Academic underachievement among historically oppressed people in America is not just an academic matter, the problem does not stem from lack of adequate instructional techniques or vocabulary strategies. It is rooted in the very dna of the American social order. It grows naturally, it is a seed that was planted and the roots of injustice nurtured it throughout American history. This is but one symptom of the general oppressive conditions that people have been forced to live in. The historically oppressed sectors of the population will make up the bulk of the bottom end of most social indices from services provided from American institutions (education, health care, law enforcement, etc.), rates of disease, infant mortality, homicides, prison statistics, wealth and income an of course academic performance, in category after category, African American as well as Native and some Latin American groups are disproportionately represented at the bottom.
To view the same minority groups at the bottom of educational achievement statistics as simply an educational issue in the glaring presence of a similar trend that spans every measure of living standards is willful ignorance. The intelligent question to ask is, “Is there a pattern of systemic oppression undergirding all these issues- particularly among African and Native Americans- that could explain this trend?” The dominant narrative would have us believe that the very ethnic groups that were terrorized, traumatized and psychologically attacked for generations by this American ‘democracy’ are at fault for their failure to collectively succeed under that same system.
There is supposedly no connection between the centuries of violence, exploitation and imposed ignorance heaped upon the African and indigenous people on the one hand and their underachievement in the very society that committed the crimes against them on the other. If we are educators, we should encourage our students to ponder on these connections and question the prevailing ideas that help to oppress them and question the legitimacy of such a system that promotes them.
Many educators are unaware how much historical baggage African American youth carry into the classroom. The social studies curriculum does not help, but exacerbates the problem by mystifying the connection between the relative wealth of white people and the poverty stricken condition of African people in America and throughout the world. These two scenarios are projected as totally unrelated. The condition of Africans in the world is treated as just something that happened. Somehow Africans are at the bottom of society in America and the world and in need of perpetual help while the legacies of white supremacy, slavery, capitalism and imperialism, which created such stark inequality are glossed over as something that happened in the past and has no bearing on the world today. There is a clear connection to anyone who bothers to investigate.
What conclusion are students supposed to come to in regards to their intellectual capacity, when they are bombarded with images, even in school, that flaunt their perceived social, economic and educational inferiority, completely divorced from the conditions that created it? No explanation is given as to why oppressed students live in substandard condition compared to folks in wealthier white communities. It is treated as if present conditions are not linked to any historical process. ‘It just is the way it is, because some people are industrious, thrifty and hard working’, the eye level analysis is, if one lives in a poor community they must be just the opposite, lazy, content and shiftless. In order to be like the folks who live well, one simply has to take on the proper characteristics and attitude.
That’s the line; there is no attempt to connect the historical theft of resources, exploitation, racist policies, de-industrialization, and a bunch of other things to current present day conditions. The youth are usually left with the most obvious, eye level conclusion, that something must be wrong with them, especially if they are told that they live in a democracy, and we can all be whatever we want if we try hard enough, without any historical analysis to explain the unequal conditions. They aren’t going to spontaneously provide a historical, class and racial analysis, they just look around and judge the world based on what they see.
The intellectual inferiority of non-Whites has been a hallmark in the belief system of America since its inception. It is a myth that has been institutionalized and propagated by every American institution. It is an idea that has shaped American culture and history. The culture thar black and indigenous people, have been socialized in has systematically taught them to believe this myth, and creates an inferiority complex in relation to whites, especially in the classroom. This has been a cancer passed down generation to generation.
For those psychologically traumatized by America, it is necessary for their collective mental health and self-image to be able to learn the causes of their current condition and not be left to ponder on their inferiority. This is where teaching becomes political. It is our job as educators to bring these youth to health by encouraging them to realize, the conditions among the oppressed are not due to their cultural dysfunction, but to an oppressive system that has victimized them for centuries. We do this not because we simply want to build up oppressed youth and make them feel good at the expense of the dominant system, but because it is true that the so-called shortcomings of oppressed populations in America are largely a legacy of institutionalized racism, oppression and the mechanisms of modern capitalism.
The schism between oppressed students and the educational system was fabricated by the educational system itself. African American students are more likely to be suspended by a large margin as early as pre-school. Study after study confirms that teachers prefer white students to non-Whites. Black youth are also viewed as being older, thus more threatening and less innocent and thus receive harsher consequences for similar behavior as White students. Teachers, according to studies begin to feel threatened by black students as early as the 4th grade. This creates an adversarial relationship between the school system and the student. The student may not even be able to articulate the problem, but may be more likely to act up in class. It is strange how this information is not considered in inquiries into the underperformance of students from oppressed backgrounds.
The problem of educational discrepancies among the oppressed is not an educational problem it is a deeper societal problem linked to all the other discrepancies. The general view in society of black youth as potentially threatening, less intelligent and unrepentant is also prevalent in schools. The same oppressive forces acting on black youth and other oppressed nationalities in other spheres of life are in motion in the educational system. They are criminalized and punished disproportionately just as in general American society. They are assumed culturally deficient and in need of civilization. The educational system is one arm of oppression in a matrix of an entire system based on class and race oppression. So, we cannot simply fix the educational system without changing everything else, it is attached to an entire system of capitalism, racism and imperialism which reproduces inequality. If we want a different outcome, we need a different system. We need a revolution.