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Some time ago I read a column on the schooling of blacks written by Walter Williams, the black economist at George Mason University, who grew up in the black housing projects of Philadelphia in the Thirties. I have read Williams for years. He is an absolutely reliable witness. He reports that all the kids could read, and that classrooms were orderly and teachers respected. Today, by all reports, in the urban black schools the kids can’t read and chaos reigns. Black kids have not gotten stupider since the Thirties. Something is wrong somewhere.
I read similar stories about chaotic, violent, illiterate Latino kids in American schools, these things being attributed to low intelligence. I live in Mexico, and see nothing even faintly resembling these stories. The statistics agree. (Mexican literacy, CIA FactBook: 95%. American literacy, US Department of Education: 86%) Something is wrong somewhere.
In 1981, I wrote a piece for Harper’s on the overwhelmingly black Catholic schools of Washington, DC, and found them to be exactly as Williams described the schools in his projects: well-behaved, and all the kids could read. The article follows. shortly.
I expected that liberals would applaud a piece demonstrating that black kids could learn far better than they did in the public schools. Instead, fury erupted. The success of the Catholics pointed up the incompetence of the teacher’s unions and the vacuity of accepted social theory. Whatever nits can be picked with the piece, whatever one believes about the relative intelligence of blacks, whites, yellows, and ed majors, it is obvious that black kids could do far, far better than they are doing.l Something is wrong somewhere.
The Color of Education
Harper’s, February 1981
Should anyone in authority say anything sensible about racial policy, an event unlikely to occur before the next Ice Age, he would have to say that when it is not merely futile it often injures the people it is supposed to help; that it succeeds in antagonizing whites without benefiting blacks; that it has become more of an ideological battleground than a practical program; and, finally, that it is a fraud, serving principally to benefit groups that grow fat from racial programs. He might be tempted to add that civilized man has never seen such a monumental stream of unembarrassed twaddle.
An obvious observation, which hardly anyone seems to make, is that blacks suffer less from racism than from poor education. Harvard does not reject black applicants because it dislikes blacks but because they are badly prepared. Blacks do not fail the federal entrance examination because it is rigged to exclude them but because they don’t know the answers. Equality of opportunity without equality of education is a cruel joke: giving an illiterate the right to apply to Yale isn’t giving him much.
The intelligent policy is to educate black children, something that the public schools of Washington manage, at great expense, not to do. In fact the prevailing (if unspoken) view seems to be that black children cannot be educated, an idea whose only defect is that it is wrong: the Catholic schools of Washington have been educating black children for years. The Catholic system has 12,170 students in the District, of whom 7,884, or 65 percent, are black.
On the Science Research Associates (SRA) exam, a standardized test of academic achievement, the average reading ability of eighth graders in Washington’s Catholic schools in 1979-80 was at the 52nd percentile, compared to the national norm, and at the 72nd percentile, compared to big-city norms — that is, above average. In arithmetic, the percentiles were 60 and 75 above average. In science, they were 53 and 66 — again, above average. In none of the subjects tested, which included composition, “language arts,” and social studies, were scores as low as the 50th percentile.
Most people argue, incorrectly, that the overall scores are being pulled up by the scores of white students; it is remarkable how few people will accept that black children make good grades because they are bright and well taught. But it happens that Mackin Catholic High School, on California Street, N.W., is 94 percent black, and students there average at grade level or higher when tested in reading; they score similarly in other subjects. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School, in Anacostia, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, has only two white students. The students in the seventh grade read at the 40th percentile, or, to put it another way, rank 10 percent below the national norm. Ninth grade students in the public schools in Anacostia rank 26 percent below. St. Anthony’s, in northeast Washington, near Catholic University, is about 90 percent black. On a composite SRA score, its eighth graders rank at the 67th percentile against the national norm, and at the 76th percentile against big-city norms. When there are virtually no whites at a school, whites cannot be responsible for the scores.
Skeptics suspect that Catholic schools get good scores by accepting only promising students. There is a little truth in this, but not much. Catholic schools in Washington do not accept hopelessly bad students or students who have other problems, such as serious police records, which would cripple them academically or cause them to disrupt classes. Some schools are more lenient than others about admissions standards, but most accept students who score below average. They do not gather up the geniuses and neglect the rest.
Why do the Catholics get better results? One reason is that the students have parents who care enough to put them in superior schools. Another reason is that Catholic schools have superior staffs, with teachers generally required to have at least a B.A. in their subjects. Also involved are academic rigor — students are often assigned two-and-a-half hours of homework — and discipline. One disruptive student can reduce a class to chaos. Catholic schools, not being subject to educational bureaucracies and political pressures, can prevent disruption, resorting, if need be, to expulsion.
