Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson is a Certified School Psychologist who practices privately in Pennsylvania and lectures throughout the country. Dr. Umar is considered a national expert on learning disabilities and their effect on African-American children. As a child therapist, Dr. Johnson specializes in working with at-risk, violent, suicidal, and depressed African-American boys and girls. Dr. Johnson has been featured in top selling documentary films entitled Hidden Colors 1, Hidden Colors 2, and Hidden Colors 3. He has also appeared on the nationally broadcasted The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Below is my interview with Dr. Umar regarding educating African-American students.
Phillips: What is the reason for the education gap between African-American students and white students?
Too many black parents, rich and poor, are not working with their children at home then they find out at the 11th hour that they don’t have basic skills.
Johnson: The primary reason for the so-called “test gap” is miseducation which is being motivated by racism. In a recent Civil Rights Data Collection Report by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which accessed the entire state of our nation’s public education, it was found that disproportionate structural inequalities exist between predominately black and white public schools. For example, in public high schools that serve predominately African-American children, only one-third offer a math class above Algebra I. Generally, students need more math credits than Algebra I to graduate high school. So if your high school only offers Algebra I, you can’t graduate. It doesn’t matter if you come from a single parent home or a two- parent home, it doesn’t matter if your mother is on welfare or if she works, it doesn’t matter if your father is a lawyer or if you father is locked up. If the school district doesn’t offer the opportunities that you need in order to succeed, you won’t succeed. So when you look at the test gap, you are looking at the manifestation of differential qualities of education. Black children are systematically miseducated because they get the youngest teachers, they get the most inexperienced teachers, they get the lowest amount of money allocated per student, they have the worst education resources, the oldest books, and the poorest learning facilities. So if a school district gives one group of students the worst that their district has to offer, but on the other side of town they provide the white students with the absolute best intellectual and material resources that the district offers, then there’s no way that the black students can catch up because they are being engineered to fail by design. The test gap has nothing to do with intellectual potential; it only reflects the results of systematic miseducation and institutional racism.
Before we move on the next question, I need to clarify the definition of systematic racism so that your readers understand my response. Systematic racism is the process of creating rules, laws, procedures, systems, and customs within any institution that are designed to disproportionately affect one group verses another to produce an unfair or unequal result.
Phillips: What can parents do to help their children excel in school?
Johnson: Parents need to get educated about education. They need to know the meaning of the terms Special Ed, ADHD, and school suspension rules. Parents need to read the school’s student code of conduct. If parents haven’t read and familiarized themselves with the rules, then they don’t know the possible grounds for the school to suspend or expel their child. The reason that I mentioned suspension and expulsion is because of the recent report which revealed that black boys are being disproportionately suspended and expelled as compared to white boys for the exact same offenses. This is very important as it relates to the Black/White Test Gap because black students (especially black boys) are being suspended so much that they are not being given an opportunity to learn. Then when the black student can’t learn, the school officials will bring up allegations of Special Education. The child doesn’t need Special Education; the child isn’t being allowed to receive a regular education because he is being suspended two or three days per week. I recommend that parents read my book entitled Psycho-Academic Holocaust: The Special Education & ADHD Wars Against Black Boys. They have to read the book because it’s the only book written by a black certified school psychologist teaching parents how to fight back against the miseducation machine.
Next, parents need to supplement the education. Too many black parents, rich and poor, are not working with their children at home then they find out at the 11th hour that they don’t have basic skills. You cannot trust the report card to tell you the truth about what your child is learning and experiencing. I know charter schools that send their students home with A’s and B’s every marking period but the students can’t read or count. I know public schools that will fail students for misbehavior even though the students have earned A’s and B’s. On one hand you could have a report card that says your child is one of the smartest kids in the classroom or on the other hand you could have a report card that says your child needs Special Education, yet both aren’t true. You have to work with you children at home because the report cards can’t be trusted. The report cards are being influenced by variables that shouldn’t have anything to do with your child’s education. I am a former assistant principal. I know school principals that instruct their teachers not to give their student a grade lower than a C, some instruct teachers to pass all the kids, and other say fail all the kids. So you aren’t really looking at a report card, you are looking at a scheme for the school to make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), which is a requirement of The No Child Left Behind law. If the school doesn’t make AYP, then the school might lose grant money, be forced to lay off teachers, or the principal might be replaced.
