Reflections on African American Immersion Schools

By Stan Karp

In April, the 1954 Supreme Court decision which overturned “separate but equal” schools and led to the struggle to integrate public education was made into a heroic TV mini-series staring Sidney Poitier. Ironically, the series aired at a time when many black educators are considering a very different educational strategy for African American students.

In more than half a dozen major cities, experimental programs have been proposed which would single out and, to an extent, separate some African American students for special educational programs. They range from a few all-black, all-male elementary school classes in Baltimore and Dade County, Fla., to the opening of two “African American Immersion Schools” in Milwaukee, to plans for the Ujamaa Institute in New York City, an alternative high school organized around an Afrocentric curriculum with a special focus on young black males. Similar proposals are under discussion in Detroit, Minneapolis, California, and elsewhere.

Some of the plans emphasize curriculum reform, with programs based on African history and black cultural identity replacing traditional study of western civilization and the mythology of the melting pot. Others emphasize the devastating personal and social problems facing black male youth and begin with an assumption that effective education for this group must include positive black male role models. Most combine aspects of both concerns.

Not surprisingly, these proposals have stirred heated controversy. African American supporters contend they are responding to a desperate situation which schools have failed to address. Spencer Holland, a black educator based in Washington, D.C. and a proponent of separate classes for African American boys, argues, “An epidemic of academic failure is overwhelming black, inner-city male students. A staggering percentage of them drop out of school.

Many who do graduate are barely literate and destined for economic failure. For the sake of these young men, and for society as a whole, we need immediate and radical actions….This experiment must take place…The American mainstream community does not know what the problem is.”

At the same time, Kenneth Clark, the renowned psychologist whose work provided much of the support for the 1954 legal challenge to segregation, thinks the proposals are “academic child abuse. It’s outrageous, absurd. It’s a continuation of the whole segregation nonsense.”

Some left critics see sexist and narrow nationalist currents in Afrocentric school plans. On the right, conservatives who see the ghost of Malcolm X behind every proposal for black affirmation have made Afrocentrism a prominent exhibit in their growing attack on multicultural education. (The New Republic branded it “Racism 101.”) Though most of these proposals are barely in place, they’re stirring up already simmering debates about education reform, the faltering agenda of integration and racial equality, and the root causes of school failure in black communities.

“Not since slavery…”

No one contests the devastating crisis stalking young black men. “Not since slavery has so much calamity and ongoing catastrophe been visited on black males,” Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan told a recent conference. “I do not think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the young black American male is a species in danger. And in trouble.”

The statistics are staggering. Urban black males face a 10% chance of death by homicide (for whites it’s 1 in 80). From the early 1970s to the mid-80s, average real income for black men in their 20s fell by over 27%. During roughly the same period, young African American men filled just one of every 1,000 new jobs created. While white life expectancy is still rising, life spans for black males declined four years in a row in the 1980s, dipping under 65 and moving in the wrong direction at an alarming rate for numbers that generally move with glacial slowness. As journalist Salim Muwakkil noted, this means the average black man dies before getting his first Social Security retirement check. Black males account for almost one in four cases of AIDS. They make up 46% of all prisoners in the U.S. and are jailed at a rate four times higher than in South Africa. There are more young black males in jail, on probation, or on parole than in college. Nearly half of all black youth live in poverty, and about 60% live in households without a father.

This catalog of horrors has its own predictable consequences in schools. In Milwaukee, for example, African-American males account for less than 30% of the students, but they face 50% of the suspensions and over 90% of the expulsions. Less than 2% of black males maintain an A or B average and less than 20% sustain a C average or better. In Chicago, only 4% of 6,700 mostly minority students who entered the city’s poorest high schools as part of the Class of 1984 graduated with the ability to read at the national average. Drop-out rates for black males are passing 50% in some areas. Wade W. Nobles, director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Black Family Life and Culture, recently told the National Urban League, “We need to systematically restructure the education possibilities….Look, if you don’t do something quickly to save black boys, there isn’t going to be another generation.”

