Posted on September 1, 2004

Sneering Peers Jeer At Black Achievers

Mike Seate, Tribune-Review (Pittsburgh),, Aug. 31

Every August, I meet with students in a journalism workshop sponsored by the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation. As part of the workshop, African-American students from a number of area high schools put together TV news broadcasts, attend lectures and produce a newspaper.

It’s the sort of career preparation that parents support and are understandably proud of. The motivated kids’ peers don’t see it the same way. I know, having attended a predominantly black high school.

When asked how they are treated by less career-oriented black co-eds, the workshop attendees say the same things year after year: “Kids say we try to act white. They say we’re sellouts for studying.”

That’s too bad, especially in light of a recent academic performance report on Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Black students in the city again have failed to keep pace with their white classmates when it comes to reading and math, according to results of the latest Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

A benchmark report from the University of Pittsburgh earlier this year contained similar bad news. The percentage of Pittsburgh’s black children who are enrolled in nursery or preschool programs is among the nation’s lowest, and the high school dropout rate of black students is far higher than that of whites.

State education officials, lawmakers and school board members of all races are scratching their heads over this stubborn problem that is proving tougher to solve than getting a 14-year-old to wear a belt with his baggies. As educators struggle to persuade black children to embrace reading and math as they do, say, rap music and basketball, they might be looking for solutions in all the wrong places.

There’s only so much teachers, administrators and lawmakers can do when schooling itself is considered un-hip and just not black by many African-American students. As anyone who’s witnessed the peer pressure in a public high school can tell you, kids tend to look to each other for advice rather than principals or teachers.

Maybe it’s time more black parents started telling their kids beginning at a very early age that hitting the books might someday translate into good jobs and tickets out of poverty. Maybe kids need to be told that smarts and academic success have nothing to do with race or abandoning one’s blackness.

If they’re aren’t told and aren’t persuaded to learn, more failure is guaranteed.