Championing cultural change

A few days before President Barack Obama unveiled his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative aimed at creating more opportunity for young men of color, Jawanza Kunjufu spoke to a Black Men and Boys Conference in North Carolina.

Kunjufu is a prominent author (of more than 40 books) and speaker on minority education issues, and minced few words in confronting his audience with some harsh realities linked to life choices.

Statistics show that the surest path to prison, he said, involved not learning to read, dropping out of school and hanging out on street corners at night.

He warned against the twin dangers of drugs and deluded attitudes.

“There are folks that say you can’t be cool if you’re smart,” he said. “They say that being smart, that using proper language, is ‘acting white.’

“Well, let me ask you this. If being smart is acting white, are they saying you have to act dumb to be black?” he asked. “I don’t believe that.”

Obama didn’t mention the “acting white” pejorative in his announcement of “My Brother’s Keeper,” but he did say we all needed to “talk openly about things like responsibility and faith and community.”

In other words, it’s time for a real dialogue about culture—and specifically the cultural traits and norms and mores that are either conducive, or toxic, to learning.

All too often, those with amonied and/or a political interest in racial discord hijack discussions and steer them toward blame and alleged racism. In the words of Booker T. Washington a century ago, too many black activists have learned to make a living out of their troubles.

Before the ink had dried on Obama’s proclamation, pundits could be heard cautioning against “structural racism” and “profiling” and “racial disparities” such as those in school discipline.

That farce of a “study” addressing school discipline a couple years ago was anything but scholarly, as I wrote at the time in comparing data from Pine Bluff (nearly all black) and Paragould (nearly all white).

When analyzed separately, expulsions and suspensions in each school were applied in straight line with student racial makeup, demonstrating that the disciplinary actions were race-neutral.

But when viewed as a combined total, a false racial disparity appeared because there were more suspensions at Pine Bluff than at Paragould. The wrong conclusion was that the system disciplined blacks disproportionately.

Racial motivation had nothing to do with black discipline in an essentially all-black school. Neither school took disciplinary action in the context of the other, but only in response to its own students’ behavior.

The right question—which both Kunjufu and Obama addressed last month—is why the rate of Pine Bluff expulsions is higher than that of Paragould.

The most likely culprit is cultural differences in the student populations. And that’s where real education reform has to begin.

I saw an inspiring quote not long ago on one of the walls at the Arkansas Athletes Outreach facility in Fayetteville by Olympic Alpine skier and gold medalist Jean Claude Killy: “The best and fastest way to learn a sport is to watch and imitate a champion.”

That advice applies to more than just athletics. Watching and imitating the behavior of any successful people or group is usually a pretty good approach to learning in general.

To quote a 2012 Pew Research Center report updated last year: “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.”

The U.S. population now contains about 18.2 million Americans of Asian descent, and that number is expected to grow by 161 percent in the next 35 years.

Despite the fact that 74 percent of Asian American adults were born abroad (and about half say they don’t speak very good English), nothing is lost in translation regarding their educational achievements as a group.

Asian Americans have the highest high school graduation rate in the U.S. (93.5 percent) compared to 83 percent for whites and 66 percent for blacks.

Nearly half of Asian Americans (49 percent) have a bachelor’s degree, compared to a U.S. average of 28 percent (and an Arkansas average of only 19.8 percent).

They’re also standouts when compared to their nations of origin. In Japan, for example, only 25 percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree-but almost 70 percent of immigrants from Japan in America do.

Their overachieving pursuit of education translates into financial success as well. Asian Americans have by far the highest median household income in America at $66,000.

That’s twice the median household income for blacks, and 32 percent more than whites.

Underlying their accomplishments is a culture that places greater value than other Americans on marriage, parenthood and hard work.

Solid majorities of Asian Americans believe that among the most important things in life are having a successful marriage (54 percent) and being a good parent (67 percent), which in each instance lead Americans in general beliefs by roughly 20 points.

Asian Americans represent a strong champion in education for young men of color, as well as all others, to watch and imitate.

The first step in the journey to better opportunity really might be as simple as “acting Asian.”


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