Black Lack or Something Else?
In 1977, Loretta Lynch graduated at the top of her Durham High School class in North Carolina. The school administration resisted awarding her sole valedictorian honors and granted co-valedictorian status to a white student.
In 1936, Fannetta Nelson Gordon deserved to be the valedictorian of Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh. Her older sister Sophia Nelson had achieved the honor two years earlier. But at this 90% white school, the principal thought having two Black valedictorians in recent years, sent a wrong message. He had a plan. He pressured the music teacher to change Gordon's grade from an A to a B, moving her from first in her class to 4th. In 2011, 75 years after Gordon graduated, the Westinghouse Alumni Association sought to make amends by hosting an event in her honor. Unfortunately, Fannetta Gordon died three years earlier, at age 88.
June 2021, Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple were named 2021 valedictorian and salutatorian for West Point High School in Mississippi. Both are Black. Afterward, two white parents claimed a grade calculation error and the school granted their children co-valedictorian and co-salutatorian awards. A closer read of the article offered justification for changes. What cannot be explained away is repeated incidents of clear award fallacies seemingly based on race. In the past five years, Black women in Cleveland, Miss., about 150 miles away, filed two federal lawsuits alleging that they were cheated out of valedictorian and salutatorian awards.
The article continues with a statement from Lisa M. Ross, a lawyer in Jackson, who has represented such cases and notes that questions about the selection process being fair are common. “Every year around graduation I get calls from parents who are concerned that their children are being cheated out of valedictorian and salutatorian,” she said. “Race is really still a big struggle in Mississippi.”
In 2021, not 1977 or 1936, some issues are unchanged. Beyond student academic awards are larger issues of racial perceptions. Challengers to teaching critical race theory in schools, suggest that one race will present another race as culprits believing in supremacy, privilege and unfair biases. Ironically, the fear behind these anxieties is white children being set up to take the fall for sins of forebears. In 2021, school integration has allowed generations of students to sit side by side since kindergarten. They become friends, they date, they attend the same parties and hang out together. Integration was supposed to “solve” the race problem.
Rooted in quiet biases are stereotypical racial beliefs that claim Blacks are faster runner and better at basketball while whites are more academically gifted. It upsets the system when the white runner wins and the Black student is awarded valedictorian when parents have been tracking grades since 7th grade, as noted in this article.
Understanding stereotypes takes this subject outside of Black and white dimensions. Asian expectations of excellence plague youth into suicide when parents pressure them and failure is unsustainable. Ethnicity, not race, can also serve to undermine notions of equality. In 2014, media coverage of seventeen-year-old Kwasi Enin of Long Island, son of immigrants from Ghana, overwhelmed us with acceptance at eight Ivy League schools. Coverage of this seemingly amazing achievement was read about into the following year. Then, Blacks questioned the need for this advanced coverage when Black American students were doing the same thing every year. What I concluded was that nobody knew about Black youth achievements because the media was not reporting it. A Black African was recognized for seemingly breaking the Black American “Lack Mold” stereotype. Reading comments associated with these articles recorded a white administrator chiding Black students to be more like Enin. An African immigrant pointed out that Africans were just more intelligent than Black Americans.
Why are Black students around the country falling behind in the academic gap? Some say lack of skills, lack of stable family home structure, lack of interest in STEM, lack of literacy exposure, lack, lack, lack. How is this when you don’t have to be a STEM scientist to know that God doles intellect around the world evenly? Therefore, it may not be lack that is the discriminator. Perception and expectations based on stereotypes still prevail and impact daily decision-making when interacting with others.