Blaming the Victims in Their Own Voices: Phi Delta Kappan Does Disservice to Blacks

by March 19, 2012

WASHINGTON—Tracey and Abby Sparrow, one a teacher and the other a nonprofit’s vice president, both white, recently took to the pages of Phi Delta Kappan, a magazine for educators, to explain what stands between black males and academic success. The writers’ methodology is questionable. They selected 10 black young men and boys as their storytelling devices. The end product is powerful, with bursts of compelling, almost tabloidesque narrative, accompanied by riveting photographic portraits. But the probable impact is devastating. 


The Sparrows’ version of these young men’s voices resurrects and refreshes centuries-old stereotypes about black males, black families and black communities. Instead of providing educators who read Phi Delta Kappan with fresh insights or, better still, new tools and strategies to help black boys and young men succeed in often-dismal circumstances, the authors practically hang “abandon all hope” signs around their subjects’ necks.

Co-opting the excerpted words of these young men, the authors attribute their academic failures to music, peer groups, absent fathers and mothers “more into street life” than mothering. Their characterization of black mothers is disturbing. Many black women must balance nurturing and educating their children with work and keeping households functioning. Why is it that imperfections of white mothers are rarely used as an excuse to shortchange white boys or blame the boys or their moms for low achievement?

My research comes from personal experiences with my son and interviews with seven other mothers of African-American boys. We know a very different story, one that educators need to hear about how schools systemically undercut, rather than nurture, the academic promise of black males.

According to the Sparrows, the boys don’t mention anything about schools. What the Sparrows don’t mention is that, as a rule, schools spend less on educating black children than on white children. They don’t mention that students in schools with large proportions of students of color are almost twice as likely as students in mostly white schools to be taught science by someone who neither majored nor minored in science. Or that, even when black students score at the same levels in math as their white peers, they are only half as likely to be placed in an algebra class.

The Sparrows neglect to note that in middle and high schools, black male students are five times more likely to be suspended and 17 times more likely to be expelled than white males. Or that African-American kids are consistently steered toward less rigorous courses and less demanding college choices, while their white counterparts are encouraged to stretch.

We don’t know why the boys quoted by the Sparrows didn’t mention the numbingly dull classes, the frequently absent teachers, the nonfunctioning science labs and all the other ways in which schools cheat them out of strong educations. We can’t say that the boys didn’t because we don’t know what the Sparrows edited out. Sadder still for too many of our children, dysfunctional schools are so much the norm that they and their parents can’t imagine that school could ever be different or better. Therefore, substandard schools are hardly worth mentioning.

Finally, these boys, like the rest of our culture, are served a steady diet of media stories about dysfunctional African-American families and communities. Only on the rarest occasions are they delivered an honest critique of the deeply unjust policies and practices of American education.

It’s clever to use students hardened to all the ways our school systems abuse them to tell educators a “ripped-from-the-headlines” tale that avoids the very issues over which educators actually have control. But it’s also sleazy and neither new nor imaginative.

For generations, educators have passed the buck for the academic struggles of African-Americans. Instead of reinforcing negative preconceptions about our boys, the writers and Phi Delta Kappan could and should have challenged readers to acknowledge the ways schools systemically undercut and stifle the academic promise of so many of our sons and brothers.

Amy Wilkins is vice president for government affairs and communications at The Education Trust in Washington, D.C. America’s Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. For more information, or contact Michael K. Frisby at

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