In my estimation, the Catholic schools also profit by their respect for the students — a belief in their potential, accompanied by a recognition that they are, after all, children. At St. Anthony’s I talked to the eighth-grade English teacher, Lorraine Ferris. Ferris seems to be half scholar and half drill instructor, about right for junior high, and strikes me as being about as good as teachers get. She knows English from the gerunds up, which puts her ahead of most college English departments. “The important thing,” she says, “is to make children believe in themselves, but you can’t do it by coddling them. I won’t accept a 95 from a student who should make a 98. It’s important to them to see that they can compete. And the idea that black children can’t do the work is baloney. I see red every time I hear it.”
If black children can be educated, the question arises: Why aren’t they? The usual answer is that racism and conservatism are responsible, and much ink is spilled in exorcising these evils. But racists and conservatives have almost nothing to do with educational policy in Washington. Until recently, we’ve had a Democratic president and Congress; we have a liberal National Education Association, a black city government, a black school board, and a black electorate. They, not conservatives or racists, bear responsibility for conditions in the schools.
One may argue that in general the chief hindrances to progress for poor blacks are misguided racial policies and the attitudes of those who make them. It is important to realize that things were different twenty years ago. In the Fifties and Sixties the civil rights movement was producing results-dismantling the prevailing apartheid, for example. Unfortunately the movement somehow became bureaucratized, then became self-serving, and finally became the problem. Today the obstacle to racial progress is not Bill Buckley; it is Ted Kennedy. It isn’t the KKK; it is the NEA.
Race has become an industry. CETA, EEOC, OMBE, and other forbidding acronyms with huge payrolls exist by presiding over the status quo. Various freelance acronyms, such as NAACP, SCLC, ACLU, and PUSH, derive their importance from appearing to galvanize the governmental acronyms. Politicians and influential subcommittees thrive by conspicuously giving their attention to racial matters. The Democratic party retains blacks as a largely docile voting bloc by maintaining the flow of money for racial programs. Billions of dollars, countless jobs, and the political balance ride on keeping things as they are.
The underlying difficulty is that when enough people are employed to solve a problem, means become ends. It becomes more important to continue solving the problem, which provides jobs, than to have solved the problem, which would result in dismissals.
Not all racial functionaries cynically exploit racial division, but many do. People are remarkably adept at aligning their principles with their pocketbooks. Racial bureaucrats will always manage to persuade themselves that their particular programs are of paramount importance in the struggle against oppression. Further, their principal interest being their own interest, they will oppose the elimination of unsuccessful programs to prevent the discovery that nothing very bad would happen if they were abolished.
They have all but silenced opposition with their insistence that He who is against me is against blacks. This argument, repeated often enough, results in something close to censorship, so that it is currently almost impossible to discuss racial programs on their merits — i.e., on whether they work. Whether, for example, the welfare system needs revision isn’t considered.
The national media and the major dailies do their best to enforce the ban on open discussion. They simply won’t publish serious criticism. Relative freedom from criticism encourages a preference for moralism in place of practicality. The tendency is to see racial questions as a conflict between abstract Good and abstract Evil, in which the most important thing is to display admirable intentions, usually to the exclusion of doing anything useful.
There is a further tendency among racial functionaries to do penance for sins they haven’t committed, such as tolerating slavery. Penance is fun, but marvelously useless.
When people are more concerned with seeming good than with doing good, symbols become irresistible. Racial policy abounds in symbols that express concern, cost a lot, and miss the point. There is, for example, the Martin Luther King Memorial Library — oversized, underused, short on books, with a grandiose lobby that has enough wasted space for several simultaneous games of basketball. The District, however, doesn’t suffer from a shortage of books but from a shortage of people who can read them.
The University of the District of Columbia, actually a school for remedial reading, is similarly a symbol. Ninety percent of its freshmen read below the ninth-grade level. Although a new university in the District is not necessarily a bad idea, a fraudulent university whose students are hardly beyond the level of junior high school is unquestionably a bad idea. The sensible policy would be to improve the schools so that the city’s children would be qualified to attend a university, and then to build a university or, for that matter, several universities. But establishing a bogus university is quick and easy; teaching a city to read is slow and difficult, and produces votes a decade later.
It is fascinating that the racial establishment systematically blocks the adoption of the educational policies that would most benefit black children. For example, when Vincent Reed, superintendent of schools in the District, urged the wholly admirable idea of a special school for children with the intelligence and energy to do advanced work, the proposal was defeated.
Such schools exist in cities across the country and have worked well. Readers unfamiliar with the workings of the socially concerned mind may not immediately see why bright children should not be educated to their own level. The reason, said those who defeated the idea, is that it would be elitist. Elitism is regarded as a dreadful thing by the wealthier members of the racial establishment, who send their children to Harvard to avoid it.
Preventing elitism by rendering children illiterate is a dubious favor to them and to the nation. The social effect, of course, is to delay the emergence of black leaders and therefore to retard the progress of the race. South Africa achieves the same result by the same denial of education but is morally superior in making fewer pretenses about its intentions.
