Memo to Black People: Just Follow the Rules!

Stuart Taylor, in what he no doubt conceived as an original observation, suggests that the success of Barack Obama offers a lesson for African-Americans :

…in today's America, the opportunities available to black people are unlimited if they work hard, play by the rules, and get a good education.

Let's ignore the Bidenesque paternalistic racism of that observation, and the tired conservative attacks on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton that make up the rest of the piece, and focus on the last part of Taylor's magic formula for success: a good education.

That's an easy answer, but not if the playing field isn't level. Taylor ignores the continued existence of the digital divide between black and white students, the impact of poverty on graduation rates, and the appalling inequity of American schools, which perpetuate, rather than alleviate, historical disadvantage.

Jonathan Kozol, one of the America's most passionate advocates for equity in education argues that the situation isn't getting better

In a country where words like "diverse" have become synonymous with "segregated" and usually mean "all black and Hispanic," he speaks candidly about the segregation of today's schools, worse in New York than anywhere else in the United States, and worse today than in any year since 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. died. And there is not much of a difference, Kozol says, between the legally enforced segregation of the Old South and the social and economic apartheid of today. The reality is the same: It is the children who suffer.

Easy answers are always appealing. They make for nice sound bites, and, better yet, obviate personal and societal responsibility for more costly and complex solutions. The argument that Taylor and others are advancing appeals on a visceral level, evoking cultural values about the American Dream and opportunity for everyone, but they're not answers, and they're not new. Suggesting that African Americans are not achieving at levels commensurate with white students because they fail to follow the rules and because the African-American leadership holds them back is no more an answer today than it was when Ronald Reagan and his cronies peddled their soft racism to Reagan Democrats in the 1980s.

In a time when the President can, with a straight face, argue that the No Child Left Behind Law, which has targeted predominantly minority schools with punitive actions , is a 'civil rights' measure, we need to reject solutions that blame the students who need the most attention, the greatest amount of help. 

The example of Barack Obama is an instructive one, but not because it demonstrates to African-American children the path they should follow. It's an instructive example, because 140 years after the end of slavery and forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, white politicians and pundits marvel at his succeess. Until we committ to improving educational opportunities for all American children, that sad condition is unlikely to change.