Charles Payne: Whatever Happened to the Negro Question? Educational Discourse and the Lost Question of Race ☆

Students growing up in poverty show compromised academic performance by almost every conceivable metric. Poor children enter school behind their wealthier peers, and most never catch up. The situation can seem hopeless, and teachers may find themselves asking: Are there some students so debilitated by poverty that they simply can’t be helped by our current education system?

This question was the focus of an October 10th lecture called “Whatever Happened to the Negro Question? Educational Discourse and the Lost Question of Race,” by Dr. Charles Payne, a professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

Flier for October 10th 2013 Lecture

Payne’s lecture focused on what he called “the thesis of the wounded Negro.”

The idea has deep historical roots, but today it’s manifested when well-meaning educators lower their expectations for economically disadvantaged minority students, believing that such students are too wounded by their circumstances to achieve academic success. In his lecture, Payne pointed to recent improvements in test scores and successful educational interventions that disprove this damaging idea.

To explain the history of thesis of the wounded Negro, Payne began with the history of the abolition movement. He said that there was significant tension between white abolitionists and their black counterparts, many of whom were ex-slaves. The white abolitionists thought the role of the ex-slaves should be to appeal to emotion—to get up on stage and tell their shocking stories of the abuses of slavery. White abolitionists wanted to control the handling of political and theoretical analysis. Ex-slaves were not considered capable of such complex reasoning, thanks to the deprivation they’d endured—the way they were wounded.

This marginalization of African American members of political groups continued into the 20th century. Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man was written to express his disillusionment with the Communist Party. Payne explained that African American intellectuals were consistently drawn into the party, only to be denied the opportunity to meaningfully participate in matters of policy and planning. Party officials believed that African Americans had not been exposed to the proper education or the scientific analysis that would allow them to contribute.

According to Payne, “In the eyes of Ellison and many of his generation, friends of the Negro reduced black people to their underdevelopment, reduced them to their oppression.”

Payne’s third historical example comes from the Freedom Summer of 1964, when 900 young people—most of them white—traveled to Mississippi to promote voter registration of African Americans. These Civil Rights workers braved beatings, arrests, and even murder, but by the end of the summer, cooperation was fraying. There were increasing levels of racial tension within the movement, as African American and white volunteers found they didn’t share the same goals.

One young African American woman, who would go on to author the 1966 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Atlanta Project position paper on race, found that the white participants simply ignored her. “White males from Ivy League schools and from Stanford treated her like she was the wallpaper, because she did not have their language, she did not have their theory, she did not have their style,” Payne said.

Many of the young white volunteers were surprised at how much had been accomplished by African American Civil Rights workers before they arrived. These white volunteers “came to Mississippi with the notion that Negroes were so wounded, were so limited by the experiences of racism, that they, the outsiders, were coming as saviors,” Payne said.

Payne next turned to contemporary society, where he said the latest expression of the thesis of the wounded Negro is the idea that students in urban, low-income areas have been so damaged by their circumstances that they simply cannot by helped by the school system.

“It’s the argument that poverty is so wounding that schools can do nothing in its face,” Payne explained.

Payne said that from a conservative perspective, the line of thinking goes like this: Since poverty overwhelms the ability of schools to improve the lives of students, spending more money on education is pointless. Progressives, on the other hand, insist that poverty must be fixed before problems of schools can be addressed.

Both sides are deeply problematic, according to Payne. Such claims “reduce poor children to an uninformed caricature of oppression,” he said.

Contrary to the pessimism of those who would argue that some students are beyond schools’ ability to help, low-income student achievement is actually on the rise. Payne showed several slides of data pointing to rising test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 21 urban districts. As just one example, the number of students who are proficient or advanced in math has tripled over the last 15 years.

Payne also pointed to several efforts to improve educational outcomes that have shown great promise. A recent study analyzed the results of introducing the rigorous International Baccalaureate program to a group of Chicago public high schools, many of which were located in black and Latino neighborhoods. The study found that compared to a matched comparison group, students who completed the demanding program were 40 percent more likely to attend a four-year college, and 50 percent more likely to attend a more selective college.

Even simple strategies can make a big difference, Payne said. Merely helping students fill out their FAFSA forms can result in a 10% increase in college-going rate.

Not every student in a low-income environment will require a massively expensive intervention, Payne explained. “Some kids need the Marine Corps; some just need one more positive adult in their lives for 15 minutes a week.”

Payne concluded his speech with a strong condemnation of the idea that some students are too damaged by poverty to be helped by the education system.

“This talk about impotence of schools in the face of poverty is ideologically damaged, empirically flimsy, morally compromised, and politically obtuse,” he said. “Talking about what schools can’t do before we have any clarity over what schools can do dishonors the teachers and the principals who are changing lives… and the parents and communities who are supporting children.”

The lecture was designated as the inaugural Edmund Gordon lecture, in honor of the Teachers College professor emeritus. “I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t cite or quote Ed Gordon,” said Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman. “Everything we think about at TC, which has been so focused on its mission of social justice, has been shaped by him.”

Dr. Gordon himself took the podium to conclude the event. “I would like to say thank you to Teachers College, thank you to so many of you who have made the journey for me so rewarding,” he said. “It’s worth living to 93 to be here to see it.”

Charles Payne’s lecture was organized as part of a working conference of scholars convened by “Educating Harlem,” a collaboration among TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education, the College’s Program in History and Education, and the Center on History and Education. The next lecture in the Educating Harlem series will be February 12, 2014. Jonna Perrillo from the University of Texas at El Paso will discuss her recent book, ” Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity.”
Contributed by Shelby Martin