Since the myriad of diversity and tolerance organizations tell me that black stereotypes are merely vestiges of America’s racist past and do not exist, then I must be, like the speaker in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” delusional, seeing things daily that clearly are not there.
I began teaching in the 87 percent black Memphis City Schools in 1991, logging time at a south Memphis middle school and my current post at Westside High School in the Frayser section of the city. From my first day in the classroom in October 1991, I have seen behavior that is intolerable at best and criminal at worst. Said behavior is eerily similar to the most vile of black male stereotypes: violent, criminal, anti-intellectual, lazy, shiftless and promiscuous. How can this be? I mean, such things do not exist, right?
The U. S. Department of Education reports that, nationally, 33 percent of the students expelled from public schools are black, even though blacks only make up 20 percent of total students in public schools. Ironically (or not), these figures mirror those of the U.S. Justice Department that show in some cities one in three young black males is connected to the justice system, either in jail, on parole or awaiting trial. Author Earl Ofari Hutchinson believes many young black males do live up to (or is it “down to“) stereotypes, writing, “Many young blacks further validate racial stereotypes by aping and exulting the thuggish bluster and behavior of gangster rappers…” Mr. Hutchinson also writes that many black males “…measure their status or boost their self worth by demonstrating their proficiency in physical fights or the sexual abuse of black women, and of course, by creating havoc in the classroom.”
Mr. Hutchinson could very have been a fly on the wall of my classroom the last dozen years, for he aptly captures my workday.
“Phillip,” (not this little “darling’s” real name), embodies the whole “black male as ignorant thug” thing. A seventeen year old ninth grader, Phillip is a unrepentant hoodlum who is proud of his dismal school record and gang membership. When he is not on suspension or in jail - which, thankfully, is not often - he saunters into class (always late), no materials in sight and no intent to do anything but sit and disrupt. Phillip speaks whenever he feels like it (usually some loud profanity laced “check” or gibe at one his classmates), tries to intimidate the younger students (especially the females) and openly defies direct orders, eventually offering, “Well, just send me to the office. I am tired of this s--t!” Phillip openly brags of his lengthy criminal record, gang membership and drug abuse. To call him stupid would be an insult to bags of rocks which are truly stupid. Socially promoted since middle school, Phillip is gleefully ignorant by choice. He has failed my class twice, with number three coming in June, when final report cards are issued. The only use he has for a book is to throw it at someone. This is sad, but so true. I only wish Phillip was an isolated case.
The peer pressure for many young black males to be a stereotype (read thug) is enormous at my school. Students who try to perform well in school are accused of “acting white,” while students who get involved in school activities are called “sell-outs.” Some of our athletic teams struggle to field teams, not because we do not have the students, but because there is little interest. If hard work or commitment is required, many students at Westside High simply will not do it. Yet if we had an “auto theft” team, I imagine we would have to hold tryouts and cut folks for this likely championship “team.” Such are the interests at Westside.
I remember once (but certainly not the only time) admonishing a class of mine about their work and study habits, as well as their behavior in class, only to be met with, “Coach, you just want us to act like white folks!” I guess linguistics professor and author John McWhorter is right: “To be culturally black, sadly, almost requires that one see books and school as a realm to visit rather than to live in.”
It is my twelve years in the Memphis public schools that has made me admire and appreciate the handful of students I have taught and coached who have done well. Despite the taunts, the extreme peer pressure and the negatives all around them, these young men have persevered and thrived, leaving their former classmates behind, mired in the swamp (of their own making) of ignorance, poverty and criminality that is sadly their lives.
These kids, who shook off the “ghetto mentality” - Anthony, Daniel, Leavy, Courtney, Lozie, Chris, Antonio, Demarkus and others - deserve much applause and credit. Allow me to be the first to laud their efforts, character and toughness.
Another day lies ahead for me tomorrow, a day when I will see what is not there and hear what is not being said. Boy, I can hardly wait.