The racial establishment also discourages the imposition of discipline in the schools, without which teaching is impossible. The problem is horrendous in some of Washington’s schools. The students need protection against marauders from outside, and the staff need protection against physical assault by students. Teachers tell of being attacked by students with knives, of being afraid to go to certain parts of the school. Vincent Reed recently voiced his concern over security. “When I have kids being shot in schools by outside intruders and teachers being mauled by outside intruders — last year we had a young girl ten years old taken out of the building and raped — I don’t have time for rhetoric.”
Others have time for rhetoric. Ron Dellums, a black representative from California, asked at a Congressional hearing whether the presence of policemen in the schools would inhibit discussion of ideas. (Maybe. So, presumably, do knives, guns, drugs, and rapes.) It is a commonplace argument among educationists that discipline is regimentation and a means of racial repression. Illiteracy is a far better means of repression, and disorder is a sure road to illiteracy.
The racial establishment also ensures that black students have poor teachers. One might expect racial politicians to insist on providing the best obtainable teachers for black children who, being behind, desperately need them. It would not be an unreasonable demand. Given the rate of white-collar unemployment, highly educated teachers can be gotten by whistling.
Unfortunately the racial establishment, never particularly energized about the quest for academic quality, is especially unenthusiastic about finding good teachers. There are several reasons, one being that many in the race business belong to the various species of pseudointellectual riffraff that multiplied during the Sixties — psychologists, sociologists, educationists, feminists, the whole touchy-feely smorgasbord of group-gropers, anxiety-studiers, and fruit-juice drinkers who believe that the purpose of education is emotional adjustment. They seem not to have reflected that an excellent source of maladjustment is to be an unemployed semiliterate without the foggiest understanding of the surrounding world.
Educationists, who have a well-developed sense of self-preservation, understandably do not favor higher standards for teachers. Hiring good teachers means firing bad ones. Any serious attempt to get rid of deadwood means bucking the powerful teachers’ unions, which, as a variety of tests have shown, would be gutted by any insistence on competence. Moreover, dismissal of incompetent teachers would mean a heavily disproportionate dismissal of black teachers. The bald, statistically verifiable truth is that the teachers’ colleges, probably on ideological grounds, have produced an incredible proportion of incompetent black teachers. Evidence of this appears periodically, as, for example, in the results of a competency test given to applicants for teaching positions in Pinellas County, Florida (which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater), cited in Time, June 16, 1980. To pass this grueling examination, an applicant had to be able to read at the tenth-grade level and do arithmetic at the eighth-grade level. Though they all held B.A.’s, 25 percent of the whites and 79 percent of the blacks failed. Similar statistics exist for other places.
Another major reason for the slow progress of blacks is a prejudice, palpable in racial policy though unprovable, that blacks are incapable of competing with whites. Racial functionaries will deny this with fervor; yet if they believed blacks could compete, they would advocate preparing them for competition. Instead the emphasis is on protecting them from it. The usual attitude toward blacks resembles the patronizing affection of missionary for a colony of bushmen: these benighted people are worthy in the eyes of God but obviously can’t take care of themselves, so we will do it. Whenever blacks fail to meet a standard the response is to lower the standard, abolish it, or blur it –not to educate blacks to meet the standard. The apotheosis of this sort of thinking was the lunatic notion that black children should be taught in the gibberish of the streets because it, “communicates,” the implication being that English was too difficult for them. Nobody thought English too difficult for the Vietnamese.
Paternalism has practical consequences. The unrelenting condescension supports blacks’ view of themselves as worthless. (If anyone doubts that poor blacks do indeed regard themselves as worthless, I suggest he spend some time with them.) People who think they cannot succeed do not try.
Finally, the absolute unwillingness of the racial industry to police itself — to make sure that money accomplishes the intended results — has made racial programs a synonym for corruption, waste, mismanagement, nepotism, and undeserved preference. It is hard to find a racial program that is not grotesquely abused. The District’s annual effort to provide summer jobs is typical. The jobs don’t exist, nobody tells the youths where the jobs are thought to be, no work is done if the jobs are discovered, and the youths don’t get paychecks even if they happen to do the work. Last year the same thing happened, and next year, one wearily expects, it will happen again. The pattern repeats everywhere. CETA, for example, might better be called the Comprehensive Graft and Scandal Act. Some programs lapse into frank absurdity. Under “affirmative action,” group after group musters the clout to get on the deprived-species list until, on a quick calculation, 65 percent of the population qualify as mistreated minorities.
Corruption and mismanagement inevitably lead to resentment among whites whose money is being wasted. This resentment is currently called “white backlash,” which has a comfortingly vicious sound and implies that it is someone else’s fault. (In the race business, everything is someone else’s fault.) Antagonizing half the country by shoddy performance is abysmally stupid politics, especially given that the nation would probably have few objections to sensible programs that worked. I find it hard to believe that many people would object to giving a black child a good education at a reasonable price.