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Bill Maxwell

A crusade for black education

Education in black America at all levels — from kindergarten through college — is in a crisis, and the crisis will deepen if something drastic is not done now and if attitudes do not change.

I will not recite the grim statistics, but on almost every reliable measure of education, blacks as a group are faring poorly. In fact, this generation of young blacks, according to the American Council on Education, is doing no better educationally than previous generations. The urgency of this problem cannot be overstated.

The harsh reality is that in the global, high-tech-driven economy of the 21st century, young blacks without college degrees, without professional certificates and licenses and without other specialized training and language skills will find precious few jobs that pay decently. The result will be a deeper, irreversible slide into poverty.

What must blacks do to prevent themselves from becoming a permanent economic underclass? I did not say should do or need to do. I said must do.

They must make educational achievement the new black movement, one that is even more powerful than the original civil rights movement. It must be a national movement, embraced by every black household, every family and every individual. This movement must become the new, shared obsession. Excellence in education must become the new, unquestioned mantle.

The civil rights movement is living proof that blacks are capable of coming together for the general good of the race, as a group that has the power and ability to grab fate and shape it.

Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. fearlessly and unapologetically outlined the movement's objectives, defined its mission, devised strategy and marched alongside the faithful. The movement had such unassailable authority that it spurred onetime warring organizations, even religious denominations, to cooperate for the first time. It also was the genesis of other groups that continue to do good work nearly half a century later.

Most recently, during Barack Obama's presidential campaign, blacks again proved that they can work largely as one for a cause. From coast to coast, they poured their energies and dollars into the movement to send the first black person to the White House. Unlike in the past, not being registered to vote was not something you acknowledged without expecting a tongue-lashing.

Nothing like it had happened since the civil rights movement. People who had never been involved in politics of any kind found a personal cause, a cause they shared with millions of others. The result helped to produce a milestone in U.S. history.

Now is the time for the same to happen for education. President Obama, himself an example of the educated black person, has sounded the alarm for the need to focus on education — the bedrock of individual and shared progress and pride. But given his job, he cannot lead this new movement.

I do not know who will lead what I am calling a National Black Strategy for Education. I do know that someone who understands what is at stake, someone who has the clout and the power to be heard at the national level, must step forward now. This person cannot be motivated by the desire to make money or the need to become famous. It must be an unselfish person who can honestly and earnestly articulate the urgency of the education crisis while persuading black people to willingly join the movement.

This leader has to be able to communicate with all black people. Primarily, though, he or she must be able to inspire the parents, along with other guardians, whose children are the ones we refer to when we talk about the "achievement gap," when we talk about the "dropout rate," when we talk about the juvenile "incarceration rate."

This leader also must have that special gift of connecting with children themselves, especially disenchanted black boys who already have given up on life. They must be convinced of education's inestimable value and power, and they must be persuaded to assume individual responsibility for their learning.

They must be taught that the world owes them nothing; they must be taught to achieve despite the many obstacles in their paths.

Who, then, will lead the National Black Strategy for Education? The stakes are higher than those faced by the warriors of the civil rights movement, when the legal right to attend a decent school was the goal. That right was won. Now, blacks must take full advantage of the opportunity.

A crusade for black education 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 10:33pm]

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