The forced, unnecessary, ritual extraction of children’s teeth. That’s the process to which Christopher Emdin compared educating minority children in America today.
In front of a packed room at South by Southwest this month, Emdin, a professor at Columbia Teachers College, explains how the Dinka tribe in South Sudan once suffered an outbreak of tetanus, which created lockjaw in their population. The elders removed young people’s teeth in order to force them to eat.
Even after the outbreak was over, though, the tribe continued to engage in this ritual. Says Emdin, “The ripping out of teeth is like the extraction of culture,” which our schools do in order “to give kids some knowledge.”
Instead, he suggests that schools embrace black culture — he takes teachers to visit barber shops and black churches and to listen to rap music — in order to learn how to communicate with these children. He decries the young white people teaching urban youth as having a “savior mentality” reminiscent of “colonialism” and tells them, quoting A Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from here.”
And yet, these students’ schools have repeatedly failed to give them the most basic tools they need to survive in 21st century America — despite the fact that these schools have plenty of minority teachers.
Emdin, whose book last year “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too,” was a New York Times Best Seller and who has been the subject of glowing profiles on PBS and in The Washington Post (among other outlets) has been making the rounds.
Indeed, those of a certain age will remember the Ebonics craze of a couple of decades ago. In 1996, the Oakland, Calif., school board passed a resolution mandating some instruction in what is essentially vernacular black English, both for “maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language . . . and to facilitate [the] acquisition and mastery of English language skills” by black students.
As John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia, says: “People have called for education of poor black kids to reflect their culture for 50 years and none of it has made a bit of difference.” Emdin doesn’t seem to have much evidence that his methods work, and, “only because he’s ‘authentic’ does nobody ask why.”
The truth is pretty simple. The black-white achievement gap hasn’t changed much in 50 years. The only thing that has significantly improved outcomes for minority kids in urban environments in recent years are high-performing charter schools like Success Academy.
On the 2015 state exams, for example, 93 percent of black students at Success schools passed the math exam, versus just 20 percent of black students citywide. In English, 81 percent of black students at Success passed versus 27 percent for the rest of the city.
But Emdin is unfazed. He argues that the things that will allow black kids to succeed are different than the things that allow other groups to succeed. As if encouraging them to speak nonstandard English or to rap instead of studying will help them go to college and earn a living.
If this isn’t the soft bigotry of low expectations, I don’t know what is.
As Chester Finn, former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, notes, Emdin’s theories are “cultural relativism of the worst sort and antithetical to everything [we know] about the kind of education that enables poor minority kids to succeed in life.”
Indeed, it’s more than a little ironic that, to show how we have devalued black culture, Emdin compares white teachers’ actions to brutal primitive rituals from Africa. Maybe not all culture should be valued the same after all.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.