Friday, August 8, 2008

Turning Back the Clock: The Dropout Crisis and the Wages of Whiteness

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which George W Bush is educated in a poor urban school where he is taught that people that look like him made history; while his black and brown classmates are policed and criminalized, warehoused in foster care and prisons and objectified in a 24-7 menu of hypersexual, criminal imagery. In this parallel universe Dubya, a less than mediocre student lacking the benefit of a legacy admission, drops out of high school and tries to find a living wage job. Armed with a middle school diploma, a prior felony conviction and one broken bootstrap, Dubya remains unemployed until a grill position opens up at the local Rally Burger. As a working class white dropout ex-con, Dubya would naturally take his place at the head of the line for any job over black men with college degrees. His rise to imperial ex-con would be complicated but not prohibited. For what In answer to your questions: distinguishes white dropouts from black and brown dropouts is the wealth of cultural capital that the curricula of school and life confer onto whites regardless of class. Even the poorest whites see themselves reflected in the founding myths of this country, see themselves as hell or high water citizens and know implicitly every time they flip on a TV, watch a movie or pick up a newspaper that people who look like them are represented on every rung of the global media hierarchy.

The conferral of social advantage onto even the most economically disadvantaged whites fuels the underclass status of young blacks and Latinos. Last month, when the California Department of Education published yet another dismal report on the dropout crisis among black and brown students there was little media focus on the social costs of educating young people of color.

With no safety net, institutionally racist curricula, rote instruction, and deadening high stakes tests it is not difficult to see why so many black and brown students are dropping out of the system. Band-aid approaches like the LAUSD’s dropout recovery and prevention program don’t address students’ mis-education. At Gardena High School, one of the schools on the over 40% dropout list, the four year college-going rate is abysmal, the number of opportunity transfers is high and black students comprise 60% of school suspensions. Despite the district’s bluster about preparing students for college, many of the students in the leadership program I run at the school are not even aware of A-G college preparation requirements until the topic is introduced in our sessions. Enrolling in A-G classes is one thing, but navigating them successfully requires teachers and counselors who are politically invested in the culturally specific needs of black and brown students. Making teaching and curricula relevant to students and institutionalizing the exemplary work of the hundreds of teacher leaders who do so should be the district’s mandate. Barring that, students who face challenges like caring for siblings, living in foster care, working after school jobs and surviving teachers who believe that black students are deficit-laden are especially vulnerable to dropping out.

As the economy worsens, the importance of having at least an undergraduate degree will magnify for people of color, particularly for younger blacks who now fare worse than their parents’ generation with regard to earnings, savings and education. Turning back the clock on Brown v. Board even further, many young blacks are living the American nightmare, sold out by Schwarzenegger’s slash and burn budget and the national trust that pays the wages of whiteness.

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