Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

Our Children in Crisis

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Crime, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: January 25, 2010 - 7:30 PM

 

 
Our Children in Crisis
“Deutsh (1967) and Ward (1982) in contemplating the education of disadvantaged children imply that ‘disadvantaged’ is not a homogeneous group. That is, within each group are great variations. This view is significant because it communicates that some black men as adolescents learn to be high achievers in an environment more challenging than most children face. Consequently, it reminds us that black mainstream is not a tangle of pathology. Rather it demonstrates a source for strength and resilience that is deeply rooted and viable against incredible odds."
 Successful African-American Men from Childhood to Adulthood
Sandra Taylor Griffin, Ph.D., 2000
 
Education is one of the key passports of social and class mobility for a majority of African Americans. In his classic work, A Theory of Justice, the late Harvard Professor and philosopher John Rawls eloquently elucidates why education is a critical component of social mobility when he states, "the value of education should not be assessed solely in terms of economic efficiency and social welfare. Equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy in the culture of his society and take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth."
 
My experience as a poor child growing up was one of continuous housing instability and school mobility; I attended four elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools in Minneapolis.
 
Patterns of housing segregation, housing instability and school mobility are still prevalent today for many poor inner city homeless or semi-homeless children. These factors have a significant impact on students’ academic achievement and exacerbate the achievement gap. Mobility and housing instability are not the only issues impacting student achievement, however. Child readiness, teacher preparation and curriculum, parent involvement, discipline, and reading and writing proficiency are salient issues for African-American students in urban communities.
 
Even with my chaotic home life, I did well in school in my early years. I was always interested in learning and had a few great teachers who really took an interest in me and my education. In my early adolescence, when I was 12 years old, the transition from boyhood to manhood was a very confusing time for me, as it is for most young men. I was having an identity crisis. In the nomenclature of psychology, “identity crises are periods of emotional and mental distress that can lead to significant alteration in worldview in a short period of time in a person’s life. The crisis can lead to changes in their peer associations, political beliefs, or engagement in risk taking behavior. The challenges of an identity crisis are an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to demonstrate resilience.”1
 
As a young black boy, things that I felt in my life regarding racial pride and social justice were incongruent with the images that were being painted for me on TV and in the media. I would watch movies like Tarzan, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Holiday Inn on TV and would see people who looked like me represented as savages, servants or worse. Questions of who I was and what I wanted to be or what I thought I could be in this society were continuously present.
 
I also began to understand that race mattered in the world.  It was in my early formative adolescent years that I began to understand that ,“Racism is omnipresent, though often subtle: it is channeled through multiple levels of context...It is inclusive not only of discriminatory behavior, but also of structural power relationships, political ideologies, and institutionalized practices, all of which can be normative, albeit unacknowledged, components of society. There are various and salient ways racism impacts lives, not only by disadvantaging people of color, but also by privileging White people.”1
 
When I was thirteen, I ran away from home and lived on the street for a few months. This was one of the best things that had happened to me up until then. Soon after, I moved in with my uncle Moe and his family and this environment provided me with the stability I craved and the home schooling I needed.
 
In the mid 1970s, on the heels of the civil rights and Black Power movements, there was a great deal of support for education within the African-American community.  Many African Americans were beginning to fill prominent roles in education in Minneapolis, including Richard Green, the first African-American Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools; Harry Davis, the first African-American Chair of the Minneapolis School Board; and a host of dedicated administrators such as Bill McMoore, Marvin Trammel, Mel West, Joyce Jackson and others. These trailblazers were critically important for many African-American students in Minneapolis, including me. They pointed, by example, at what was possible and opened the doors of educational access and opportunity for many of us at that time.
 
Under their leadership, I was able to participate in many opportunities that expanded my world view including the Urban Journalism Workshop, the National Close Up program, the Central High School debate team and serving as an editorial writer for the high school newspaper. These experiences were invaluable to my growth and development.
 
