Point of View: Op-Ed Articles

Stop the Black-Only Treatment

By Michael Meyers
Friday, May 26 2006

I’m sorry to report that 52 years after Brown v. Board of Education, separate but equal is all the rage in certain parts of the education world — especially on college campuses where special programs are offered that target minority students for “special” and separate attention, counseling, mentoring, tutoring, residences and instruction.

The latest of these race fads are the Black Male Initiatives (BMIs), government-funded and university-sponsored, and underway on campuses in states including Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The initiatives focus on recruiting, schooling and “saving” black men.

Until recently, when the New York Civil Rights Coalition filed a complaint against the City University of New York, these special programs were unassailable. But more and more they are being shown to feature new variants of an old prejudice. This has included stereotyping all black male students as “at risk,” and, for example, running special classes only for black men at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College. This special instruction focused on black men’s alleged deficiencies and their need to act more responsibly in order to reclaim their traditional patriarchal roles as leaders in the black community and of the so-called black race. A tenet of the program at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College is to provide black men with special tutoring, career services and academic advice. Until caught, CUNY’s Hunter College invited only black male students to a planning conference on its BMI.

Many black leaders in and outside academia seem to have no objection to these figurative black-only signs over certain doorways at America’s colleges. Not surprisingly, this racial identity ferment — aka self-determination — is proudly endorsed by white liberals disturbed by the dwindling numbers of black men on campus, as well as by many black female students for whom interracial dating is either taboo or impracticable.

Hence, college presidents are listening to their black students and to their officials for diversity and affirmative action or minority affairs, and they are setting up BMIs as a way of making life on campus more comfortable for black students. And black faculty have a new source of grants to apply for, from foundations that urge the study of the black male problem and experimentation with intervention techniques. No educator rebukes such offerings with the hard, nonstatistical truth that there is no such thing as “the black male,” just as there never was such a thing as “the Negro.”

While not all BMIs look alike, they’re typically designed with an Afrocentric, male-domination focus, replete with outreach and links to black men’s fraternal, community and pride organizations. Through emphasis on racial pride and “black male identity,” black male students are encouraged, as at Medgar Evers College, to think about the status and future of the race: “The people in the village are many but the warriors are few and are now scattered; thus, leaving the borders unprotected and us as easy prey for the enemy,” according to the director of the college’s Male Development and Empowerment Center. Racial breast beating is a powerful ingredient in winning and securing support for such separatist programming.

Some BMIs are open to all students, for legal reasons. But the nomenclature shows a mission of serving and rescuing “at risk” black men from their alleged self-destructive behavior and from the afflictions of their environment. Only legal curmudgeons, it seems, would stand in the way of college as parent and social engineer, full of missionary zeal to bring rehabilitation and redemption to the wretched, conflicted souls of black men.

When the college takes on such tasks it is only confirming and reinforcing pernicious racial stereotypes. The penchant to isolate, track and segregate black men is a deeply offensive and nasty American social habit, and programs that parrot and mirror such group prejudices are as crude as they are paternalistic. Indeed, schools treating black men separately and differently from all others of similar age and qualification is exactly what federal Judge Robert L. Carter cautioned against in his indictment of proposals for public schools for African American boys. “The advocates of this panacea place no blame on the public school system,” Carter said, but black males “are stigmatized and must be isolated from others in order to develop into productive adults.”

The psychologist Kenneth Clark, who was my mentor and whose research did so much to bring about Brown, steered his colleagues on the New York State Board of Regents away from state-sponsored racial thinking. He persuaded them in 1972 to declare as policy that college officials were to avoid “any practices which would perpetuate a caste system in which groups are placed in certain stereotyped positions with little regard for the needs and desires of the individual.” That policy continued: “Racist patterns of segregation can lead only to blocked communications, with a resultant social climate that is close and tense, if not hostile. Moreover, the de facto segregation of a minority group, even if demanded by that group, often results in peer pressure on individuals which may lead to intragroup hostility.”

Dr. Clark died just last year, by which time the regents had long since abandoned the wisdom in that policy.

The writer, a former assistant national director of the NAACP, is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.