Phillips: Recently, two black female students were asked to change their natural hairstyle or risk expulsion. How can parents deal with student hair issues?
Johnson: When I heard about those cases, my first reaction was that the school’s actions were illegal. I’m 99 percent sure that it was illegal. I hope that those parents hired experienced attorneys who practice in the area of Education Law to sue the school districts. If someone were to ask me, “What are some potential aspects of the case that could possibly render the school district not guilty for suspending or expelling those black girls for their natural hair styles?”, I can give you a couple of scenarios. If the schools were private, parochial, independent, or religious, they have a right to dictate dress code because they don’t receive federal money. So the private school can dictate that the child’s hair look a certain way in order to attend that school. If the school were public, in accordance with public school law, a dress code can be created that addresses how students can or cannot wear their hair. So if the students were suspended for their hairstyle, the school district wouldn’t be in violation for suspending or expelling the child but they could be in violation of creating a dress code that was racially biased. So the parents wouldn’t sue the district over the suspension but the focus of the lawsuit would be on the policy itself. If the student dress code says that students can’t wear Locs and it’s understood that Locs are an African-centered hair style, then the public school district is clearly targeting black students which is a racial bias.
Another issue that isn’t related to the student dress code but could be an option for the school to suspend the black girls was if the school could determine that their Afros, Locs, Twists, or natural hairstyles disrupt the educational environment. The school can require that the child be taken home to have the hairstyle changed. If the parents refuse to change the hairstyle then that might open up a pathway for suspension or expulsion. The basis for the classroom disruption would be that she was being picked on by several of the white kids because she has Locs in a predominately white school. If she attends a predominately white school with an Afro, Locs, or Twists, it might generate a bunch of controversy. If she gets bullied or picked on, the principal might say that the natural hairstyle is upsetting the educational culture. This might fly in a predominately white school but in a predominately black school where lots of the children have natural hairstyles, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Black parents need to get a copy of the school’s policy and read the student and parent handbook. Any policy (including natural hair) that the parents don’t agree with, the parents need to go to the school board and protest the policy. The problem is that black parents don’t have a copy and/or don’t read the school’s policies and handbooks. A lot of what the schools do to our children isn’t even in the school’s policy. We aren’t protecting our children because we don’t know the policy.
Phillips: Is student performance affected by parents going through divorce, separation, or marital affairs?
Johnson: Yes. Parents need to keep their personal problems away from their children. This is a big problem in the black community. We love to pull our children into our disputes with the other parent. Children should never be forced to choose between parents but often times they are asked to take sides. Why is a child being ask to take sides between a mother and a father? It’s traumatizing for a child to be forced to make this type of decision. You have to have enough love for your child that you develop the discipline not to attack the other parent or bring your child into adult issues. The child should never feel like they have to hide their love for one parent because of a parental dispute.
Phillips: Do you think that there is a connection between the current mainstream Hip-Hop culture and poor African-American student performance
Johnson: Yes, without question. If we look at the Gangster Rap element within hip-hop, it glamorizes and glorifies black male failure. I understand why that happens because within the ego of any man, he wants to feel proud about what he is doing. In this country, most black men are being kept from participating in successful mainstream lifestyles. So many black males have created a situation where it looks honorable to be dishonorable. Now it’s honorable to be drunk, to have a whole bunch of women, to kill another black man, and to sell drugs. The only reason that they are making these dishonorable deeds honorable is because the legal roads to getting involved in honorable activities are closed off to black males. So what they have to do is glorify what is destroying the community because it’s the only thing that they are allowed to do. So, yes it (mainstream hip-hop culture) is exerting a negative influence on our children. But I’m not going to blame the Gangster Rappers because they are the result of an institutional racist system that is creating the type of situation that only leaves athletics, drug dealing, and rap music as the only opportunities for black men to be successful in America. So it’s not their fault but they do have to take responsibility for playing into the hands of their enemies by putting out ideas to young impressionable black boys that says, “This is gangsta. This is want you need to do to be cool. Drop out of school, sell drugs, get you a gun, go to jail, sleep with as many women as you can, and be a weed head.” That’s the definition of success in the ‘hood’, which is a very poor definition of success.
When opportunities are cut off, when opportunities are denied to you, you will turn dishonorable deeds into honorable deeds because you have nothing else to feel proud about.