The numbers are dismaying, baffling and unsurprising. Black males in suburban Prince George's County public schools are in trouble: academic and social.
They are twice as likely to be enrolled in "special education" English classes as in English classes for the talented and gifted; less likely to be enrolled in college-prep courses (only 44 black males in the entire county are taking calculus); far more likely than other students to be suspended or expelled, and though they represent only a third of the district's enrollment, they make up nearly half of the students receiving special-education services.
Nor is the situation in Prince George's unusual. The same thing is happening to black males right across the country. The difference is that Prince George's is trying to do something about it.
An advisory committee appointed by the school superintendent has looked at the problem and come up with a number of recommendations for change. That's the good news. The bad news is that much of what the group has recommended is (in my view) irrelevant, immaterial or impossible.
For instance, it cites statistics that place the county's schools near the bottom of the state in per-pupil expenditures for textbooks, library resources and instructional materials. Obviously it makes sense to improve these resources if in fact they are inadequate.
But their presumed inadequacy does not explain why black boys should fare less well academically than whites, Asian Americans -- or even black girls.
A review of textbook and library lists found "only a superficial rendering of the perspectives and experiences of African Americans, women and other cultural groups." But while any reasonable person can see the value of cultural, literary and historical inclusion, I doubt that substituting Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin or Mary Frances Berry for William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne or the white authors of high school history texts would significantly raise the relative academic performance of black boys.
Only 6 percent of classroom teacher in the county are black men. I devoutly wish there were more -- in Prince George's and elsewhere. But they don't exist, either in the ranks of certified teachers or in the freshman classes of the nation's teacher-training institutions.
Some of the proposals of the advisory committee are eminently achievable but will require the cooperation of parents and the wider community: expanded mentoring and counseling programs, more emphasis on self-esteem and increased rewards for academic achievement. Even so, there is reason to wonder if these improvements would bring the performance of black boys up to the level of black girls.
Young black men represent a special problem in America (and not just in the schools), and it may be worthwhile to look for factors that place them at special disadvantage. For example, it may be that black boys strike their teachers (including middle-class black teachers) as alien, hostile and even menacing. If this is so -- and if teachers, on the basis of sad experience, also expect less from black boys -- it shouldn't surprise us that black boys achieve less.
It seems clear (look at the unemployment statistics) that black males whose education ends with high school graduation do less well than their female counterparts in the job market. If the boys see their job prospects as slim, is there any wonder that they see less utility in classroom performance?
There are other problems that, for a variety of reasons, put black boys in a special, and specially worrisome, category. But the most obvious one is hardly dealt with in the advisory committee's report: Black boys are more likely than any other group to grow up in families that do not include a parent of their own gender.
White and Asian youngsters are more likely than blacks to spend their formative years in two-parent households. And even in single-parent homes, black girls usually have their mothers to teach them how responsible women are expected to behave.
Black males may be peculiarly susceptible to learning the lessons of manhood not from their homes but from the streets. This, I suspect, is one of the key reasons why they confuse manliness with machismo, why they equate manhood with the ability to "take care of themselves" in physical, rather than intellectual, contests, and why so many of them scorn academic exertion as either effeminate or "acting white."
Clearly we need to undertake efforts to counter these crippling notions: both by preaching as loudly as we can the importance to the proper development of children of having both parents around and by finding ways to teach the correct lessons of manhood to children from fatherless homes.
I think we can do it. But first it is necessary to recognize the problem. My own sense is that the dearth of positive male role models has more to do with the academic underachievement of black boys than inadequate expenditures, Eurocentric textbooks or a shortage of male teachers.