I sat down to lunch the other day near a couple of white men who looked to be in their forties. We introduced ourselves and started talking. One said he’s a history teacher and the other teaches science. They also said their school’s student population is about 60% black, and that the black students are lagging far behind the other students.
This high school history teacher said some things that I thought demonstrated some common white ways of thinking about race. I wanted to point these tendencies out to him, but I also wanted to keep talking to him. So, I had to bite my tongue sometimes, though I did say at one point, “That’s mighty white of you. That right there is a mighty common white thing to say.” Here’s most of what we said to each other.
Early in the conversation, I asked how things were going with their different student populations.
“Well, the few Asian kids we have are doing great, and the Hispanic kids are keeping up pretty well, but not so much the black ones,” said the history teacher. “I teach a lot of AP [Advanced Placement] courses, though, so I don’t see many of them.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because pretty soon after they get in, most drop out.”
When I asked why he thought that happens, he said, “Well, it’s the same as a lot of other situations. They have this opportunity of an AP course, but like so many opportunities out there for them, most of them don’t take it.”
The other teacher nodded his head in agreement.
“What do you mean, they don’t take it? Aren’t those classes hard?”
“Sure they’re hard, but they don’t study. They think they don’t have to study.”
The other man jumped in. “Because they think they don’t have to. Bill Cosby had a lot of good things to say about that, but communities like the one these kids come from don’t want to hear that.”
“Right,” said the history teacher. “They don’t want to hear that it’s on them to pick up opportunities and USE them. Did you know,” he said, leaning forward, “that it’s considered politically incorrect for us to pass too few black students?”
“No, I didn’t. What do you mean?”
“I mean that we have a lot of pressure on us to so-called ‘prove’ that we’re working hard enough to help these kids. What that translates to is, we have to pass a certain number, no matter how well or badly they do.”
“And the kids know that,” said the science teacher. “When I ask them why they don’t put in more effort, they come up and tell me, ‘Cuz we know that you have to pass some of us!’”
“Right, right,” said the other teacher. “So that means there’s a sense of entitlement now for them. It’s this idea that at least some of them can get by without doing any work. They think black people are just entitled to getting into and passing things like AP courses.”
“That's strange. So, do any black students work in your classes?”
“Oh sure, of course, some do. But most don’t, and that’s why most of them have to drop out. And they don’t only drop out of my classes, they drop out of high school.”
“What percentage do that?”
“I don’t really know. But a lot more than other groups.”
“So,” I asked, “what’s the cause of that? I mean, I don’t think that pressure to pass a certain amount of black kids is the only reason a lot don’t do well enough to study.”
“Right, it’s not,” said the history teacher. “But, the thing is, I don’t concern myself with what causes them not to study. My job is just to help them study, however I can. To provide them with opportunities. And most of them just don’t take those opportunities. My belief is that it’s up to them to take what they’re offered, and to suffer the consequences if they don’t.”
“We provide so many opportunities,” said the other teacher. “Like, we have special mentoring programs that we’re trying to get volunteers for. But again, they don’t take it. Some of these volunteers can’t find students.”
“Look at Oprah,” said the history teacher.
“Oprah?” I asked.
“Yeah. She’s building schools in South Africa, right? Instead of here, where a lot of black kids could use schools like that, newer, better schools. Well, you know why she went there instead? Because the black communities here don’t want those new schools. That opportunity she’s offering them isn’t appreciated. And that’s just like so many of the opportunities we’re trying to provide.”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t know about Oprah’s refused efforts to build schools here, I’ll have to look into that. I have wondered why she’s so interested in education there instead of here.”
We munched our sandwiches for a minute.
Then I asked, “But, if that general thing you’re talking about is true, where does it come from? Why do you suppose black kids aren’t taking all these wonderful opportunities they supposedly have?”
“Supposedly?” said the history teacher. “Look, there’s a wealth of opportunity out there, for anyone who wants to get up and grab it, especially for black people. All sorts of set asides!”
The science teacher nodded vigorously as the other went on. “Okay, you see, I might have a different perspective. I’m Irish American, okay? Third generation. My people suffered, and struggled, and look where so many of us are today. Look where I am. Okay, history teacher, not such a big deal, but I was born in deep poverty—welfare, absent father, the whole bit. I pulled myself out of it. And so when chances and options get dangled in front of people, I think it’s up to them to grab it. Like I did.”
“Right, I suppose. But, why do you think they don’t grab it?”
“I don’t know,” he said, right at the same time that the other one said, “Who knows?”
“Well,” I said, “maybe they’re discouraged from grabbing it. And maybe you as a white kid were more encouraged to grab it.”
“By what?” said Mr. History [that’s easier to type than “the history teacher.”].
“By internalized racism, for one thing. There’s a lot of messages out there that tell kids that people like you should grab opportunities and run with them, but also telling black kids that they’re not likely to get anywhere if they try to do so.
“Look,” I said, trying to focus my thoughts after eating a pretty big sandwich. “You guys keep talking about giving these kids more and more opportunities, like that’s all that can be done about their lower achievement rates. You keep veering away from the question of WHY so many don’t take those opportunities, WHY those that do don’t usually get very far.”
