Not long ago I attended a high school basketball game between local DC rivals. I was absolutely amazed at the level of intensity in which these young men played. Both teams, made up of all young black males, possessed a strong desire to win and the level at which they competed demonstrated that it was this desire to be victorious that pushed them all to respect and learn the game. Both teams ran complicated plays, perfectly executed the directions of the coach and never seemed to tire. When one of the young men made a bad decision, he was immediately admonished by the coach who exclaimed: "you are better than that!" Nodding his head, as if to show he agreed with the coach’s statement, the young man refocused and played flawless basketball for the rest of the game.
I left this game not only impressed, but full of hope. Here were 24 young black men competing at an incredibly high level; a group that is often stigmatized as being lazy, unmanageable, slow learners and undisciplined. Many people wonder how a group that has so many problems succeeding in the classroom could excel at a sport that requires one to use the same qualities possessed by a great student. The answer is simply: expectations. Black men are expected to be exceptional athletes. Such expectations push them at a very early age to cultivate and perfect their skills on the field or court. In the eyes of many it’s almost a sin for a young black man to be a poor athlete. He would face belittlement not only from his peers but society as whole.
Now, for sure, some racist claim that Blacks are simply born with the natural ability to become exceptional athletes, however, such an argument has no merit. While it may be true that on the average black men are physically larger than other races, size and strength play only a minimal role in determining one’s success as an athlete. To compete at the highest level of any sport takes a tremendous amount of discipline since the athlete must devote energy and time to perfecting such skills as dribbling or passing. In addition, success hinges greatly on the athlete’s intelligence. He must not only commit large amounts of information to memory but must also be able to adapt to the play of his opponent. If the athlete is unable to think analytically, his jumping abilities and speed will prove useless as he will simply be outsmarted by his opponent. The fact of the matter is young black men excel at sports because they work at it, and they work at it because they know that it will be held to higher standard than all others. The coach who reassured his young player that he could play better did not really have to say anything at all; he already knew he was better, not out of any sense of false pride, but from understanding that he had adequately prepared himself to excel in such an atmosphere.
If we juxtapose public school coaches’ expectations of black male players with public school teachers’ expectations of black male students the difference is night and day. Young black men are expected to fail in the realm of academia, consequently most of them do. Go into any inner city public school and you will witness excellence on the basketball court and failure in the classroom. Public schools reinforce society’s low expectations of black males. The abysmal test scores among this group of students are largely a matter of social conditioning. If held to a higher standard, black men would work just as hard to perfect their writing as they do their jump shot. However, unlike coaches, teachers don’t admonish black males; they accept their failure and even reward it by passing them on to the next grade. By the time they reach high school, most black men are so far behind, they simply give up. And those who do go on to graduate are hit with the stinging realization that their abilities as an athlete will not help them gain employment, unless, of course, they are one of the exceptional few who make the pros.
Young black men must be compelled to compete in the classroom if they are ever to achieve success in life. However, the only way public schools will be compelled to lift black men from the depths of academic despair is if they themselves are forced to compete with private schools. This can be achieved with school vouchers which would allow parents to put their children in schools that will hold them to higher standards in the classroom. Such policy has not taken off because teachers unions vehemently oppose vouchers. They recognize that vouchers would mean fewer teachers, fewer membership dues, the likely defections by public school personnel to privatized systems that have traditionally resisted centralized unionization, and the birth of competing collective bargaining entities. For the teachers’ unions, the idea of competition can only mean giving up leverage. Nevertheless, if faced with such competition, public schools would be forced to push their young black men to succeed in the classroom, just as they push them on the basketball court.
With that said, perhaps what is even more important than the expectations of teachers and society as a whole are the expectations of parents. According to The Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University, a poor African American family is seven times more likely to encourage a male child into sports than is a white family. Sadly, many black parents believe their children are unable to compete academically so they push their child to develop athletically and public schools simply reinforce this devastating mentality on daily basis.