The cultural and community expectation was that you would and could achieve academically. This type of civic-centered focus on education served as a protective factor against the stereotype threat many African-American young adolescents face in today’s academic settings.2
 
Much has changed in the intervening years. There were a number of convergent factors which have had a cumulative impact on the social and human capital development within low income urban African-Americans communities. Some of these factors include:  the flight of middle class African-Americans and Whites from low income urban areas which has significantly increased the concentration of poverty; the loss of a once vibrant family structure in low income African American communities, exacerbated by the legacy of national welfare policy; the dislocation of economic opportunity afforded to the early generation through manufacturing jobs; and continued patterns of structural discrimination in housing, access to credit and employment opportunities.
 
 We have created, as so aptly stated in the 9-11 Commission report, “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable or steady employment—a sure prescription for social turbulence.3" 
 
The logical choice, some have argued, for many disadvantaged young African-Americans with bleak futures and very few economic opportunities is to turn to activity marked by violence and the lure of more lucrative payoffs.4
 
In America:5
 
Among men, blacks (28.5%) are about six times more likely than whites (4.4%) to be admitted to prison during their life. Among women, 3.6% of blacks and 0.5% of whites will enter prison at least once.
 
Homicide is now one of the leading causes of death for African American men. And the data on homicides indicate that, more often than not, the perpetrator in these homicides is also African American. In fact, an examination of the data on all violent crimes (rape, homicide, assault) demonstrates that violent crimes are primarily intraracial; in other words, both the victim and the offender are of the same race
 
For every increase of 1% in the level of black male unemployment, the homicide rate increases by 1.28 per 100,000.
 
There are more African American men in prison (1 million) than in college (less than 500,000). In contrast, with only 600,000 white men in prison and 3.5 million in college, there are 5.8 times as many white men in college as in prison.
 
Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal Justice supervision on any given day -- either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.
 
In Minnesota:
 
Minnesota already has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps between black and white students. (StarTribune , 2008)
 
Black students in Minnesota are being suspended at a rate about six times that of white students. (StarTribune, 2008)
 
In Minneapolis, despite laudable efforts by the Minneapolis Public Schools in the 2008-09 school year: 6
 
Only 34% of African-American students pass the 10th grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments II (MCA II) reading proficiency test compared to 89% for Caucasian students.
 
Only 8% of African-American students passed the 11th grade MCA II math proficiency test compared to 59% for Caucasian children.
 
Only 12% of 10th Grade African students are predicted to score at least 21 on their ACT college entrance examinations and thus will be considered “college ready”.
 
These types of results for African-American children are repeated throughout the country in most urban areas with some variation.  If this pattern is allowed to continue it will have long-term and far-reaching consequences for the future of the African American community, but also for the general population of Minnesota.
 
If there is a case to be made for a state of emergency, this is it!
 
If we are going to make progress we need the political will to begin rebuilding the leadership and civic infrastructure within the African American community. We need to set clear measureable objectives, holding the system and each other accountable for results. The consequences for failure are clear.
 
The schools can’t do it alone, the police can’t do it alone, communities can’t do it alone and sometime the parents can’t do it alone either. The solutions will have to be a concerted and courageous effort led by the African American community in equal partnership with government, nonprofits and the private sector.
 


  
1.    Understanding Vulnerability and Resilience from a Normative Developmental Perspective : Implications for Racially and Ethnically Diverse Youth, Margaret Beale Spencer, et al. Chapter 16  P. 636, 643-Developmental Psychopathology: Theory and Methods Volume 1 edited by Dante Cicchetti and Donald J. Cohen, 2006
 
2.    Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group  (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. 
 
3.     The 9-11 Commission Report Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government Edition, April 24, 2007 P. 54
 
4.    JULIE A. PHILLIPS, VARIATION IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOMICIDE RATES: AN ASSESSMENT OF POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS* Criminology, Volume 35, 1997
 
5.    PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA, Bruce Western.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006
 
6.    http://www.mpls.k12.mn.us/uploads/sos_annualreport_2009.pdf

 

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