BLACK STUDENTS: THE GIANT WITHIN
By Isaac J. Black
Several weeks before The Bell Curve became a topic of renewed debate, my daughter audited a class called "Providing Health Care to People of Other Cultures" at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. A graduate of Cornell and a first year medical student, she welcomed the lecture on health and cultural differences. Later, she took the #6 Train to Harlem, to do volunteer work for a community - based organization. On street corners and at subway stations, she dialogued with passersby about AIDS and teenager pregnancy, sometimes even distributing condoms. "On the streets," my daughter says, "textbook theories can sometimes shrivel up." As an undergraduate, she once dared to alert a psychiatrist who was observing a Black patient on a ward. The man was scribbling rows of seemingly meaningless equations in a pad. "He's not lost, at least not yet," my daughter whispered. "This man is doing a numbers workout, probably looking ahead to his next neighborhood bet." My daughter and I agree: you sometimes must look very, very close to solve our racial puzzles.
Several years ago in New York, a group of Black youngsters from the so-called "ghetto" were trained to play tournament chess. The Raging Hooks beat kids from the top prep schools in the country, including Exeter. How could that happen? In my house we talk about conditioning, training, attitude, family and environment. Point to any one of our Black basketball heroes, and it would be a good bet that many shoveled snow during the winter to have access to a basketball court. It's as simple as A,B,C. Tell a young African American that he can "go to the hoop" or play chess or place in the Westinghouse Science competition, then add the right formula (conditioning, attitude, the "right stuff") and anything is possible. In America, as you read this, there are a million Black boys writing rap lyrics. This year, rest assured that many of these creators have done more writing and thinking than they've done in a lifetime in any school classroom. If you are a teacher, take a peep if you see any of your "losers" writing in black notebooks. I bet that there's a good chance what you see (however provocative) will defy logic. Look for metaphors, illusion, rhyme, and clever twists of language. "What if--?" we sometimes wonder at home.
Recently, my daughter handed me a scientific paper that she had read. The paper related to the results/comparison of test scores of different races on several medical school qualifying exams. The scores covered a three-year period (1986 through 1988). An analysis of test results indicated that Black medical students scored the lowest scores compared to white, Asian and Indian students. Specifically, Blacks scored 103 points lower than whites over a comparative period, with 85% of whites beating the mean and passing, while only 46% of the Blacks succeeded. Still, what did the scores mean? That genetics matter? That we are intellectual misfits? Of course, somebody should check to see how those Black test-takers have fared (comparatively) as physicians of color. I'd wager that many are distinguishing themselves. Sometimes you must look very, very closely to solve a racial puzzle.
When my daughter and I discussed the paper's "findings" and the Bell Curve/I.Q. controversy, we agree that many researchers are not sophisticated enough. Our theory is astoundingly simple. If her brain and genetic material remained the same but she was raised in an academically aspiring Asian home from birth, her test scores (particularly in the sciences and math) would most likely be higher. But perhaps then she wouldn't have been involved with voter registration, caring for AIDS patients and running drug-prevention workshops while in high school, and then winning one of Cornell's most coveted awards (the Senior Recognition Award) for her community and academic contributions. Some Blacks have not been trained or tuned to succeed, while others (amazingly capable), come at you from a mindset that is not totally reflected in any test score.
In December, I nodded approvingly as I came upon three Black teenagers playing violins for holiday shoppers in the World Trade Center. The trio obviously enthralled the steadily -growing audience. "Mendelssohn," somebody said. I wanted to shout: "Surprised, aren't you!" Indeed, If we could turn back the clock and find a hundred Black teenagers--so-called "thugs," even--then put them under the tutelage of an educator like Marva Collins from birth, what do you think would happen? Could one of those thugs be pressing a stethoscope to your chest one day, or handling litigation for your company the next? You bet.
While walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, I passed a public school that caught my attention. I noticed little children (not of color) gathering in a school yard. One youngster wore a Yale T-shirt, while another wore a brighter M.I.T. pullover. Mothers looked animated chatting with their neighbors or offspring, and one father with a briefcase had the carriage of a Wall Streeter as he patted his child good-bye. I had no doubt whatsoever that that school had one of the highest reading "ranks" in New York City. Those kids couldn't afford Groton or Andover, but many would eventually head to a free oasis like Stuyvesant High in Tribeca. In the meantime, in hundreds of "alternate" schools that are not fit for cattle yet alone students, you find us facing both invisible and obvious handicaps everywhere. I am talking about overcrowding, too many uncaring teachers, unfit college- and grade-
advisers and (not discounting our parental failings) a too-frequent attitude of "neglect" and resignation.
But, incredibly, some students of color will defy the odds. They will ignore the sing-song of test scores and nay-sayers: "You cannot make it!" Or worse: "You are not capable." I did. In Brownsville's J.H.S 263 many years ago I was "not college material." In high school I don't remember getting any suggestions or advice about the SAT or picking a college. I remember people saying "college isn't for everybody," intuitively knowing they would never tell their own children that. I received associate and bachelors degrees. In graduate school professors still sometimes asked, "Did you write this?" when I handed in term papers. I inevitably got the best grades, a master's degree, and the last laugh.
Stories abound like the one about Hugh Price, the president of the Urban League. A "B" student at prestigious Amherst, he was admitted to Yale Law School after scoring considerably "lower" on the law board test than his "average" (mostly white) entering classmates. At a 20th-year reunion of fellow students, he learned that his fellow classmates considered him one of the "stars" of the class. How could this be? I call it the "tin man" syndrome. Some achievers/"testperts" are like that Wiz character, made of metal, durable, but without that necessary "heart." Could it be (factoring in overlooked essentials), that often we have the real heart, agility, speed, or whatever it takes? Often the guy or gal with the higher score is not the most capable or qualified. Just think basketball: Some test-takers look great at the foul line. They can hit a hundred shots in a row. But what if a game is in process, and players are checking you? Who scores, and who slamdunks?
The other day I spoke to a Black educator who said he was "another housing project overachiever." He went one-up on my sports analogy as we talked about affirmative action and those "Gold Card" test scores--you can't get in without the right one. He pointed out that some "experts" couldn't see what the early Muhammad Ali (perhaps the most exciting fighter of all time), was about. Ali danced. He entertained. He defied pugilistic logic, holding his hands low. The bell-curvers would have counted Ali out, the educator said. They would have called "The Greatest" a misfit, and sent him to guard the water pail. And that would have been a crime. Does anyone care about our super Black students, and that "giant within?" Or do you look the other way? Today there's no telling, the Black Educator said, how many achievers and champions have been lost--and will be!!
Need money for college? Use FastWeb's free scholarship search to find information on more than 600,000 scholarships!
HOME / THE HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGE EXPERIENCE / THE ADMISSIONS GAME / HELP WITH PREPARATION / SCHOLARSHIP GATEWAY / BLACK EXCEL ORIGINALS / FASTWEB SCHOLARSHIP GATEWAY