yet tragically accurate.
Their state of ill behavior and inability to perform academically is not their fault though. These boys have been birthed into a community under the boot of centuries of oppression and deliberate assault by its government. Toppled with a cocktail of horrible or non-existent parenting and dangerous neighborhoods, they are in a state of subconscious and conscious trauma. This trauma manifests in their behavior and is greatly misunderstood and not acknowledged by the school system that measures and judges them.
Black boys under the age of 12 are constantly being removed from class and even arrested for non-violent acts of defiance, all in plain view of their classmates. The Southern Poverty Law Center released a study in 2010 that revealed that in a national sample of more than 9,000 middle schools, 28.3 percent of black males, on average, were suspended at least once during a school year, nearly three times the 10 percent rate for white males. Black females were suspended more than four times as often as white females (18 percent vs. 4 percent).
During the academic school year of 2011/2012, Black boys in the Oakland Unified School District (Oakland, CA) made up 43 percent of the suspensions district wide, according to research reported by Chris Chatmon, Executive Officer of the African-American Male Achievement Office for Oakland Schools. This is an appalling figure seeing as how Black boys only make up 17 percent of the district population. Mr. Chatmon encourages a focus on the positive…
“Our district is the first district in the nation to not only acknowledge that there is something wrong happening with the over-suspension and referral of Black boys, but to take a step beyond that and commit to doing something about it! The forming of the African-American Male Achievement Office puts Black boys back in the classroom consistently and our Manhood Development Program proved to have an immediate impact by putting these boys in classes facilitated by Black men. This district is tackling the achievement gap head-on as well as reducing the suspension and incarceration rate of our boys. That’s a point of great inspiration.”
But this article isn’t really about Black boys or their behavior. I’d like to focus on another concern: How Black girls observing the way Black boys are regarded in elementary school impacts their perception of Black boys, thus their relationships with Black men later in life, thus the Black family.
There’s a boatload of studies and statistics that reveal the staggering percentage of Black children growing up without a father in their home. This is another factor in the depth of impact that excessive kicking out of class and negative chastisement has on a Black girl’s perception of Black boys. Without a present and healthy example of a Black man in the home, this little Black girl has no counter-narrative to challenge the overt and inadvertent negative message she is being given at school about Black boys. America in general has staggering divorce rates across racial lines, but let’s be clear — that is not nearly the same thing! First of all, at least the average kid with divorced parents has witnessed an attempted union between their parents. Ask any Black person in America and they’ll tell you they’ve been to far more baby showers than wedding showers and sadly more funerals than weddings. Then there are all the stats around Black male incarceration, dropout rates, and unemployment.
For a moment, let’s put all the graphs and charts aside and look at that little Black girl sitting in an elementary classroom. When she looks over her shoulder and sees Donte, Jabari, Shaquille, or Jontay — whom does she see? When she constantly sees them being kicked out of class, suspended, or yelled at, what does she think? When her teacher who she regards as a source of knowledge and guidance seems to have an attitude of contempt towards the Black boys, what does she learn?
I propose that what she is learning, or better yet what she is given, is a personal and real time validation of the message that is fed to her through media and society at large:
Black men and boys are naturally monsters. They are untrustworthy, irresponsible, and have no self-control. Black men and boys are undesirable, unreliable, and most obviously — you should have a low expectation for them.
This is her view of the boys that will grow up to be her potential mates and colleagues. White girls her age constantly witness their white male counterparts being validated and encouraged. White boys never have to be included into the learning environment because they are naturally a part of the fabric of the school. Young white boys and girls grow into their adolescent years without the mucus of discrimination and distrust between them that plagues young black teenagers. Undeniably, this has a positive effect on their ability to form loving partnerships and unions.
The little Black girl will grow up with three options regarding her attitude about being in relationships with Black men:
1. Struggle to unlearn the foul sentiment she is given about Black boys and men.
2. Accept the notion that Black boys and men are naturally monsters who are untrustworthy, irresponsible, and have no self-control. (This doesn’t mean she won’t be with Black men, it just means she will see unacceptable and or abusive behavior from her Black male partner as normal.)
3. Date and marry men outside of her race.
Statistically she is far more likely to be in a position of hiring one of these Black boys for a job or admitting him into a school than a Black man will. So we must ask ourselves a key question:
How does the mass suspension and referral of Black boys impact future generations of the Black family?
It is important that teachers realize that we are not only preparing our students for their futures in education and careers, but also in their development into fatherhood and motherhood. Every time (yes, every time) we are kicking a Black boy out of class or writing him a referral we are adding to the demise of the Black family. In the inversion of the situation, every time (yes, every time) we struggle with these little brothers, every time we elevate what a great job they are doing, every time we reward them, we are contributing to the revitalization of the Black family.
I am not for one second discounting the need for discipline in the classroom nor the fact that this student demographic can be extremely difficult to work with at times. Surely there are behaviors that warrant a child being removed from a class or even suspended. However, I am saying that before removing a student from class it is important to fully understand the implication of that decision.
I smile at the idea of that same little Black girl smiling at her classmate, a young Black boy named Donte, Jabari, Shaquille, or Jontay as he is being patted on the back and told how smart he is. She notices the respect he was just given, how nice his shirt is, and how he reads the same books she likes to read. From there, before they are noticing each other’s bodies and curves, a new day and hope begins…
Ise Lyfe was recently appointed to the post of Commissioner of Arts and Cultural Affairs in his hometown of Oakland, CA. He is an award winning poet, emcee, performer and educator, and was the 2001 winner of the National Poetry Slam Competition.