It is often argued that the low education achievement levels of African-Americans and Hispanics are caused by poverty. Looking at this premise is writer and researcher Michael Holzman, a consultant to the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the author most recently of “The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It.”
By Michael Holzman
W. E. B. Du Bois ended his account of the establishment of schooling for African-Americans during and immediately after Reconstruction with a paean to what we would today call African-American agency during Jim Crow:
Had it not been for the Negro school and college, the Negro would, to all intents and purposes, have been driven back to slavery. His economic foothold in land and capital was too slight in ten years of turmoil to effect any defense or stability … But already, through establishing public schools and private colleges, and by organizing the Negro church, the Negro had acquired enough leadership and knowledge to thwart the worst designs of the new slave drivers. They avoided the mistake of trying to meet force by force. They bent to the storm of beating, lynching and murder, and kept their souls in spite of pubic and private insult of every description; they built an inner culture which the world recognizes in spite of the fact that it is still half-strangled and inarticulate.
The achievement Du Bois memorializes was indeed admirable, and, as he said, admired. But today more is needed. The closed gate to education opportunity for black students is not controlled by the black community. It is widely believed that it is the duty of the oppressed to struggle against oppression. Hence the admiration for Spartacus and his successors. But there is no moral law that the struggle against oppression, in whatever realm, must be carried on only by the oppressed, nor any historical analysis that holds that the struggling oppressed, on their own, must succeed in ending their oppression.
The direct route to the end of oppression is for the oppressors themselves to work with the oppressed to end it. It is also the moral responsibility of those keeping the gate of educational opportunity closed to join hands with those behind it, to work together to remove that barrier to the fulfillment of the promise of emancipation.
It is becoming fashionable to argue that the low education achievement levels of African-Americans and Hispanics are caused by poverty. This is tantamount to an argument that the problem is insolvable, as poverty, especially black poverty, is unlikely to become the focus of governmental action any time soon. In any case, I think that the premise is incorrect. The cycle of black poverty is driven by under-resourced schools and mass incarceration. These underpin a vicious cycle, including high rates of violent felonies, resulting in yet more poverty. The way out is through better schools and an end to mass incarceration. Neither is sufficient in itself.
The lack of educational achievement of many black children follows from the extraordinary rates at which their fathers are arrested and incarcerated. Imprisoned men can contribute little or nothing to save their children from lives spent in poverty. Even formerly imprisoned men all too often have little chance of finding work that can support their children above the poverty level, particularly given their own usual lack of effective educational attainment.
As housing patterns are strongly associated with household income, the families of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated men, especially if they are African-American, are among the most likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
Schools in segregated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are all-too-often inadequate to their mission. On the other hand, a black student in an integrated suburban school — without regard to that student’s family income — can be as much as six times more likely to graduate on-time and college-ready than a black student in a segregated urban school. Similarly, a black student in a segregated, under-resourced, urban school, even a black student from a middle-class family, is unlikely to receive an education that will graduate him from high school on-time and college- or career-ready.
Because of the peculiarities of the drug laws and matters at the level of detail of police officer reward systems and the career patterns of district attorneys, concentrated poverty leads to disproportionately intense police activity and prosecutions in predominately black neighborhoods. Quite apart from this, or, more exactly, in addition to this, neighborhoods and communities of concentrated poverty, black or white, in themselves foster high rates of violent felonies.
High rates of incarceration of young black men lead to high rates of concentrated poverty for their neighborhoods, neighborhoods where ineffective schools contribute to high rates of incarceration and poverty, which foster high rates of violent offensives, and so on and on. The combination of these factors put astonishing numbers of young adult black men at risk of incarceration and give another turn to the wheel of disadvantage for their children.
Most people, particularly most African-Americans, are familiar with this situation. The question is, then, what is to be done to end disproportionate black poverty?
The common response to the question is a resort to the American doctrine of individual responsibility. Issues of culture, community and psychology are, no doubt, important contributors to differing levels of achievement in education as well as to the disparities in incarceration rates. We are told that young black men should pull up their socks (and their trousers) and simply do better in school and act better in the community. Examples of “beating the odds” and “resiliency” are featured by the media, foundations, community groups and inspirational speakers. These responses are ways of blaming the victims of racism and each in their own manner is a way of maintaining the system of racism. On the other hand, institutional policy decisions are clearly causal, definable and quantifiable and, possibly, given the public will, amenable to change.
The goal, after all, is not for individuals to beat the odds. The goal is to change the odds, or, rather, to change the game.
How is that to be done?
Combining programs to improve educational attainment for black male students and to eliminate disparate rates of incarceration for matters such as drug offenses would cause the poverty rate for black children to decline significantly and the income of the black community to increase. As the black community’s income increased, the rate of violent offenses and incarcerations for those would decrease, further increasing the community’s income and educational attainment.
Disproportionate black poverty would begin to come to an end.