On the eve of Black History Month, I have paused to reflect on the progress of African Americans since the major achievements of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. The legislation that came out of this movement facilitated the integration of Black Americans into the mainstream of our society -- including voting rights, fair housing laws, integration of public accommodations, affirmative action to achieve equal employment, and most visibly, the integration of public schools. As we prepare to celebrate the contributions of African Americans during the month of February, some have wondered how the resulting integration has impacted the progress of African Americans.
Does Integration Produce Improved Outcomes?
Integration works when we show up anywhere in the world with our identity and self-esteem in tact, and continue our striving for excellence. Integration is not a cure-all, but a mechanism to facilitate our goals. We all want to be full participants in our society. But some think that integration into white neighborhoods is harmful. There was a recent article at Blackbluedog.com titled, Raising Black Kids In Mostly White Areas Can Destroy Them. I disagree with the premise of that article.
The very qualities that launched the Civil Rights Movement -- education, strong families, community unity, striving for excellence, pursuit of equal opportunity -- no longer define us. The result of integration efforts was a shift in housing and employment that resulted in re-segregation of our urban communities. In the resulting integrated schools, our children are the most highly disciplined and expelled, and the achievement gap that was supposed to decline from access to equal facilities increased instead of closing. It seemed that some among us declared victory by simply showing up, and stopped striving toward excellence.
Our best and brightest abandoned our traditional communities to live in integrated suburbs. However, it appears that our children didn't perform higher in this new environment. More importantly, the backlash of the 2008 economic downturn exposed the weakness of our "keep up with the Joneses" lifestyles - resulting in the greatest loss of wealth in the history of Black economic progress. So, integration didn't protect us from our weaknesses. Black families tended to have more debt, less equity in their homes, less tenure on their jobs, and no safety net.
In spite of significant individual achievements across every segment of our society, our collective progress suffers. The haves among us blame the have-nots. Those who do well seem to leave their less fortunate cousins behind. Yet the gaps keep getting wider -- even in middle-class Black neighborhoods. We are looking everywhere but in the mirror for solutions to improved outcomes.
We Must Return to a Commitment to Excellence
Looking back at the launching pad of our path of progress, many of our HBCUs are in serious decline. Instead of attracting our best and brightest, they are hampered by admitting too many who are not college-ready. This increases dropouts, and focuses too much energy on remedial activities, while endowments decline and financial crises are the order of the day.
There is a reality that some among us have forgotten. My grandparents, and parents, and community leaders reminded us every day that we had to work twice as hard to be considered equal. They didn't tell us this because it was a cliche' that described the discrimination we faced. They knew that our condition was the result of past discrimination, 400 years of slavery, and current institutional racism. They also knew that WE REALLY ARE BEHIND, and that WE MUST WORK HARDER TO CATCH UP. The playing field isn't level, and those who have an advantage will not give away that advantage. We must work harder to outperform those ahead of us.
There are many stories of immigrants who arrive on our shores penniless, unable to even speak English - who strive to become integrated into the American society. They overcome the language barrier, work at jobs no one else wants to do, and push their children to achieve at levels that now place African American students at the bottom of the achievement ladder. The opposition to every initiative of President Barack Obama demonstrates how difficult the path forward can be -- even for the top position in our country. So, none of us can expect that the barriers to our progress will become easier to overcome. The struggle for excellence must continue.
Integration is not the complete answer to our progress, nor has integration destroyed our progress. Continued progress is achieved through a commitment to excellence and unity among our achievers. It is true that we were placed in our position of disadvantage as a group over a long historical period. This history still shapes the view of African Americans to a large degree. More importantly, this history shapes our view of ourselves.
Each person or achievement that we focus on during the coming month is an example of excellence in the face of overwhelming odds. As we celebrate Black History Month we must look among ourselves and renew the commitment to excellence that shaped our progress throughout our history in this country. Then, we can take better advantage of integration as a mechanism for progress.
Roger Madison, CEO