"Oh, God, we're gonna get creamed!"
Frank, this kid on my daughter's soccer team, would offer that pessimistic prognostication before every one of their mid-'80s matches. It was no less annoying for its unerring accuracy. The team went winless, usually losing in a shutout. They really did get creamed.
Part of the reason was that many of the players weren't particularly athletic. Another was that they weren't (may those underappreciated parent volunteers forgive me) particularly well coached.
But surely some small part of the team's failure had to do with Frank's contagious certainty that victory belonged to the other team. You're not likely to succeed if you are convinced beyond all doubting that you won't.
I wonder if this youngster's pessimism offers any insight into the disturbing academic underperformance of black students. Last Sunday's New York Times had another of those depressing pieces on the subject. Even at the upper socioeconomic levels, in professional homes with two college-educated parents, black students, in one analysis, scored nearly 200 points lower on the SAT than their white counterparts.
Can the assumption that academic success belongs to other teams -- whites or Asians -- lead, first, to performance-damping fear and, later, to half-hearted effort? Can it lead at last to that phenomenon we keep hearing about: of black students actually resisting academic achievement on the grounds that it is "white"?
Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, believes it can, and that's why he and his colleagues in a score of national black organizations have come together in a Campaign for African American Achievement. The leaders of these organizations -- ranging from fraternities and sororities to civil rights groups to the Congress of National Black Churches -- have been celebrating black achievement, honoring scholars the way we routinely honor athletes and entertainers.
In a series of ceremonies around the nation, usually in churches, the group has been inducting thousands of bright young blacks into the Thurgood Marshall National Achievers Society. The aim, Price said over a recent breakfast here, is to counter both the academic self-doubt and the negative peer pressure that says doing well in school is somehow not "black." "We hope to change the culture that devalues educational achievement, that says African Americans won't be allowed to succeed economically, so there's no need for them to succeed academically," he said.
That culture badly needs changing -- both because it is so inimical to the best interests of black people and because it's no longer true. America is, to an almost unprecedented degree, a worker-hungry economy. But unlike earlier labor-tight periods, this one requires workers with decent academic credentials. A strong back and a willingness to work no longer are enough to make a decent living.
Astonishingly, at a time when more African Americans than ever hold jobs of prestige and power, the notion persists among young blacks that racism remains an insuperable barrier -- not just in the workplace but even in the schools. All of us have stories to tell of unfair supervisors, insensitive counselors and bigoted teachers, and the stories are mostly true.
But so are the equally compelling stories of black achievement. The culture change Price hopes to achieve will depend on which stories become our guide -- those that say we needn't try or those that prove we can succeed if we put forth the effort.
What our young people need to understand is that education is not a zero-sum game in which they either outperform someone else or else join the ranks of losers. It is a matter of acquiring the knowledge, the skills and the attitudes that can make them valued (and well-compensated) employees. But it does take effort.
As 18-year-old Fitzroy Dennison told the New York Times:
"My teachers are not telling me I have to [work hard academically]. My parents don't tell me I have to do it."
Well, Fitzroy, I'm telling you you have to do it. We have to do it. Or else, in this increasingly technical economy, we really are "gonna get creamed."