It was the sort of conversation writers dream of stumbling upon. Walking my clothes back home from the laundromat, I ended up behind two young men from Brooklyn — both of them black, male and no older than 19. They were engaged in a discussion about higher education, the best part of which went like this:
Boy 1: "I'm tellin' you, son, you gotta get that master's degree."
Boy 2: "Oh, yeah? Why?"
Boy 1: "Because once a ni**er get his master's, a ni**er be [having sex with] women he thought he could never [have]."
As a 20-something raised on the bawdy comedy of Eddie Murphy and George Carlin, my first instinct was to laugh—that conversation was the stuff Def Comedy Jam bits are made of. But as a writer keenly interested in African-American culture, my next instinct was to think, "Know what? Maybe he's onto something."
On July 14, President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative. By investing in the nation's community colleges and increasing financial aid for college students, the president hopes that America will have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by the year 2020 (both Russia and Canada currently beat our rates). Though not impossible, it's an ambitious goal by any measure, and reaching it is going to be considerably more strenuous if the black community continues struggling with education the way it has in the past.
By now, it's an age-old problem: How to keep African-American students interested in academics? More than that, how to get young black men—who continually underperform at school compared to black women—not just going through the motions in their classrooms until they're 18, but thriving in the educational environment? It's one of the hardest questions facing America today, and its difficulty is augmented by the question preceding it: Why don't many black men want to thrive in school?
One of the most compelling answers to that latter query—Why?—comes from Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor who's spent a large part of his career studying the habits of young African Americans. In a 2006 New York Times op-ed piece, Dr. Patterson discussed what his research told him about the academic failures of black male students. His conclusion was equally enlightening, frightening and pathetic:
So why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.
In short, to many young men in the inner city, a life full of material things is more attractive than a life of learning. Or, as the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. put it, "Money, [prostitutes] and clothes—all a brother knows."
Later in his essay, Dr. Patterson suggests that academia take a "new approach" to understanding African-American men. I couldn’t agree more. But what exactly is the best “new approach” to take?
To at-risk African-American youths, gauzy, intangible catchphrases about the value of learning amount to nothing more than the ultimate instance of bringing a knife to a gunfight, almost literally. When President Barack Obama says, "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its people," kids in New Orleans who hear murders taking place outside their windows at night respond, "What future?"
In the wake of decades of failure, perhaps it's time to start taking our cues on how to sell education in the inner cities from the research of Dr. Patterson, or, better still, those two young men ambling down the sidewalk in Brooklyn that afternoon.
In 2008, seven states adopted a new plan to attract low-income and minority students to college-prep courses, the gist of which was simple: pay kids $100 for every advanced placement exam they pass. The states latched on to the idea after a similar program in Texas produced a 30 percent rise in the number of students with high SAT scores. The proof is there—money talks.
With that in mind, what's wrong with telling a 16-year-old boy, "You wanna meet exotic women? Go to school, work hard, get an international business degree and go start a company in Paris." What's wrong with saying to a kid who wants to be an iced-out rapper that the real money in music doesn't go to the performers, but to the record executives? "So instead of wasting time on a rap career that odds say will never materialize," you can tell him, "Why not go to college, study music and business, graduate and then work your way up at a label? And, if that's not glamorous enough, start a label!"
Knowing what we know about how deeply many of America's inner-city children value "cool," it's foolish to insist on trying to appeal to them with traditional, impractical platitudes about education. It shows a disconnect with reality and, almost certainly, it's a disconnect that exists because these marketing gimmicks are dreamed up by learned people who have come to know the inherent value of their brain.
Is it tacky to attract kids to education with material wealth? Absolutely. In fact, it’s practically the antithesis of much of what proper schooling should impart. But wouldn't you rather have another tacky plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills than another dead black kid in Compton?
Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV. You can contact him here.