Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Washington DC: Response to President Obama’s Address to the National Urban League

Reflecting on the Obama Administration's track record on race, Amina writes from Washington:

As President Obama addressed the National Urban League there was a feeling of disconnect on both sides. On one side a president who circumvents the importance of race. On the other side an audience whose organization is dedicated to “enabling African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.” You could almost feel the audience’s dilemma.

Torn. Feeling proud of the first Black president, yet skeptical at what that will mean for improving the lives of people of color; for our children in schools in particular.

Success in times of failure
“In a single generation America went from #1 to #12 in college completion rates,” said President Obama. Secretary Duncan also reflects with nostalgia on this time of American supremacy. 

During that ‘good’ time, students of color were floundering in college entrance and graduation rates. In 1990 black men and black women had graduation rates of 28% and 34% respectively.  For those of us seeking to improve the lives of students of color, the administration’s goal to return America to its #1 position sounds hollow.

Over and over we’ve declared national success while students of color continue in utter distress.  As the numbers of students of color grow you can see why we’d be skeptical about policies that promise ‘success’ without lending a critical eye to the needs and experiences of these students.

Civil what?
“This is the civil right issue of our time,” President Obama and Secretary Duncan are quick to declare, yet equally quick to dismiss in crafting public policy. Civil rights issues warrant civil right responses.

A competitive process for education funding through Race to the Top is hardly appropriate. If, in fact, the civil rights of some students are being persistently and systematically infringed upon, then we can’t craft policy proposals that designate certain ‘winning’ students as deserving and others as not.

As it stands at least 17 states (and the children they serve) will not win funding for their grant submissions proposals. Not to mention the states that didn’t bother applying. Ironically, President Obama may have said it best, “Words are easy, deeds are hard.”

To declare public education a civil rights issue is the right thing to do. Kudos to you, Mr. President. However, it’s much easier to say it, than to accept the full responsibility for what it means. It means that there are students in the system for whom vast systemic remedies are required, not won.

Is this public policy or public counseling?
Finally, the President’s speech included his usual refrain about parental responsibility. It’s the turn off the television, read to your kids, value teachers over sports stars refrain. All good points. But the persistent emphasis and spotlight on these points by President Obama lead me to question if the message matches the messenger.

What does it mean to have the President, the nation’s chief public policy officer over emphasize the private actions of parents in solving public policy problems? Sure, parents can and should do right by their children. But this personal responsibility refrain must follow a clear responsibility for what hasn’t, yet should, be done through public policy. Mr. Obama should be equally consistent in forcing the issues of zero tolerance policies, inequitable education funding structures, lacking services for English Language Learners. The list goes on and on. 

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