Monday, February 8, 2010

Opportunity makes all the difference

There was a question I pondered last week. It's one that has been asked often and by many, but I've never really been impressed with the answers. Not so much because they were wrong per se, but because they didn't produce an "ah ha" moment...they weren't entirely logical.
The question is - why aren't enough kids of African descent in North America excelling academically?

For a long time, some of us have opined that the only way for black kids to excel would be for them to stop viewing athletes and entertainers as role models, and rather look up to teachers, professionals and political leaders. I'm not necessarily moving away from this point of view, but I've started seeing things in a different light.


Because to answer my question, I HAD to look at the world of athletes and entertainers, particularly the former. I did this in a different way, though...

Tiger Woods.

The Williams' sisters.

Lewis Hamilton.

Donovan McNabb.

What do each of these athletes have in common? Not just are they supremely talented and successful, they've been able to succeed in sports that have traditionally been the domain of white athletes. Of course, the sports/positions they excel in - golf, tennis, race-car driving, passing quarterback - are ones that have been classified as those requiring either an above-average IQ or an upper-middle class upbringing. I hope I'm not shattering anyone's illusions when I remark that these two traits are seldom associated with black atheletes  whether true or false. In fact, a middle- to upper-middle class black kid is far more likely to choose the academic path than his/her white peer, but I digress...
While we celebrate the achievements of these athletes and proudly crow about them "breaking the stereotypes" and "proving that we can do anything anyone else can", we forget one fundamental truth - it's not the skill of these atheletes that enabled them to go where no one has gone. It's not because they were more intellectually gifted than other black athletes - as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, nor is it because their parents were rich and provided them with a higher-class upbringing.


All that separates these athletes from those that didn't make, all that separates them from other athletes who've been stereotyped as having more brawn and "athleticism" (I'm not a fan of that word), all that separates them from you and me (yes!) is opportunity. Now, you're probably saying to yourself - what else is new?
Well, get this - how did Jackie Robinson break into the big leagues? Opportunity, not talent - he wasn't the most talented player in the Negro Leagues.
How did you go to university and grad school? Opportunity more than talent. There are many more talented people than yourself who didn't get that opportunity - no matter how smart you are. However, your parents were enlightened and knew the value of education...or if you're of Nigerian descent, society simply demanded it :-)

What am I getting at?

The success of an individual is almost always down to opportunity and the grasping of said opportunity. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent book - Outliers - which explained more specific cases, but the underlying theme was the same. While I wonder why he didn't extend his microscope to understanding more multicultural examples of this phenomenon, I highly recommend his book.

What would Serena and Venus be if they hadn't lived close to tennis courts in Compton?
What would Tiger be like if his Dad didn't have a passion for golf? (cue the lewd jokes...)
What would Lewis Hamilton be if he hadn't used his arrogance and gift of gab to convince Ron Dennis to take him on as an apprentice driver at the age of 12?
What would Donovan McNabb's football career had looked like if he hadn't gone to Syracuse and their pass-happy offense? Likely another black, running (read - athletic, rather than smart) quarterback...

It's all about opportunity, not some innate proclivity for violence, entertainment and playfulness - and we NEED to let the kids know this. Too many times, we approach them as if we are treating hopeless cases, even in the instances where we think we're trying to help. We classify them by simplistic statistics like "high-school graduation rates", rather than encouraging them to reach for the clouds and achieve their potential. We tackle the problem of low SAT scores without understanding the family conditions that led to those scores - the broken homes, the abusive parents, the lack of education on the part of said parents - and therefore ensuring that even if this kid is successful on the basis of our metrics, he or she may never contribute positively to society because they are damaged on the inside.

The truth is that if almost any kid was raised in the family I was raised in, they'd be productive members of society, performing well above average and even more. You had to read in my family, you had to do homework, you had to be in the top 5% or 10% of your class at a minimum - parental displeasure was evident if you didn't!

Let's give kids the opportunity to be successful and in doing so, let's improve the collective worth of the black community in North America, because if there's one thing that's clear - it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the circumstances they find themselves in.

How do you do this?

 - Mentor kids - but when you do, sound like you expect them to excel
 - Challenge teachers who call kids "special needs"
 - Let them look up to sports stars for inspiration - but direct them to focus on the hard work and dedication of those athletes
 - instill "black" or "African" pride in kids. Self-esteem is essential to confidence and excellence
 - stop talking about the "problems" and focus on the "opportunities"

Simplistic, perhaps - but a heck of a lot more logical than all the other explanations defenders of the status-quo - including members of the black community - would have us swallow.

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