Raising Them Up vs. Racial Uplift: Meditations on the Achievement Gap
“We’re committed to raising them up.”
The above comment was articulated a few nights ago in a Contexts of Education course that I routinely teach here at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Them,” I felt sure, referred to the city’s African American students. This St. Louis-area teacher spoke passionately about these students’ low test scores and their teachers’ commitment to improve them, scores and individuals alike, I can only assume. Still, discomforted over a long period about American public and professional rhetoric that too easily accepts the “reality” of a racial gap in test scores, a presumed deficiency based on race, I shuddered at the words spoken by this obviously caring teacher.
To be clear, I’m a white male who speaks and writes often about race and its corrosive effects on the experiences of both black and white Americans. Certainly, these groups feel these effects in disparate ways. The Achievement Gap plays out in decisive and divisive ways that benefit those who carry white identities. This reality is no accident or assumption. Political and educational reform after reform intended to effect African American students, as historian James Anderson correctly claims, carries a logic (or as George Lipsitz names a “possessive investment in whiteness”) that oppress blacks.
Expressions of a commitment to raising African American students’ test scores sounds altogether benign, even pleasant to our ears. Of course, we can all agree on one thing; raising the test scores for all is a worthy, even wonderful goal. And can’t we rejoice together that real gains in test results, if only marginal, can be noticed in recent years as evidence that the racial achievement gap in American schools is closing? The simple answer must be, “No.”
White reform logic once again has suppressed many, if not most African American students. Raising test scores will never replace the absence of racial uplift.
Long understood in the African American experience, racial uplift embodies a rich, holistic enterprise for both young and old. For the young, the concept of racial uplift has insisted that learning by children and youth include, at every step of the way, the recognition that racism in America was and is pervasive and persistent. Black youth, their elders have demanded, must toil every day against a white supremacy that yearns to hold them down. Their resistance can be no mere option. Resistance keeps alive a promised land that continues to lie just beyond the horizon.
I was reminded of racial uplift in a session of another course, one that explores the history of African American education, a field I claim relative expertise. Yes, expertise. This word is how we academics sometimes self-proclaim our academic legitimacy, even when we are blissfully unaware of the term’s absurdity. However long I’ve toiled in dusty archives to study mostly white writers on the subject, the lived educational experience of people of color are distant to my personal life. I’ve learned much over this semester in this course that I teach; my emotional learning has far exceeded my intellectual journey, itself profound.
This reflection brings me back to racial uplift and its relationship to the perceived Achievement Gap in our nation. A student of color in this class on the history of African American education recently voiced a personal concern. After reading about the impressive value inherent in under-resourced, aesthetically unpleasant, and rigidly segregated one-room schoolhouses, this student pointed to the deficient curriculum in contemporary classrooms for African Americans. Oppression is abundantly apparent in the hidden and hurtful curriculum even today. But where is the resistance? How can students of color, in “post-civil rights” classrooms that plainly have been re-segregated, learn about resistance so necessary in tandem with the pervasive and persistent lessons of oppression? This classroom reverberated with vibrantly hued responses. Together, this group of graduate students reclaimed a “usable past” to guide meaningful wonderment about current curricular and social struggles of African American children and youth.
These meditations on America’s perceived Achievement Gap should haunt all of us. Raising test scores does little if students of color can’t learn about and speak of oppression and resistance in robust relationship to one another. Educational reform for African American students that neglects the history of black schooling and its insistence on racial uplift – not simply raising them up – surely will fail. Or has this result been the plan of white reformers all along?
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