Originally published December 21, 2011 at 3:46 PM | Page modified December 22, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Guest columnist

No simple solutions in overcoming racial disparities

Guest columnist Max Hunter writes about the complexities of solving the challenges of racial disparities in education and society.

Special to The Times

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LAST week, Forbes writer Gene Marks created an uproar in the black media with a blog post titled "If I were a Poor Black Kid." Sardonic critics assailed the self-described white, middle-class columnist for his overly simplistic solutions to racial disparities — become literate, study hard, use computers — while ignoring the larger issues that confront low-income black youth.

To his critics, Marks conceded his ignorance. "What do I know about being a 'poor black kid?' Absolutely nothing. I'm a middle-class white guy," he confesses. "But I went to school. So I know about that. And I'm in the business of technology. So I know about that."

I know Marks means well when he repeats the advice children across the United States receive on a daily basis. But since when does having gone to school make one an expert in urban education? In the courses in which I instruct prospective teachers about diversity in the classroom and strategies for teaching diverse learners, I tell my students that conversations about race are like conversations about sex. You can talk about sex in locker rooms and on street corners, but those conversations are different from discussions in biology or human sexuality courses: It's the same when it comes to the academically grounded conversations in my class.

Most Americans seem to believe that having an opinion qualifies them to weigh in issues concerning race and education. On the contrary, I'd argue that matters of race and education should be treated in the same way as human genetics or medicine: In those fields, the analysis of trained experts prevails.

My conclusion on authority is not elitist; it's common sense. When grappling with personal or organizational issues, we rely on experts to solve intractable problems — our approach to race and education should be no different. Why? Marks' advice is based on our unquestioned belief in the literacy myth and radical individualism. This approach to social mobility doesn't always pan out in the real world.

Traditional ideologies about education imply that sufficient literacy will lead to social mobility, and that if only our students exercised their independence they would get as much out of the system as they put into it. If only underclass black children would learn to read and do math (and now programming), they could transcend a culture of poverty. But such complacent solutions ignore historical racism, structural injustice and social isolation.

This self-satisfied stance forgets that each child attends a particular school in different cities and lives in diverse situations. We can't forget that many of these children attend failing schools and deal with traumatic out-of-school experiences. Success in school requires knowledge, resources and the willingness of adults to invest in children. In our age of middle-class soccer moms and helicopter parents, the blatant disconnect between myth and reality reveals an inattention to the raw facts of poor children's lives that suggests that they live not only in poverty, but also in a culture of indifference.

Even though my wife and I spend a great deal of time, energy and resources getting our kids to their independent school, ballet and soccer, as many African Americans I feel a real sense of despair when the people around me fail to recognize the challenges facing young black children being raised in single-parent households. On some level, I'm calling into question the notion that, in a democratic nation, freedom of speech is an invitation to share our thoughts on weighty matters.

While there's no magic bullet, it's my goal to urge us to reflect on the enormity and complexity of these issues. Before we can make a difference, we must develop an informed, intelligent and articulate discourse in the public sphere that is marked by empathy for the children in unenviable situations created by the adults around them.

Max Hunter is on the faculty in School of Education at Seattle Pacific University, and has been with the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University since 2008. In the spring, he will teach"Race, Education, and Poverty: The Wire" in the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the University of Washington.


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