Failures of Integration

Hopes that desegregation would close the gap of racial inequality in education have never been realized. In fact there are African American educators who argue that some things have gotten worse. One study contends that desegregation “has had debilitating and adverse effects on participation rates of Blacks in all levels of education….” It cites estimates that the jobs of 30,000 black teachers in the South disappeared as blacks were integrated into white school systems. Today, the number of teachers of color is shrinking as the number of students of color soars.

Many gains made in educational civil rights after 1954 have been reversed. Between 1976 and 1986, the number of black males going to college dropped by over 30,000.

Currently, in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles, a higher percentage of black students are attending de facto segregated schools than at the time of the 1954 Supreme Court decision.

While proposals for black-only classes have been greeted by cries of “re-segregation,” many of the schools where they’ve been suggested haven’t seen a white student in years. It’s clearly Afrocentrism and black affirmation, not segregation, that have some people upset.

For over a decade, federal policy has been undercutting progress toward educational equality: budget cuts in equity programs, proposed tax credits to racist schools, abandonment of affirmative action, retreats on integration litigation, etc. Combined with seemingly intractable residential segregation and “white flight” from public schools, school integration, at least with whites, is increasingly impossible or irrelevant in many urban areas.

Instead of further integration into the educational system as it now exists, some black educators want to create alternatives inside the public system tailored to a black assessment of the needs of African American students. These initiatives confront long-held assumptions about how schools should function and how to pursue educational justice. They challenge strategies narrowly focused on pupil ratios and the physical arrangement of bodies in school buildings. As one study observes, “the rigid adherence to racial balance [as the primary goal of integration]…ignores the diversity among children, school districts, and communities. In fact, the result is depreciation of the importance of Afro-American history and culture, and is actually a denial of equal educational opportunity.”

These educators argue for a cultural pluralism that allows blacks to define their own vision of educational diversity and put it into practice. They want to develop “multicultural education” in a way that goes beyond celebrating a few heroes during Black History Month or grafting a unit about “other cultures” onto the standard curriculum.

Throughout the era of integration, the social and cultural distance between poor African American communities and the schools that are supposed to serve them has grown steadily wider. “The religious, political, economic and social institution

communities have suffered severe discontinuation and destruction,” writes James Comer, a noted educator, who has developed one promising intervention plan for failing urban schools. “The failure to bridge the social and cultural gap between home and school may lie at the root of poor academic performance….” Afrocentric school proposals must be judged against this background.

“Worth a Try”

The street culture of gangs, drug dealing, and hustling is putting enormous peer pressure on young males to reject academics and intellectual achievement as currently defined by schools. It’s considered a way of “acting white.” Black anthropologist John Ogbu did a study in Washington, D.C., schools which found that black student notions of “acting white” involved speaking standard English, listening to white music, spending time in the library, doing volunteer work, going to the opera or ballet, working hard for grades, going to museums, camping, hiking, having cocktail parties, being on time, and reading and writing poetry.

In this light, high schools with an explicit focus on the social minefield awaiting black students make some sense, as do all-black, male grade school classes with black male teachers trying to provide some of the positive reinforcement missing outside of school. It’s not unreasonable to think that black male instructors could deal more credibly with negative, anti-intellectual peer pressures. “Success in school is defined as white and female,” says Lisa Delpit, a senior research associate at Morgan State in Baltimore, Ma., who has studied how racial interaction shapes teaching and learning.

Educational programs tailored for black males might help cut through such debilitating mindsets.

It’s too early to draw hard conclusions about long-term results, but real gains have been claimed for the pilot programs in Dade County, Fla. and Baltimore, including more positive attitudes toward school, self-esteem, and better academic performance. Educational innovations not explicitly tied to Afrocentric studies are as important to the prospects for success as the curriculum content. In some cases, like that of the 27 third-grade boys in Baltimore, the key seems to be the increased attention and after-school “mentoring” the students get from a committed male teacher.

