Of 'Acting White' and Teaching Black

There is a distinction to be made between saying that Black males do not value education and Black males do not learn from the current American education system/culture. The first of these statements is girded by an approach that suggests a deficit in Black males. The latter suggests a deficit in the way that this country attempts to teach. Of course the first is more popular. It fits nicely with all of the pathology that we assume of the group but what results have the more expedient approach yielded? What if there is a legitimate solution to the problem of Black academic failure that could set this nation forward on a path of unprecedented achievement? Would it be worth setting aside our comfortable assumptions and shift our policies and practices?

The claim often made is that Black children, particularly boys, would rather be Lil' Wayne than Eric Holder for a fear of being accused of "acting White." The acting White theory, which the president has  taken to endorsing when addressing Black constituents, is one based on the premise that Black parents don't instill value for education in their children, resulting in a culture of antiintellectualism that has effected rates of academic achievement in the United States. It's an easy and familiar package of ideas built on conventional wisdom of Black pathology - so much so that those who perpetuate it are rarely challenged on the basis of their assertions.
"Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven't they been parented to shut up?" ~ Bill Cosby at the 50th commemoration of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision.
Cosby speaking at the Brown vs. Board celebration.
To give Black culture the benefit of the doubt, American parents seem disengaged as a whole. Furthermore, antiintellectualism is rampant within American culture. It is what got George W. Bush elected and reelected (think "Is our children learning?") Our aversion to education is what keeps people like Sarah Palin on your television screen. American antiintellectualism is what got Barack Obama labeled an elitist, latte liberal, and too professorial. With this distinctly American character flaw seemingly so prevalent, why do we place Black failure primarily at the feet of a phenomenon that we can see is universal?

The most pressing question perhaps is why it is acceptable for government officials to lecture Black Americans on what our culture is assumed to be instead of focusing on innovation in policy and advancing resources for education. 
“They might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow but our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice. I want them aspiring to be President of the United States of America.’’ ~Barack Obama speaking to the NAACP, 2009
Such a statement couches the government's responsibility to fund schools properly and develop useful policy. It ignores that sad fact that American schools don't equip Black boys to become any of the above. They teach them to be quiet, fill in the correct bubble, and walk in single-file lines.

Thankfully, there is research being done on the educational experiences of Black males that could positively impact policy. Dr. Shuan Harper of the University of Pennsylvania is one academic whose work has focused on identifying factors for Black male achievement. His article, "Peer Support for African American Male College Achievement: Beyond Internalized Racism and the Burden of 'Acting White'” provides findings that refute the "acting White" theory of Black academic failure. He wrote, 
"When asked to whom they would attribute their college achievements, the high-achievers consistently replied: (1) God, (2) themselves, (3) their parents, and (4) their peers—almost always in that order." He continues, "There was no evidence of internalized racism in the domains of academic achievement and African American male leadership. Instead, the participants attributed much of their college success to the support offered by their same-race peers."
Preeminent scholar Dr. Edmund W. Gordon. 
Other researchers have found similar data which causes us to redirect our attention to the academic experience for answers.

Some of the best and earliest work in progressive education policy, encouraging Black male achievement has been performed by Dr. Edmund W. Gordon. The Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at Yale University. His recent contribution as Senior Scholar in Residence of The College Board, "Toward the Education of Young Black Males" sets an agenda for best practices in educating Black males, based on over 40 years of research.

He proposes that in considering how to best educate Black males, we must be concerned with "What should be special about the education of Black boys?" This is extraordinary in its orientation away from the usual question of what is wrong with Black boys? In conceptualizing the question, he begins with four categories of issues; normal biological variations, paradoxical conditions of socialization, contradictions in the intent of the political economy, and natural patterns of subaltern cultural resistance. In short, he posits that Black males learn differently than other groups, are specifically challenged to learn from people who do not trust/are afraid of them, mostly do not believe in reward as a result of the school system, and do not believe in the validity and utility of the continuum between subaltern and dominant cultures.

From his understanding of how Black males differ from other groups, he proposes intervention in teaching methods and curriculum that respond accordingly. Gordon encourages a curriculum that emphasizes the "achievement of intellectual competence which is grounded in such content and procedural knowledge as is necessary for the development of logical reasoning, analysis, relationship recognition and problem solving." What such a curriculum would mean would be less focus on culturally irrelevant content mastery and behavior standardization. It suggests a type of education that equips Black boys with relevant tools to compete within their realities. It turns the theory of antiintelectualism in the Black community and turns it on its head by proposing that intellectualism, as we construct it traditionally, has left little room for Black men. It's an approach worth acknowledging and adopting.

For a deeper understanding:

Edmund W. Gordon: Producing Knowledge, Pursuing Understanding, Volume 1, Volume 1 (Advances in Education in Diverse Communities: Research Policy and Praxis) (Vol 1)Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse PopulationsBalance: Advancing Identity Theory by Engaging the Black Male Adolescent