Young black males in the District are refusing to be counted out

Columnist June 3, 2014

Look deeper into the dispiriting statistics about young black men and boys and you’ll find a rarely acknowledged beauty: an indomitable spirit and irrepressible desire to beat the odds.

That’s what Howard University psychology professor Ivory Toldson revealed during a recent policy briefing for the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. Even though it seems at times that society has written off black youths, marking them by race and poverty as disposable, the boys refuse to be counted out.

How do we help them?

Toldson, in a summary of research on the educational aspirations of black boys in the District, said, “Their desire to go beyond high school exceeded that of white males.”

Surprising, since black male students in D.C. public schools reportedly have a 38 percent graduation rate. But look closer. You can interpret that percentage to mean black boys don’t care about school — or it could also be a reflection on society.

“The 38 percent says as much about gentrification and young black males’ ability to stay in the city and not transfer out,” Toldson said.

The stats alone don’t tell the whole story.

True, 85 percent of D.C. black youths live in single-parent households. Something is terribly amiss, no doubt about it. You want those children living with both parents. But just any mom and pop is not the answer.

A child being raised by a single mother with an associate college degree tends to do better in school than one raised by two high school dropouts, Toldson said.

Toldson also clarified another statistic: Of all the D.C. public school students diagnosed with an “emotional disability,” 74 percent are young black males, although they comprise only 39 percent of the student population.

“We know that young black males don’t inherently have an emotional disability,” Toldson said. “We know through research that if you take a probability sample you won’t find a percentage that high.” Among white male students, none were diagnosed with an emotional disability, which Toldson found equally improbable.

“It really says more about our schools attitudes towards young black males and the inability to deal with the adjustment issues that the youngsters face,” he said.

And those adjustments can be discerned easily enough — just ask the youngsters. Then be willing to listen.

Essentially, they want to know how going to school will lead to a better life. And they know, as do many of the rest of us, that it’s pretty much a waste of their time to learn by rote to simply pass tests. And they don’t have time to waste. How can you convince a child that “learning for the sake of learning” is the way to go when what he’s interested in is how to survive?

“When you really understand how they grow up, it makes sense,” Toldson said. “They have not had the luxury of doing many things just for the sake of doing it. Most of what they have had do in life has a purpose, so they need their schools to accommodate that mentality.”

Ed Davies, executive director of the Trust, noted that significantly increasing the college graduation rates for black men would add tens of trillions of dollars to the nation’s gross national product.

Somehow, the playing field must be leveled. And yet, despite the game being so unfairly rigged, they press on.

“When I look at things like the income gap, it was so huge and vast in Washington, D.C.,” Toldson said.

Students from high-income households understandably do a lot better in school than those from low-income households. But in the District, the achievement gap isn’t as wide as you’d expect given the magnitude of the chasm between rich and poor.

“So that makes me believe that these black youngsters have something figured out that we haven’t figured out,” Toldson said. “The fact that they could have a smaller achievement gap despite these wide income gaps means that they are doing something with nothing.”

Imagine what they could do if we saw them for the strivers that they are and not just a collection of dismal statistics.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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