The conversation that needs to happen before equity can be attained

Grant Williams-Yackel, Guest Opinion Writer

Red, white and blue can- dies sparkled in a miniature plastic gumball machine centered on a wide wooden table. I took my seat in Dr. Eric Witherspoon’s office and glanced upward at the floor to ceiling panes standing tall against the far side of the room. I couldn’t pin down the feeling in my stomach. Hopefulness? Certainly not hope that I’d be told what I wanted to hear. Maybe hope that I’d be told what I suspected was true.

We, an Evanstonian editor and myself, were interviewing the superintendent for a feature in the Evanstonian about the black male experience at ETHS. At the beginning of the school year, Dr. Witherspoon gave a rousing speech at an all-faculty meeting, imploring the administration and teachers alike to recognize and up- lift the lowest performing demographic in the school. This, he said, was to be the year of the black male.

Traditionally, black boys’ achievement has been impeded by corrosive administrative policies, namely the set of curricula which lock certain students (predominantly black) onto nearly inescapable tracks through the least challenging of courses while others (predominantly white) soar through honors and AP classes without a second glance. These tracks originate in middle schools and essentially etch a student’s high school career in stone.

Perhaps more jarring, though, are the implications of this institutional scaffolding. Most colleges and universities hold more challenging courses in higher esteem and are more likely to admit a student with a heavier course load than one who spent their high school career stuck in enrichment courses. This means that the students who would choose to attend a university but aren’t afforded the opportunity to challenge themselves with AP courses have diminished chances of breaking through to post secondary education.

What’s more, according to statistics from the “Report on Student Discipline and Suspensions for the 2016- 17 School Year” and the Illinois Report Card, black students are suspended at a rate more than eight times that of their white counterparts, despite making up less than thirty percent of the school’s population. This number has only decreased in the last decade or so, with the rate of black suspensions in 2010 nearly doubling those of today.

Again, the chances of breaking through to higher education are diminished for black boys while the administration has yet to answer up.

Initially, we posed a simple question: why now? Black boys have been beset with obstacles for the last four hundred years, why was this year chosen to address such a pervasive issue?

“Every year we sit down and we look at…where we’re making gains, where there are issues that we continue to need to address, where we’re going to get the biggest return on what we need to focus on for the coming year,” says Witherspoon. “So it was not a surprise that we were once again reminded that, in the aggregate, our black males are performing low in most of the areas that we measure. No surprise because it’s been historic for a long time.”

“We’ve known this,” he continues, “and we’ve done a lot of things over the years all the way from how we de-tracked and completely redid the freshman year… and how we’ve redone the sophomore year this year…”

He went on, listing some other directives apparently aimed at reducing the detriment of black males on the school’s statistics, and eventually summed up his position well. “When we’re not getting the results that we should be getting with all of our black males, we are falling short.”

Already within the first minutes of the conversation, Dr. Witherspoon made the administration’s perspective on black males clear. As indicated by his want of “results” and “the biggest return,” they are construed as a deteriorating demographic, a subpar statistic, a collection of low performance victims in dire need of saving which stain the high school’s pearly record of college readiness.

The conversation chugged along, though, and eventually we stumbled across the topic of disparities in the reception of tardies between black and white students.

Witherspoon explains,“it may be that you’re not getting up in the morning. It may be that you’re trying to get your younger siblings ready and off to school. It may be that there was disruption in the house the night before and you didn’t get to sleep till three a.m.. But whatever it is… let’s work individually with you to help you work through those outside issues…. to work on those things that aren’t in our control and to help you in your life, get them under control in your life.”

Immediately, I was struck by the repetitious description of obstacles for black boys as “outside issues” and only occurring in “your life” suggesting a distancing between ETHS and the obstacles themselves. This dissociative language implies a frame of mind parallel to that of the country at large; that black boys might be lazy or might have broken homes, but the institution need not self examine because those problems are yours and not mine. It’s fallacious to generalize that these are the reasons all black boys come late to class. Maybe they don’t want to spend time with a teacher who felt comfortable enough in ETHS to use the n-word to accentuate a statistic.

It’s clear that our school’s most powerful, those from whom nearly all institutional changes derive, have allowed themselves to fall prey to notions of the intrinsic fallibility of the black community.

Instead of centering the narrative of the black experience around the shortcomings of black boys, perhaps a shift in perspective that focuses on the celebration and improvement of the achievements of our black scholars, the profoundness of our black artists and the intellects of our black scientists might lead us in a more productive direction.

Dr. Marcus Campbell said in an interview that he hoped ETHS might become a center of health for the entire Evanston community. “Schools have to be the center of health for kids…. schools have to be the center of physical health, emotional health. Schools have to address all of these components because everyone goes to school. Everyone has access to a free-education.”

“I want to make sure that I’m asset focused,” Campbell states in the onset of the conversation. “We realize that there’s nothing intuitively and inherently wrong with being a black male, of course, but what is it about the school that needs to shift and change where we can meet the needs more adequately of… students who identify as black and male.”

Dr. Campbell then expounded on these necessary shifts, laying out the initiatives he’s developed for the year of the black male. “Every administrator that reports to me has goals…. There [are] about seven or eight of them. They all have to have measurable goals for addressing black male achievement at ETHS. That is how I am going to evaluate them in June.”

Although not publicly available at the time of this publication, Dr. Campbell alluded to a “promising” trend in regards to referrals given to black males.

What’s unclear, though, is whether this trend is a result of our principal’s initiatives, our superintendent’s directives, or a combination of the two.

Regardless, it’s safe to say that a reckoning is upon the staff and students of ETHS. As made clear by both Dr. Witherspoon and Dr. Campbell, it’s time to choose between maintaining a centuries old status quo or stepping forward to hold our teachers and administrators responsible. It’s time to support our fellow students, those who achieve despite the routine danger of being black, male, and alive in the United States, in the reclamation of their humanity.

Thanks for reading.