Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

On minorities in higher education in the United States

John Randall

Professor John Randall of the Department of Mathematics at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, reacts to an article on American education by Prof Dorothy Smith of the History Department of Dillard University, New Orleans, USA
Before we begin to discuss White racism and its effects, before we begin to discuss positions which are racist, even though they are held by those who are not White, we must establish certain universal truths.

As we like to say in America: THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH. For those readers who are not students of American history, there was a time when one could be enticed by a sign advertising FREE LUNCH, provided that one bought a beer for the usual price. (Since we are discussing history, I won't dwell on the price, which would have been about 5p!). Of course, the lunch was not free, its cost being included in the money spent for the brew. Many people, happy in their cleverness at having eaten a free lunch, are reported to have drunk a second beer.

The need for hard work, self-sacrifice and dedication has nothing to do with Race. It is not even restricted to those who subscribe to the "Protestant" Ethic. It is the Human Condition that one must sing for or otherwise earn one's dinner. This is true in the First, Second and Third Worlds. Every market "mammy" in Africa knows that she didn't gain what she has by sitting in the sun waiting for good things to fall into her hand.

Now let me turn the discussion, as promised, to education. Let me state for the record, that I am a White professor of Mathematics and Computer Science and that Clare, a nursing student is Black - an Asante from Ghana as it happens. This statement should not matter, as I am discussing the Human Condition, irrespective of Race; but I write from a country in which Racism perseveres in many forms, among many peoples.

Clare is not the actual name of the student, I have borrowed the name from my grandmother and I am quite sure that she would approve. Clare attended school in Ghana, but had to leave it before completing Primary School. She came to the US seeking, if not the golden fleece, at least a better life. You may know this common story- she had a boyfriend, she made a life for him working, cleaning toilets.

You may know what happened next - they broke up. She had no idea of going to school. Her boyfriend, enjoying the money, didn't push her that way. But now, on her own, she thought of herself, her future. Clare went to the free High School classes and passed the exam. A graduate.

Her next step: she entered college. A common pattern throughout the United States is that anyone with a High School Diploma may enter college. This is the Hope of the American Dream. Another common pattern is that many of those who enter college do not graduate. This is the Failure of the American Dream (for some). I, the professor, am in the middle of these patterns.

Many students, particularly those who are minority, receive bad advice. Clare was fortunate. Her advisor, a Black professor of Biology, told her to struggle through a college level Biology course on her way to becoming a nurse. Many who entered with her, whether they wasted time as the result of bad advice, they wished an easy time or whatever, will spend a year in remedial biology before progressing to the struggles through College Biology which Clare is now completing.

Let me interject here that remedial work is quite popular in American colleges. Students learn less, more slowly. This is often appropriate for the students and allows them to build self-esteem and develop study skills while easing the transition to college level work. Often it becomes a trap. Students are expected to perform poorly and do so.

An intellectual "ghetto" is formed which students are happy to stay within, given the rigours of the outside world. Although many students in this "ghetto" are minority, it is no Race per se which consigns them to it. Students who cannot write well, students who do not know how to talk and actively participate in class, students who do not know that they must also work outside of class, these are the intellectually handicapped.

I use the word handicapped, because last week I attended a lecture by a visually-handicapped Professor of Computer Science. She was discussing higher education for the handicapped and explicating what professors NEED NOT do for the handicapped. She explained that blind students should have solved the problem of how to "read" by themselves before coming to class.

Many more details and examples were given but the important point that I carried away with me was that we the professors have things to say about, say, Computer Science. It is the obligation of the student to solve problems such as how and where to study, how to obtain and read the textbook, how to complete an essay and so forth. There is no element of Race which is relevant here. The African market "mammy" can understand me. THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH.

Clare, pursuing Nursing, was forced to take my remedial course in Algebra in her Freshman year. She complained that I went too fast. Her fellow students complained that I went too fast. She failed the first examination, as did many of her colleagues. Handicapped by her background, but not by her Race, she asked for help. Personally tutored by me and using the college's varied services provided by student aides she improved.

My advice to her was to ignore those around her. Every student has a story. Many of them would fail the course, tell their story and be retelling their story even after she had become a nurse. Two months later, Clare scored the highest mark on an examination in my class. I advised her to work less on Maths, and more on Biology. She has recently written a perfect exam in Biology.

Clare's true story is an example. I ask myself which students, as a group, do best in my college. The answer has much to do with background, something to do with socio-economic class and religious belief, but nothing to do with Race per se.

Pentacostal Christians, the kind who carry small Testaments to distribute, do quite well, as do Black Muslims. Dedication, self-sacrifice, self- discipline - these help humans progress in any society,

class of the student has effect, it may be that they would have gone to college in the normal course of events in their country of birth. There are also questions of self-esteem and of the dreams of a student's parents. Many students pursue education in the United States where it is essentially free whereas there was no chance of their being able to afford it at home.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, foreign students are not a random sample. Often they came to this country to study (remember Clare did not) and so they should do better. My response is that the chance is there, and people who are from overseas may be more able to see it. They are less distracted by the fears of those who are paralyzed by the thought that America is a racist society.

Racism persists. The discriminatory effects of racism, past and present, are magnified in the lives of those who keep looking for the doors marked "coloured" so that they can complain about them. Some people go through doors which others would see as marked "White". Not "seeing" the labels nor listening to the demonstrators of racism, they walk right through and for them the American Dream is possible.

The second thought that occurred to me is the memory of the newspaper reports of the 1970 census and the 1980 census. It seems that the average family income of people from the Caribbean is higher than the average family income of White Americans. One may say that immigrants are younger and that younger people tend to have higher incomes; one may say tha Caribbean immigrants tend to have more than one member of their family working. The important point is that in this racist society, there is a chance for those who see it, want it, take it work for it.


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