What Are the Real Risk Factors for African American Children?

Article excerpt

WE HEAR and see the terms "high risk," "at risk," and "risk factor" frequently these days, and most of the time they appear in combination with the terms "African American," "minority," or "low income." They often come up in discussions of educational failure, functional illiteracy, unskilled workers, the unemployed, the homeless, delinquency, and criminality. The frequent association of these words has produced a situation in which "risk" is a veritable synonym for minority racial identification, particularly African American, and "at risk" is a presumed personal attribute of African American children. Many people, including the educators whose job it is to teach these children, make this assumption. Very few think about the possibility that "risk" can be an attribute of an environment. In fact, the concept of "risk" is derived from the field of epidemiology, in which the original quest was the identification of pathogens in environments where diseases prevailed. The starting point for this article is a call to put to rest the specter of African American children as "at risk," as budding disasters. I challenge educators to look closely at the environment created by the schooling process to which African American children are subjected as an important source of risk for the poor developmental outcomes that many of these children suffer. I focus on presecondary schooling because I think that most people believe that young children are clearly more dependent on the adults around them than on themselves to determine the characteristics of the setting in which they are compelled to spend time. There is less agreement about this situation for older youths. I focus on African American children rather than all minority children because there is more research on risk factors for this group. I will address the question posed in the title of this article by reviewing research from several fields of study that I think educators should ponder.

African American children are more segregated in the schools they attend than any other racial or ethnic group.1 In spite of federal initiatives undertaken in the 1960s to enforce desegregation as decreed by the 1954 Brown decision, African Americans of all income backgrounds are schooled in highly segregated settings, largely because of residential segregation. The extensiveness of this segregation has led demographers to conclude that a system of "American apartheid" exists, with the result of diminished educational opportunities for African Americans of all socioeconomic levels.2 However, one important legacy of the federal effort to end segregation is a collection of data on school systems under pressure to desegregate. Close scrutiny of these data can provide profiles of the schooling experience of African American children, as three political scientists have shown.

Kenneth Meier, Joseph Stewart, and Robert England studied data submitted to the federal Office for Civil Rights for the period 1971 through 1986.3 The data covered all medium- and large-sized school districts with 1% or more African American enrollment. The researchers examined a number of aspects of schooling in terms of race, including several indicators of how students were treated, such as disciplinary and grouping practices. They found that African Americans had higher rates of assignment to classes for the mentally retarded than did European Americans and lower rates of assignment to classes for the gifted, as most educators know. African Americans were also suspended and expelled more frequently, as most educators know but infrequently discuss.

However, the researchers also found higher rates of corporal punishment for African Americans, which is a fact that many educators and most members of the general public may not know. Specifically, they found that African Americans & relative to their numbers in the general student population & were overrepresented by from 74% to 86% among those to whom corporal punishment was administered, depending on the year in the period covered by their analyses. …