“But, you see,” said Mr. History, “I had it bad too, and so did my people. I was the one, it was ME, who saw chances and pursued them. No one was telling me that I should do so, in fact my family members and friends basically told me not to. But I did. So again, I think it’s up to the individual.”
“Right,” said Mr. Science, “That’s all we can do. Teaching is the opportunity business, basically. We give them all sorts of opportunities, more and more all the time.”
“You know,” I said to Mr. History, “what you just said, about how what people gain in life is up to the individual? That’s mighty white of you. That right there is a mighty common white thing to say.”
He just looked at me, with a look I found inscrutable.
I continued, “You did get encouraged, just because you’re white, and a white male too. You could easily look around at the world, at TV and movies and advertising and so on, and almost all of the successful people were white people, mostly white men like you were gonna be. Opportunity looked more do-able to you than it does to a black kid, who even today has trouble finding images like that.”
“Are you kidding?” said Mr. Science. “There’s all sorts of successful black people.”
“Oh really?” I said, “All sorts? Does that mean many, as in, like, a lot? There’s not a lot, and black kids can see that. They can see how much harder it is for black people to get there, and I suspect they can also see that they’re still not especially welcome once they do get there. And then there’s other messages, from within their community.”
“Like what?” said Mr. History. “Oh, I know, the lack of a father figure. There’s one.”
“Hmm, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Maybe for a boy especially, without a male role-model. I’m not sure. That doesn’t account for the girls, though, does it?”
We scratched our chins or twirled our soda straws.
“What about a lack of jobs?” I said, “What about poverty, and parents who can’t be there as much to encourage their kids because they’re working two jobs?”
“Well, poor white kids have that problem too,” said Mr. Science. “They don’t drop out as much.”
“Right,” I said. “We could talk about these things in terms of class, too. But it’s a double-whammy for black kids who are poor, in terms of race and class. What about history? You’re a history teacher. Are there any historical legacies in effect here?”
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t teach African American history in terms of ‘legacies’ like that.”
“What about a white historical legacy?” I said. “What about generational transference of wealth? Did you know that the average white family is, what, eight or ten times as wealthy as the average black family?”
They both looked at me blankly, but then Mr. History said, “Poor is poor.”
“Yeah, I guess. But some groups have been much more poor, and for a long time, because racism is an extra layer on top of it. And you know, when we were talking about jobs, it made me think . . . does this make any sense? You say black students don’t want to work. What about a community that has a historical heritage of being forced to work, and work much harder than the people around them, and then after slavery, for much less pay? A lot of that is still true, and the chances for advancement are usually much less too. Do you think there could be a general attitude in that community and in its families, an attitude that’s against that kind of work, that’s resentful about 'work' itself? I mean, I don’t think black people work less—I think they work more, if anything. I’m talking about the possibility of a resentment, or maybe a weariness, against enforced and unfair work, and the lack of real opportunities for better work. And so, a part of that might be that any work a person doesn’t HAVE to do is work that a person shouldn’t do. Does that make any sense?”
“I don’t know, sounds a little half-baked,” said Mr. History, as Mr. Science stared out the window.
“Well, yeah, it’s less than half-baked. It occurred to me just now. But, I mean, think about the white side of that. Work really has been an opportunity for white people, especially for white men like us. The possibilities for us have seemed almost limitless, in a way that they haven’t for black people. You mentioned entitlement before—I think it’s white men who’ve felt the most entitled to all sorts of opportunities, and to make or break their own lives.Without even realizing that others haven’t been entitled to that. Not to mention how, because they've been entitled, they've been able to earn more money, and then to pass it down, generation after generation.”
“Maybe. Anyway, all I know is, if opportunity is offered to you, it’s up to you to grab it.”
“Oh man,” I said. “That is so sad!”
“That you’re teaching these kids, with that attitude! Sixty percent of your students!”
“An attitude that applies your white experience to their black experience and claims they’re the same! An attitude that shows that you have no concern about where they are, what they’re going through, what the world looks like to THEM instead of to you. It does look different, you know? And they know that. In fact, I suspect that’s a way that they know something pretty important that their teachers don’t know.”
I was a little surprised to be saying this so bluntly to two men I’d just met, and saying it about their jobs, their livelihood, probably their very identities as teachers. They didn’t get upset, though, at least not visibly. They were quiet, and just seemed kind of thoughtful.
And maybe uncomfortable, because pretty soon Mr. History said he had to go, and Mr. Science did too. So we stood up and thanked each other for an interesting conversation.
Afterwards, I found the conversation dismaying. These two white teachers, who work mostly with black students, have very little idea about what race means for their students, and for themselves. I think they believe they’re doing all that they can by providing black students with a wealth of opportunities, and that like Mr. History said, it’s up to students to grab opportunities and succeed, or to waste them and fail. These two teachers seem to have been steered away from thinking or caring about what black students, and their families and neighbors, think and say about a young black person’s pursuit of opportunity.