Basir Mchawi, the organizing force behind the Ujamaa Institute in New York City, says the project will provide “a comprehensive plan for redirecting education in the African American community.” It proposes to restructure all subject areas, “not just social studies and history,” and to “look at many cultures but do so from the perspective of African American people.” Courses will include jazz, Swahili and the African-based value system known as the Nguzo Saba or “Seven Principles.” The Ujamaa proposal also calls for “progressive instructional methodologies” including cooperative learning and team teaching, plus school-based management councils, training in conflict resolution and extended school days.

Several of the programs hope to keep classes and teachers together for more than one year to build support. The Milwaukee African American Immersion schools plan to experiment with alternative teaching and learning styles such as more oral and sensory teaching methods, hands-on learning, and presenting math problems in narrative form.

Afrocentric education has also been tried outside the public system. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago-based educational consultant, reports increasing interest in his programs of supportive social discipline, cultural identity and academic rigor for young black boys before the “critical fourth grade turning point.” Kunjufu, whose books like “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys” and “To Be Popular or Be Smart” have been hot sellers in the black community for years, also organizes “Rites of Passage” programs and ceremonies for young men based on African cultural practices. Like the rising interest in Afrocentrism itself, Kunjufu reflects a current of Muslim-influenced nationalism growing within black communities, partially in response to increased racism and the national retreat on civil rights.

There is also a network of nearly 300 private community schools and academies run by black educators and serving black students, many of which have had a measure of success with Afrocentric approaches. Mwalimu Shujaa of the Council of Independent Black Institutions says, “African-centered independent schools socialize with a different view of how society ought to look. Our schools grew out of desire for a change in our society.” Other private black community schools stress family or church values to all-black student bodies, while also providing positive models of black success.

Although the relevance of private school experience to the larger and more diverse public system is limited, these experiments have nurtured approaches which some black educators now want to import into the public schools. The failure and crisis stalking urban school systems has won them a hearing. “What most people are saying is that it is worth a try,” observes Nelson Onyenwoke, director of the Center for the Study of Black Males at Albany State College in Georgia.

Critics and Questions

Critics, of course, are saying other things, some of them hysterical. Michael Meyers, director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, denounced the Ujamaa proposal and declared, “They’re trying to use our public schools to build and maintain racial unity, to foster so-called black self-determination and to expand the racial ghetto to develop cadres of politically correct thinking, ethnocentric, breast-beating racial braggarts.” Actually, schools have been turning out “politically correct thinking, ethnocentric, breast-beating racial braggarts” for a long time. But they’ve usually been white racists.

Framing the issue in such lurid terms is the kind of sensational, demagogic response that has gotten a high profile in some media, but it’s totally unwarranted. The separatist implications of these limited, mostly small scale, voluntary and experimental educational plans are less significant than the educational rationales and the massive school failure which produced them.

More legitimate questions have come from other sources. Both the National Organization of Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have opposed some of the plans as discriminatory, and the original pilot classes in Dade County were disbanded after complaints to civil rights agencies. Civil rights law requires that such programs be open to all students, though it’s reasonable to assume they will be largely populated by the target audience.

Writing in the VillageVoice, LynNell Hancock found “a disturbing blame-the-woman nuance coursing through this educational strategy” in its tendency to identify female teachers and female heads of households as primary sources of the problem. She wonders if the equally pressing problems of black female students could get pushed aside.

There is more than a trace of sexism behind Spencer Holland’s notion that “Women are inappropriate role models for young black boys. Little ones are sophisticated beyond their years. They know women can’t educate them in how to survive in this culture.” Evidence of homophobia, sexism and religious bias exist in Kunjufu’s works side by side with progressive educational ideas and genuine social commitment. Even supporters of the Afrocentric school experiments, like Gerald Horne, writing in the Guardian, caution that “the male chauvinists who have undue influence within Afrocentric programs could easily warp this understandable experiment into a school for sexism.”

Horne also warns: “Some of those pushing for the basic democratic demand for Afrocentric education are also trying to boost a narrow nationalism that is growing in the wake of this society’s resurgent racism. These nationalists want to reduce Afrocentrism to the simple glorification of African feudalism and monarchy. They refuse to place these exploitative societies in context and often seek to use this history to revive male chauvinist practices like polygamy.”

