The narrative of “systemic racism” is not only at odds with well-known facts, it’s subversive of the very ends it pretends to promote. What it seeks – removing responsibility from individuals and placing it on institutions - is exactly the opposite of what it would seek if it were serious about narrowing the various gaps between the races. As I said last time, embracing the “systemic racism” narrative will improve precisely nothing for black Americans.
What will improve their lives and well-being is, in a nutshell, self-help. The message of blacks’ taking responsibility for their own welfare has been around for a long, long time, from the likes of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King and Malcom X and countless others. But their words aren’t just rhetoric, not just a position taken in a debate; they’re backed up by solid data and long history. The simple truth is that, if whites would just get out of their way, black people in the U.S. have proven their ability to equal or exceed whites. That’s why Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Riley entitled his recent book “Please Stop Helping Us,” a plea to white people to drop their guilt and leave blacks alone to rise or fall on their own merit.
Consider education. On the whole, blacks as a group underperform every other demographic group from pre-first grade all the way through college. Regarding black males in primary and secondary schools, Cal Berkeley public policy professor David Kirp had this to say in 2010:
The gap between their performance and that of their peers is perceptible from the first day of kindergarten, and only widens thereafter. In the 2008 National Assessment of Educational Progress … the reading scores of African-American boys in eighth grade were barely higher than the scores of white girls in fourth grade. In math, 46% of African-American boys demonstrated “basic” or higher grade-level skills, compared with 82% of white boys. On the National Education Longitudinal Survey, 54% of 16-year-old African-American males scored below the 20th percentile, compared with 24% of white males and 42% of Hispanic males. Having well-educated parents did not close the gap: In 2006, 43% of black high-school seniors with at least one college-educated parent failed to demonstrate even basic reading comprehension, nearly twice the percentage of whites.
And yet, as the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.” As Thomas Sowell and others have recounted, as far back as the 1890s, all-black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. produced graduates who were the academic equals of the other three high schools in the city that were exclusively white. Indeed, Dunbar students fared better on standardized tests than the students at two of those other three schools. Dunbar graduates didn’t even have to take an entrance exam to get into the likes of Harvard and Dartmouth; it had that good a reputation. It managed all that despite a student body that was predominantly poor or low-middle class. Dunbar’s excellence continued until the early 1950s.
Fast forward to today and the results are even more telling. Charter schools and school voucher programs routinely demonstrate that, given half a chance, black kids from all walks of life are perfectly capable of academic equality. The astonishing success of, say, Success Academy Charter Schools, in New York City, is a notable case in point, but far from the only one.
In 2009, one Success school in Harlem had over 6,000 applicants for just 500 classroom seats. That’s because parents were well aware of the school’s outstanding results in educating kids. What are those results? Former New York City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz started Success Academy in 2006 with 165 kindergarten and first-grade pupils, almost all black or Hispanic and almost all poor. Jason Riley takes it from there:
Within a few years the students [at Success] were outperforming not only their peers in traditional public schools, but also white students in posh suburbs. Success Academy Harlem I, which selects students by lottery, shares a building with PS 149, one of the city’s better traditional public schools. Both schools serve kids from the same racial and economic background in classes that have approximately the same number of students… But the similarities end there. In 2009, 29 percent of students at PS 149 were performing at grade level in reading and 34 percent were at grade level in math. At Harlem I – literally across the hall – the corresponding figures were 86 percent and 94%. Ninety-seven percent of Harlem I’s students passed the state exam that year, ranking it in the top one percent of all New York state public schools.
Ah, but surely Success Academy cherry-picks its students, right? It takes only the cream of the academic crop of Harlem’s children and that explains its success. Nope. As Riley mentioned, a child is accepted to Success Academy or not, strictly by lottery, the luck of the draw.
But still, those who toss their name in the hat from which students are drawn are the best, most motivated ones with the best, most motivated parents who know of the academy’s success. Kids who do less well know they can’t meet the competition, so they don’t even try. Success Academy’s performance demonstrates nothing but the selection bias built into the process of choosing students. That and that alone explains Success’s success, right?
Wrong. We know that because studies have tracked the kids who applied for admission to Success Academy but weren’t chosen. Their names weren’t pulled out of the hat. And guess what. In the regular public school system, they performed on average about the same as the other children in those schools did on average. In short, given the opportunity, kids will rise to the challenge.
Nor is the Success Academy model the only charter school to show such results. Across the country, many different charter schools do as well. Why? After all, charter schools are public institutions, just like the ones with which they compete so successfully. So what explains their achievements?
In a word, standards. Because there is a line of kids out the door and down the block waiting to get into charter schools, the ones who do have a place know they’d better measure up or they’ll find themselves back in an underperforming school. Teachers demand hard work and test the children regularly on what they’ve learned. Standards for learning plus standards for behavior add up to successful students. At one charter school in Atlanta, the principal tells parents at the beginning of the year “that if their children misbehave in school, they will be personally escorted to their parents’ place of work.” Unsurprisingly, the school has almost no discipline problems.
Compare that with the woke approach to educating children. In the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles public schools, it was discovered that black children were disciplined at a greater rate than were white and Asian kids. In 2012, the Obama Administration’s “solution” came straight from the “systemic racism” playbook: the system, not the misbehaving children, had to change. And change it did, outlawing discipline for any but the worst black offenders. The result? Chaos in the classroom as students quickly learned that they could get away with virtually anything, resulting in less learning and lower test scores.
We see what works and what doesn’t. “Systemic racism” theory doesn’t. Making reasonable demands on people and judging them by their behavior does. Sixty years ago, people knew that. It’s a sign of the times that so many have forgotten so much.