Just before the last school board trustee election in Dallas, one of the candidates dropped by to visit with me.
During our conversation, he asked me what I felt was the number one issue facing the Dallas Independent School District at the time.
I offered a one-word answer: poverty.
He responded with a quizzical look and seemed a bit flustered. I suppose he knew that the mission of DISD was not to end poverty in Dallas, nor was that my point. Still, my answer was correct and he was totally unprepared for it, as are most people in this community.
This week I remembered that encounter as I read The Economist magazine (March 12, 2005). An editorial summary of one of the feature articles caught my attention ("Black Marks--It's the natives, not the immigrants, that are the problem," page 14).
Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain's Commission on Racial Equality, recently reported that young black men in the public schools perform at a level so far below white students that it might be better to educate them "apart from other pupils."
It is true that black males score well below whites in Britain's public education testing process. Phillips' idea implies that the reason for their underachievement is ethnicity and gender. Young black women score much better than black young men. But then, girls score better than boys in every ethnic category.
Among the entire student population Afro-Caribbeans perform well below white students. One factor often overlooked is that these students are disproportionately affected by poverty. They arrive at school from poor families.
In studies of the British system that control for economic status the results come out quite different. Afro-Caribbeans still underachieve, but not as badly as poor white students. In fact, all ethnic minority groups do better than poor white children. Impoverished Bangladeshis do twice as well as poor whites. Indian and Chinese students perform even better compared to their Anglo counterparts.
The raw numbers are staggering as a representation of the problem. Last year 131,393 white males failed to reach the government's benchmark expectations, while among Afro-Caribbeans the number totaled 3,151.
Careful consideration of the facts of English education reveal that the real challenge for black Brits is poverty, not race.
The concluding remarks from the helpful article are worth quoting here.
"This isn't, however, a message that anybody much wants to hear. Many white people find the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong with black people comforting: it confirms deeply held prejudices and reassures them that a whole complex of social problems--starting with underachievement in schools, but leading on to unemployment, drug addiction and crime--is nothing to do with them. . . .
"Trying to explain educational underachievement away as a racial issue may be comforting and convenient, but it is also dangerous, for it distracts attention from the real problem--that the school system fails the poor. That's not a black problem or a white problem: it's a British problem."
Like I told the young candidate who came by to visit, the real issue is poverty.
We need the courage to admit the obvious and to develop public policies that make change possible.