Furious responses to educator Steve Perry’s tweet last week regarding Steve Harvey’s National Mentoring Camp for Young Men is a healthy sign that black people won’t accept self-loathing as a viable solution for underachievement.
Perry, who founded the all-male Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., recently announced a partnership with hip-hip mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs to open a new charter school in Harlem.
If you follow Perry, his tweet didn’t surprise you. Perry built a career on “fixing” black boys. As the title of one of his books, Man Up! Nobody Is Coming to Save Us, suggests, Perry asserts that black folks' salvation is primarily an internal matter. Accordingly, schools (and boot camps) provide close quarters for Perry to recondition youths to have the skills, values and mindsets necessary not to join gangs, leave school early or stay on their mama’s couch.
According to Perry’s pull-your-pants-up logic, white achievement should be credited to things that black people “fail” in doing.
Let’s be clear: Belt wearing isn’t the reason white children are educated in wealthier schools. Haircuts and etiquette classes don’t lead to the technological innovations of Silicon Valley. Lower incarceration rates aren’t because whites use drugs less often. The wage gap isn’t caused by white men’s hard work ethic.
There’s nothing wrong with black children that ending racism can’t solve. In over the 60 years that the National Center for Education Statistics has been collecting data, belt-tightening, haircutting and gangbanging haven’t been remotely cited as causing the categorical educational disparities that currently exist. Prior achievement (low-achieving schools), income and wealth (poverty), along with neighborhood and numerous other factors that have roots in racism continue to plague our communities.
Cutting black boys’ hair amounts to nothing powerful, but the animus toward Perry goes far beyond hair. Black folks have grown tired of Perry’s shtick of explaining underachievement by locating the problem within the students, their families and communities—classic cultural-deficit modeling.
“So clear that there is no recognition of how similar processes have historically been used to force assimilation, dehumanize and devalue culture,” wrote Christopher Emdin, associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, on a Facebook post. Bootstrapping is as old as racism itself. Convincing black folks that they are to blame for their existence sustains the legacy of white supremacy.
Even Perry’s response to substantive criticism resorts to blaming.
I often quote Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”
You don’t cut black boys’ hair to make them more acceptable and nonthreatening to white people, either.
Perry’s tweet, which also referenced the U.S. Army, came eight days after Muhammad Ali’s death. Ali refused Army induction because of his principles and blackness. His life proved that true greatness has nothing to do with conforming to racist structures, and Black Lives Matter is more aligned with his radical, black tradition than Steve Harvey or Steve Perry ever could be.
Actions stemming from blaming never lead to the systemic changes that black folks need; demanding justice does. And throwing shade on the black cultural aesthetic rather than on the actual systems that put black folks in peril is telling.
As a former charter school executive whose dreads flowed over my doctoral robe, I can tell you that my hair was a problem only for police and black people who felt it wasn’t respectable. I also learned that education reform demanded the kind of conformity that Perry espouses. Firing teachers, suspending kids and blaming parents deems you an effective leader for whom applause and resources follow.
The outpouring of anger toward Perry’s tweet marks a positive turn in history. For years we’ve allowed school leaders to make our children walk on white lines to prove their worth. From speech to clothes to hair, if they failed to assimilate, any challenges that they faced were because they weren't "raised right." Now we expect our leaders to generate jobs, deconstruct jails, train teachers and provide college scholarship, not place their failure to do so on a lack of haircuts and belts.
The notion that traditionally black hairstyles are synonymous with being unsuccessful speaks directly to the pathologizing of blackness that this country is known to do—and our "leaders" are too often the ones elevated to do it.
Luckily, black people are smarter than what Perry thinks.
Also on The Root: “‘Crazy Baldheads’ Seek to Eliminate Dreads”