One gutsy guy

Is America’s civil-rights leadership looking out for the essential interests of African-American children? Former education secretary Rod Paige says no. His hard-hitting new book, The Black-White Achievement Gap, co-authored with Elaine Witty, is a trenchant, courageous, plainspoken indictment and cri de coeur.

Paige is appalled that the black-white achievement gap is as wide and persistent as it has proven to be. He correctly regards it as the principal impediment to the economic advancement, social strengthening, and full integration of African Americans. And he is outraged that such venerable organizations as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus haven’t made closing that gap their top priority.

He and Witty (long-time dean of education at Norfolk State University--and Secretary Paige’s sister) devote the first half of their book to documenting the achievement gap and explaining its origins and persistence. They pull no punches here. After recounting a bleak and sometimes horrific history, they ask “to what extent does the legacy of the Negroes’ historic educational experiences [slavery, Jim Crow, etc.] account for the current gap in academic performance?” They declare that “while history is important, it is not destiny” and that it is something to be overcome, along with a host of contemporary challenges, not something to accept as permanent rationalization for an insoluble problem.

They are, in fact, confident that the problem can be solved, provided that leaders (and in due course followers) themselves come to believe that it can be solved, that expectations are raised, that successful strategies, programs, and schools are expanded and replicated, and that sufficient attention is paid to things like students’ course selection.

The real punch in this volume, however, lies in the last four chapters where Paige and Witty focus on leadership, both why it matters when tackling a huge and complex problem like this one and why it has been scarce and misdirected. They eloquently explain the role of leadership--then they bluntly attack America’s civil rights leaders for neglecting “the greatest civil rights issue of our time.” For the most part--several worthy exceptions are noted--they fault the major organizations and their leaders for avoiding the achievement-gap problem, for ignoring or opposing measures that would ameliorate it, and for opting instead to continue in an outdated mode of blaming racism, discrimination, segregation, inadequate funding, and suchlike for the educational challenges that black youngsters face.

Why? Well, the reasons are multiple. Part of it is that civil rights leaders are stuck in a rut. They’re simply not very good leaders, especially when compared with some of their great predecessors. And they’re loath to talk turkey to their own constituents. “Deeply embedded in the African American leadership culture,” Paige and Witty write, “is a strong aversion to open discussion of issues which might reflect negatively on the African American community.” They recall the “shock and amazement” that greeted Bill Cosby’s celebrated “fifty years after Brown” speech that included criticism of black parents for paying more attention to sneakers than to phonics--and the failure of civil rights leaders to echo, endorse, and amplify Cosby’s message.

At least as important, however, is politics. “Party trumps race” is the heading on perhaps the two most provocative pages in the book. Putting it simply, civil rights leaders are keener to stay aligned and allied with mainstream Democratic Party nostrums, ideologies, policies, and stakeholder groups (read: teacher unions) than to face up to the actual needs and priorities of the black community in 2010. That is why, for example, they opposed or were silent in the enactment of No Child Left Behind (with which, of course, Paige was deeply involved).

Paige is blunt about this in the pages of personal reflection that open the book:

The African American leadership culture described here can be characterized by its strong liberal ideology, its view that all African American problems are caused primarily by racism, and its strong aversion to self-criticism....Every part of the education system has taken its share of criticism for the existence of the [achievement] gap--except African Americans who hold political and leadership power and, therefore, have the capability, and I believe, ultimately the responsibility to make a real contribution to ending this problem....The successful African American students I have known and the schools that succeed despite the greatest of odds fill me with hope for eliminating the achievement gap. But doing so will require concerted action by an improved African American leadership culture.

One would like to think that the education-reform-related schisms of today’s Democratic Party would also permeate its allies in the civil rights communities. And Paige is able to cite a few examples of black leaders who have turned into serious reformers. (The estimable Kevin Chavous penned the book’s foreword.) But the pickings are slim, so slim that the most prominent example he can name is the notorious Al Sharpton, who has famously teamed up with Joel Klein, Newt Gingrich, and occasionally Arne Duncan to croon the tunes of education reform. That this opportunist turns out to be the highest-profile illustration of a new-style leader painfully underscores Paige and Witty’s central point, which is that mainstream civil rights leadership in this realm is all but nonexistent.

This book is full of important truths and truth-tellings that it took guts to write. Let’s hope it has the impact it deserves. 

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