The fact that dubious ideas can be found in some Afrocentric sources is, in itself, no reason for dismissing Afrocentric school experiments. Atrocious ideas and wrongheaded theories have abounded in school curricula for decades and lots of them remain. It is, however, a reason for scrutinizing the content of Afrocentric programs and raising the same challenges progressive educators direct at traditional school curriculums. It’s especially a reason to keep open communication between proponents of all male, Afro-centric schooling and other progressive educators.

Although the separatist implications of these programs have gotten a lot of attention, most of them seem to leave ample room for such exchange. The Dade County plan called for alternating between black male and white male teachers, and the Baltimore students are slated to return after a year or two to co-ed classes. The Milwaukee schools will include female students.

The Ujamaa Institute hopes to attract some Latino and female students and Mchawi insists, “Crucial to the success of Ujamaa Institute, will be the creation of a curriculum that is simultaneously Africa-centered and anti-sexist. We are clear. It is the critics who are confused.”

However much these separate educational environments may be justified for a time by a particular set of conditions, it’s worth remembering our educational system’s poor record on segregating people “for their own good.” Tracking and special education programs historically have created educational ghettos for disproportionate numbers of black students. It’s possible black-only programs could become another trap.

There are also some who would disagree that the lack of male role models is the key to understanding failure in black schools. The late Ron Edmonds, whose “effective schools” research is often cited by black educators as proof that well-run schools can work in the most difficult environments, contended: “Repudiation of the social science notion that family background is the principal cause of pupil acquisition of basic school skills is probably a prerequisite to successful reform of public schooling for children of the poor.” Likewise, in A Black Appraisal of Public Schooling, the Committee on Policy for Racial Justice argued that schools must “shift their focus from the supposed deficiencies of the black child — from the alleged inadequacies of black family life — to the barriers that stand in the way of academic success.” Such barriers, it said, include “unproductive institutional arrangements, lowered expectations, and narrow pedagogical processes that characterize the American educational system.” There is at least an element of that “social science notion” in the rationales behind some of the black male schooling plans.

There’s also some “bootstrap” mythology in the proposition that simply concentrating young black males and exhorting them to uplift themselves can work wonders. No matter how effective any pedagogical strategy may eventually prove to be, it will never be a substitute for reversing the devastating social conditions currently ravaging African American communities.

On the other hand, there are compelling arguments that oppressed groups need autonomous spaces within larger institutions to organize and develop; young people, who are especially vulnerable to negative social pressures, sometimes need special support and protection. New York City already has the Harvey Milk School, an alternative high school for gay students.

Feminist educators have persuasively argued that women’s studies classes, in some cases, should be organized for female students alone so they can deal with women’s issues outside the pressure and hostility of many adolescent males. Are classes targeted for black boys really so different, particularly if they are filled by student or parental preference?

There is also the issue of community control. Afrocentric school proposals are, in part, a way to direct more resources to schools serving African American students and to concentrate limited resources — like scarce black male teachers. Youth advocate Vivian Brady points out, for example, that New York City has many alternative schools, but not a single one headed by a person of color. Afrocentric programs are one initiative that is not likely to be dominated by white education professionals.

In the name of reform, school boards are currently turning programs over to corporations, universities, and professional consultants of every stripe. Military recruiters have virtually set up base camps in high school guidance departments. The assumption that Afrocentric experiments violate some strict standard of ideological “neutrality” is simply not credible.

Afrocentric programs can be a breath of fresh air in a stifling system if they empower students, teachers and parents, where they motivate learners by making their past and present more visible and the future more hopeful, and if they respond constructively to criticisms of potential biases and shortcomings. As usual, their success will depend on democratic activism, especially by committed African American educators and parents, and ongoing debate over means and ends.

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at JFK High School in Paterson, New Jersey. This is an edited version of an article written for Z Magazine, which is available for $25/yr. from 150 W. Canton St., Boston, MA 02118.