Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
In the summer of 2004, an outraged Bill Cosby gave a bristling speech on the state of Black America. He reprimanded black folks for crime, poor academic performance and irresponsible sexual activity. At one point during this event marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board, he exclaimed, “What the hell good is Brown v. Board if no one wants it?”
As history would have it, around the time of Cosby's speech, Roy Brooks became the new superintendent of the Little Rock School District. Shortly thereafter, Brooks declared that his objective was to make the district the best performing urban school system in the nation. I was intrigued. I had never heard a superintendent make such a strong declaration. I also knew that this would be a daunting task, because few urban districts can tell success stories of closing the achievement gap between white and black students.
Not long after Brooks' tenure began, so did the grumblings — not from the white patrons whose kids represent about 30 percent of the students in the district, but from the black majority. As the months passed, opposition to Brooks grew. As a result of the fall 2006 School Board elections, the composition of the board fundamentally changed with the board's majority finally mirroring the district's student majority.
This change was the beginning of the end for Brooks. His offense can succinctly be described as not engaging the majority of his constituency. The effort to oust the superintendent frustrated and angered white citizens who backed him and, because many whites had no meaningful interactions with black people, the move seemed illogical.
Joel Klein would understand. The chancellor of the New York City schools recently spoke at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. I was curious and skeptical as I listened, knowing that only 25 percent of black males graduate on time from the New York public schools. But Klein said something that made me realize he knew what he had to do with his overwhelming black constituency.
“I became a black Baptist preacher,” Klein said.
What he meant was that he went to black churches and events and on black radio shows to get his message out about what he wanted to do to improve the schools, and how he needed the help of the people to get this done. My wife looked at me but said nothing; she and I were thinking the same thing. For us, it was a shame that a Jewish brother knew what to do, but Brother Brooks, a great guy nonetheless, did not.
This is why Brooks was removed by the School Board. Being an urban school superintendent means being a politician. You must attend the major events of your constituents. Yet he, from my knowledge, never traveled to the various black churches to give his great message. He was not seen at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. programs or any of the black fraternity and sorority events. He never was a guest on the “Broadway Joe Talk Show” on radio station KOKY. In fact, Broadway Joe indicated on the air that he had invited Brooks on two occasions without success.
One night, while I was watching one of those Fox News shows (probably that ridiculous Sean Hannity) in the aftermath of Don Imus' racist remarks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team and his subsequent firing from his nationally syndicated radio program, my wife looked at me and said, “Roy Brooks is our Don Imus.”
The “I-Mess” aftermath caused people to look within the black community and say, “If those words aren't appropriate for Imus, we need to stop it as well.” Slowly, civil rights leaders came forward to begin challenging the use of those words in our community. (Imus had called the women basketball players “nappy-headed ho's.”)
The NAACP recently had a funeral for the word “nigger.” Even Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul, begrudgingly recommended more radio edits. Many lamented that it should not have taken the Imus incident for us to begin to get serious about the real issues but, because it did, we needed to make the most of it.
Roy Brooks, then, is our Don Imus. I have heard more talk about “achievement gaps” in the past three months than in the past three years. All of a sudden, we (black folks) are now openly concerned about the achievement gap in the schools. Realistically, these gaps have existed for decades, but there appears not to have been the same sense of urgency as there is now.
I noticed this a while ago. In an Arkansas Times op-ed column last summer, I lamented that at the annual Academic Signing Day in a district that is 70 percent black, only 21 percent of the top students were black. I joined the Little Rock Public Education Foundation so that I could be involved in this program particularly, realizing that we send a terrible message when a majority black district has so few black students recognized as the best. Regrettably, it was even worse this year — and from the huge Central High contingent, only one student was black.
So everything is exposed and in the open. We have a serious achievement gap based on race. Brooks' leaving changes nothing. But let's be real. No superintendent is going to come in here and, alone, reverse a decades-old problem. Forcing the district to conduct research on known results, such as the impact of school attendance or discipline on performance, allows us to say we're working on it but completely avoids the harder problem.
It will be as difficult to erase this gap as it will be to get the rap duo called the Ying Yang Twins to eliminate bad words from their lyrics. This is because success means changing culture. John McWhorter, the noted educator and author, suggests that Black America suffers from a cult of anti-intellectualism. He may be on to something.
Controversial authors Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom write that black students fail because of “the special role of television in the life of black children and the low expectations of their parents.” Black children watch two hours more TV every day than white kids, with 40 percent of black children watching more than six hours a day. I guess the changes we make in the classroom are going to be so dramatic that homework will not be needed, because our kids don't have time for any.
Parenting is a complex variable of this issue. Back around 1957, 78 percent of black kids were born into two-parent families; today, just 30 percent. Single moms are amazing, but it is clear that this is not the optimal condition for student achievement. And forget about them getting involved, especially when we have so many last-minute 5 p.m. School Board meetings. It almost seems as if these meetings are designed to exclude the input of those who are affected the most.
Theresa Perry, in her text, “Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African American Students,” suggests that schools, families and communities have to develop identities of achievement for black kids. This can be done, she suggests, through film clubs, literary societies, debating clubs, black history societies, etc. None of her strategies involve the courts; they involve us spending our time with kids.
Regardless of who takes over as Little Rock superintendent, we need to have a “black family meeting” to talk about strengthening our families and making education a priority for our community. We have not come together to deal with OUR issue, one that is greater than any problems with Brooks. It was easy to get rid of him. Getting rid of anti-intellectualism requires a revolution.
So let's see who steps up to tackle this issue.
Count on me to do one thing: I will advise the new superintendent to become a black preacher.
Dr. Walter Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith College.
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