One day in Junior High School I had done something particularly stupid, occasioning yet another trip to the Principals Office. The walk of shame from my homeroom to the office was uneventful enough. However, upon my arrival, I was greeted at the door by Mr. Johnson, a bear of a man who was the Vice Principal as well as the head football coach. Like my father, the man did not play. Having already heard of my indiscretion he immediately sat me down, looked me in the eye and with his nose mere inches from mine said “Boy stop acting like a damn fool and get your edumocation before I kick your ass.” Ah the good old days.
Culture is defined as the behaviors, beliefs and characteristics of a particular social, ethnic or age group. It is further defined as the total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group.
During my formative years, education was a core cultural value of the black community. Learning as much as possible was an idea, a behavior, an article of faith that was transmitted and reinforced by every segments of black society. The importance of education to black folk cannot be overstated. Education was more than a question of just going to school or earning a degree.
For centuries, from the beginning of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade in 1394 to Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 and beyond, education, learning, reading, writing, knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, sapience and the ability to engage in critical thinking were denied to African Americans. These were the fruits forbidden to us, upon forfeit of our very lives. Thus, from both a personal and cultural perspective, education was and still is the stuff of dreams; something to aspire to and be inspired by.
We firmly believed that education was the great equalizer; the vehicle to success; the highway to respectability and entree to the American middle class. The lack of educational opportunities confined our parents to jobs as house cleaners, maids, janitors, porters and shoe shine boys. Our graduation from an institution of higher learning, with a college degree enabled them, to stick their chests way out; proof that they had accomplished that required of all parents, i.e., to give their children a better life.
Knowledge and intellect were sources of pride and accomplishment, bestowing credibility, honor and dignity not only upon the recipient thereof but to the recipient’s entire family the whole community and by extension all of black society. Intelligence rather than ignorance was the attribute desired by all.
Formal education was the process by which black leaders were identified, trained and cultivated. It fostered critical thinkers who served as reservoirs and repositories of knowledge. To the black community education was a prize beyond measure, not to be squandered by anyone for any reason.
Sadly, times and priorities have changed. No longer is education a cultural requisite. Our dreams have turned from college degrees to less noble pursuits. The nation’s black high school graduation rate hovers at a depressing 50 percent. According to a report issued by the Urgency of Now, entitled “Black Male Graduation Rates”, the 2009-2010 national graduation rates for black male students was 52 percent. During the same period, the graduation rate for white non-Latino males was 78 percent.
Enrollment in black historic colleges and universities is in general decline and the lack of a high school diploma is a primary predicate for involvement in the criminal justice system. Over half of the inmates 24 or younger in state correctional institutions have not completed high school or obtained a GED. About 44% of back state inmates and 53% of Hispanic inmates have not completed high school or acquired a GED compared to only 27% of whites in state prisons.
There is no question that public education is under assault. There exists a a new type of anti intellectualism, a new band of no nothings, both black and white who are all too willing to bend if not break institutional learning to fit their biased interest; to rewrite history to reflect their narrow worldview. It is equally clear that public education must evolve, to embrace more practical subjects like financial literacy and money management, work, jobs and careers, criminal procedure, secondary education, civic responsibility and basic parenting.
But it is one thing to be denied educational opportunities and quite another to willfully reject them. There was and is a compelling public policy reason why Black society has historically embraced education, i.e., because it works, now more so than ever.
Today, we are witness to layered discrimination. We are wronged not only because of our race, but because we are over weight, over 50, and are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgendered. We are wronged because we are ex-offenders, “tatted up” or are single parents with young children, in addition to being a minority. We are marginalized because we are undocumented aliens, are Muslims, come from a Muslim country, look like a Muslim or smell like a Muslim on top of having dark skin.
We may never eliminate invidious discrimination. But by insisting on learned behavior; by seeking intelligence, knowledge, information and education wherever we can find them, we give ourselves the best chance of rising above this obstacle.
A college degree is still a source of pride and accomplishment. Intelligence and class are still desired traits and knowledge has never been more powerful. We would therefore do well to re-embrace that which has served us so well for so long.
As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “ignorance and stupidity ain’t cute.”
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO of Blackacre Policy Forum
 Leo Barron Hicks, “The New Cotton, From Race Chattel Slavery to Race Conviction Slavery”, L. Barron Hicks Publishers, 2007, p. 84.