Holy shit. Did you hear? Only 47% of black males graduated from high school in the US in 2008. No, that is not a typo. Plus, in NYC, almost 50% of black males were unemployed in 2006. 2006! Two years before the worst recession since the Great Depression. Are you freaked out yet? Is this America? I’m telling you, when I contemplate this, I get all sorts of indignant. Then I go sit at my favorite local joint to buy my $4 latte and write about it. Because what else is a sort-of employed liberal to do?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the black male crisis after my recent volunteering gig at another transitional housing facility (i.e. “shelter”) where I worked with the residents, all black and Hispanic, on “job training” stuff like writing resumés and job searching. Most of the shelter residents are women with kids. The other two volunteers and I worked with more than a dozen people that afternoon. The need was great, which made for a rather intense experience. I know what you’re thinking: why is a semi-employed person like myself helping people find jobs when I clearly know nothing about this myself. Good question to which I have no answer!
Moving on . . .
Daniel, a twenty-something man in a Boston Red Sox cap, asked me to help him draft a resumé. He seemed pretty driven, and he had a lot of good experience and a fairly steady employment background, at least until recently. (He had previously worked as a messenger for a trucking company, and he had cleaned airplanes at JFK.) Despite all this experience, Daniel did not know how to do things like center his text or change the font. It’s almost silly to mention this because, seriously, it’s a font. But this is part of a larger point that I am endeavoring to make. (Another example: a woman wanted to work in a Jamaican restaurant so she typed “Jamaican restaurants” into Google, and she was getting pretty frustrated slogging through the results list. I explained to her that she was getting restaurants from, basically, all over the world, and she had to refine her search term. This was news to her, which really illustrates how useless technology is on its own for addressing unemployment and poverty.) Daniel’s computer difficulties were compounded by his very real problems composing the kind of error-free prose expected on resumés and such. As a college writing teacher, I was not exactly surprised that Daniel needed help figuring out what a resumé is, what it’s supposed to do, and how to write one without errors.
The impulse is to blame Daniel’s parents, or whoever raised him, because obviously they did not raise him right. Also, we can blame the schools he went to. Clearly, they didn’t do their job either. Yes, that’s it! Bad schools and bad parents! If the schools and the parents had done their jobs, Daniel could compose reasonably error-free sentences. (He would also have learned to protect himself from bodily harm by not wearing a Red Sox cap in NYC, but that’s another story!) Of course, the “he didn’t learn to read and write in school!” argument is very common. What’s the solution? Well, schools should do a better job of teaching all children. It’s like, what part of No Child Left Behind do you not understand? I know! Let’s fire bad teachers, hire good ones, and make all the schools compete for a big pot of money so we can tell the difference between the worthy schools and the schools that are just buckets of crap infesting American society with their mediocrity!
But, wait, what if schools can’t actually remediate social inequality? Stick with me on this for a minute. I’m just saying that since most people take up the social class position carved out for them by their parents, maybe schools have something to do with this? (Appropriate here to mention my girlfriends Jean Anyon and Deborah Brandt who have written about this.)
Am I getting too academic on you? Let me just say what I think they argue: people learn because other people who are richer and more connected sponsor that learning. No one learns in isolation and without support and mentoring from other, more resourceful members of society. Affluent kids have a better shot at this from the beginning. Doesn’t seem like a radical argument to me. In fact, it seems rather commonsensical.
While it’s true that there’s a correlation between high rates of literacy and higher socio-economic status, this is NOT because smart people are smarter and, thus, more successful. It’s because they had more support and investment in their development all along the way. Well-connected people have well-connected kids who go to stellar schools where they learn how to be the people who get the good jobs that they expect to get. On the contrary, it’s likely that nobody is greasing Daniel’s path to a good education, to a well-paying job, and to a second-nature ability to manipulate fonts at will. Schools are, what Brandt calls, “sponsors” of literacy writ large. They tell us who we are and who we’re going to be by confirming and reproducing class status. They set us all on a path that’s hard to deviate from.
Am I projecting too much on Daniel? Is he a puppet of liberal guilt and, perhaps, of post-doctoral regret and recrimination? He’s an individual who doesn’t deserve to be turned into an abstraction, into an example of some larger argument. On a blog, no less! Yet, Daniel, like everyone, is an example of his time, place, and circumstance. He is unemployed and struggling with basic literacy because that position is available for somebody to fill in the world we live in. It’s possible for someone to be that someone. And so he is.