The presence of melanin in your skin shouldn’t affect your academics.
But in America, it does.
The question is – why?
Why does pigmentation matter so much in this country? What about it brings such negative academic consequences?
This is especially apt since it doesn’t apply to foreign born black students who come here to study or those who recently emigrated here.
In fact, they see just the opposite effect – they earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.
This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.
According to a report by Christine Gambino and associates at the Census Bureau, 41% of the African-born immigrant population earned a bachelor degree compared with 28% of the overall foreign-born population in the US.
The four African birth countries with the highest percentages of bachelor and higher degrees among their expat populations in the US are Egypt at 64%, Nigeria at 61%, South Africa at 57% and Kenya at 47%.
So why the difference?
Obviously, it’s not skin color.
Part of it seems to be qualities selected for in the immigration process, itself.
We don’t let just anyone come to the U.S. We have rigorous qualifications and prerequisites that have to be met. For instance, students who want to study here must get high marks on the SAT, Act and/or the TOFFEL – the language proficiency test. To do that, they need the money and resources to study for these exams. They are already some of the best achievers in their native countries.
Moreover, there is a huge cultural difference coming from Africa as opposed to coming from the United States. Native-born Africans have to deal with the effects of post-colonialism. It wasn’t so long ago that European nations conquered and plundered the African continent for gold and resources. That era has mostly ended, but those living there still have to deal with lingering consequences. This has an effect on everything from gender, ethnicity, class, language, family relationships, professions, religions and nation states.
However, native-born Africans do not have to navigate the world of American white supremacy. The affects of being black in this country may be much more harmful than negotiating post-colonialism.
For instance, most mainland Africans enjoy intact cultures. They are not the product of families that were torn apart, religions that were displaced and entire belief systems, world views and genealogies that were stolen.
Nigerian cultures, in particular, highlight the importance of learning.
One typical Nigerian saying goes like this:
“The best inheritance that a parent can give you is not jewelry or cash or material things, it is a good education.”
This is why academics in Nigeria are widely supported, mandatory and free.
Meanwhile, in America native-born black students grow up in a much more stressful and unstable environment. This translates to academic struggles.
For one, they are the victims of educational apartheid. Brown v. Board is more than 60 years old, but American schools have become increasingly segregated by race and class. Black students receive fewer resources than whites and their schools struggle to provide the same quality of education. Moreover, they are the target – either directly or indirectly – of privatization schemes that result in less control over their own schools and the further reduction of resources through charter and voucher schools that can cut services and pocket the savings as profit.
However, the problem is not just systemic. I hate to say it, but sometimes even American teachers put up obstacles to black students success due to (often unconscious) bias.
Most teachers are white. They have certain societally reinforced expectations of black students. When these children struggle, they are more often put into special education and stigmatized for their differences.
It is no doubt that black students are more often disciplined and suspended than white students – numerous studies have shown this.
I think this is due at least partially to white teachers’ expectations. It is tempting to see black student behavior as negative in the default. We too often label them “bad kids” and then try to find evidence to support it instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt or assuming they’re smart and well-behaved until proven otherwise.
African immigrants don’t have to deal with these stigmas to nearly the same degree. They don’t get the same negative label. They have more support from close-knit families. They have more positive role models including more college graduates in the family.
Another obstacle for American born black students is a cultural imputation against academic achievement. Doing well in school can be seen as “acting white.” In order to maintain popularity and prestige, they are steered away from the exact things that immigrant Africans are steered toward.
The poverty of American blacks plays a huge factor, too. Even in moderately successful African American homes, parents or guardians are often working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet. This reduces their ability to oversee their children’s homework and monitor academic progress.
It seems then that the so-called proficiency gap between native-born black and white students in this country is due to generational poverty, white racism and coping mechanism in their own culture.
If we want to help American-born black students, we need to realize, first, that this problem is not due to inherent racial deficiencies. It is the product of class warfare and white supremacy.
As such, it can be cured through progressive economic policies and anti-racist efforts.
The strongest argument for reparations comes from a recognition of the lingering effects of our history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.
These are daunting problems, but they can be solved.
It just takes an honest appraisal of the issues and the social will to make things right.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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