Courtesy of Cornell University

People gathered in Ujamaa on North Campus on Thursday night to discuss how the education system fails its black male students.

November 22, 2019

Ujamaa Residents, Community Members Discuss the Black Male Experience in Education

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Ujamaa Residential College’s main lounge was temporarily converted into a think tank on Thursday evening for students to unpack how the American education system seems to work against black men.

Titled “For Colored Boys: Why Education Fails Black Men,” the event stemmed from a motivation to “isolate an aspect of the educational disparity problem that most people aren’t focused on,” according to the event’s hosts, Joshua Sims ’21 and Christopher Emodi ’21.

“For example, the fact that black women are doing so much better [in academics] than black men means to me there is another issue, pertaining specifically to black men, that needs to be addressed,” Sims said.

Throughout the conversation, students tackled specific issues marking the education system through an anecdotal lens: One student shared his experience in fourth grade, in which a teacher didn’t believe he was capable of reading more than what was assigned. But when a white peer presented the same information, the teacher found the story to be much more credible.

Another student detailed her experience at a predominantly white high school, and how the privilege and opportunities that awarded her came at the expense of exposure to her own culture.

The group identified a multitude of issues within the education system that makes it inaccessible for black students — among them, a lack of encouragement to pursue higher education. Many cited the way that black students are pushed by schools, teachers, coaches, and oftentimes other black people in the community to pursue music or sports as the “only way out.”

Through social media and popular culture, society has filtered the types of success that black boys are exposed to, thus defining what success can mean for them, said Ujamaa House Resident Hall Director Jallissa Elias.

This point then shifted the conversation’s focus of “What does Black success look like?”

Many participants voiced the recurring experience of leaving and returning to their communities — for example, Derrick Rose and Lebron James were raised as examples of role models for young black youths who “made it out.”

This route is often viewed “as the most probable” because when looking long-term, it requires joining a high school basketball team, playing in college, and an eventual NBA contract.

But when compared to the path that one must take to be like Barack Obama, however, the possibility of attending higher education institutions like Harvard can seem too unrealistic, said Laurence Minter ’21.

Community Member Rakim Jones reminded the group that despite the pervasiveness of other identities such as socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or gender: “We are all one race and we are going to deal with issues no matter what level they are on and no matter what stage you are on as a black person … you are going to deal with the same issues in a different way.”

The event concluded with the proposition of potential solutions for the issues that the students identified throughout the course of the event.

Keishaun Wade ’23 referenced an experience that many in the space shared about how “when you were younger you were ostracized for talking white, like you’re not really black.” He cited this experience as a call for black people to analyze why “they internalize whiteness to be good and intellectualism to be white.”

When asked about how his organization offers a potential solution to this issue, Minter, who is the president of Alpha Phi Alpha — the first intercollegiate fraternity among African American men — mentioned that through the hosting of programs like their Democratic Watch Party and events in conjunction with Southside Community Center, “Alpha men have successfully and are continually challenging the negative stigma surrounding the potential of a black man.”

Elias, the RHD of Ujamaa, detailed its impact as a “culture center” in the community as “space for students to know that this hill is not just for us, it’s for you all and one day you can be here being a student as well.”

Sims hopes this event will not only create a sense of awareness about how the education system affects black men, but will have resounding effects helping people who did not personally attend the discussion.