tl;dr: Introducing the Black Male Achievement Gap

Disclaimer: I am a white female who comes from an upper middle class family. I live in one of the whitest cities in the country, and I used to live in one of the worst states for African Americans to live in. I recognize that I am approaching this topic from a position of privilege, and that a discussion of race from my perspective is not without holes. So I want to say that my goal here is not to act as an educator, but instead recommend videos and articles that have helped me to understand the presence and affects of racism in this country. I hope they do the same for you. 

The effects of institutionalized racism are reflected most starkly in our education and criminal justice systems. Today, I want to discuss the American education system and the black male achievement gap by recommending the documentary film American Promise, and a number of accompanying resources.

One of POV‘s services is to lend out DVDs of its films to schools, libraries, and community organizations for free. Its Community Lending Library features approximately 80 films on a variety of topics; from uplifting stories about donkey libraries to examinations of genocide. Its most commonly requested film to date is American Promise. This film follows two young African American males over the course of 13 years, from kindergarten to their high school graduations. The filmmakers watch as their son, Idris, and his friend Seun grow up in the academically and socially challenging environment of the Dalton School, one of the most prestigious–historically white–private schools in New York. The film brings to light provocative questions about race, class, gender, and differences in opportunity in our country.

American Promise is available to watch on Netflix.*

If you don’t have time to watch the full film, I would strongly recommend watching the half-hour long Behind Every Promise, which includes excerpts from the film alongside interviews with Idris and Seun.

American Promise introduces viewers to the phrase “black male achievement gap“–referring to the phenomenon in the United States wherein African American males, even when given the same educational and economic resources as their peers of other races, are likely to fall short of their counterparts in virtually every measure of academic success.

For example:

  • Across age groups, black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended.
  • While boys make up the large majority of students who are suspended (about eight in 10), about 12 percent of black girls are suspended and 7 percent of Native American girls are suspended. That’s a rate higher than that of white boys (6 percent).
  • Currently, only 15% of black students attend schools that are well-resourced and high performing, while 42% attend schools that are both under-resourced and performing poorly
  • Only 16% of black males hold college degrees, compared to 32% of white males.
  • In 2009, 4.8% of black students dropped out of grades 10 through 12, compared to 2.4% of white students.

For more statistics, visit:

Black Preschoolers Far More Likely to Be Suspended 

American Promise in Context 

Dear Colleague Letter: Resource Comparability 

The above statistics, and the anecdotal evidence of American Promise, make it impossible to ignore the reality that young people of color lack access to the same opportunities as their white peers in our country.

Something interesting to note, is that in schools where this achievement gap is markedly smaller, administrations report classroom characteristics that should be obvious when considering how to support student achievement:

  • A clear sense of purpose
  • Core standards within a rigorous curriculum
  • High expectations
  • Commitment to educate all students
  • Safe and orderly learning environment
  • Strong partnerships with parents
  • A problem solving attitude

I’m not here to propose solutions to this problem–I don’t have the qualifications to make the attempt. But I do know that one of the first steps to solving any problem is recognizing that it exists. Educate yourself. Watch the film. Read articles regarding race, African American and Hispanic youth, and the American education system with a critical eye. And if you do choose to take action, I would strongly recommend checking out the following organizations and movements:

America’s Promise Alliance: America’s Promise Alliance brings together hundreds of national nonprofits, businesses, communities, educators and ordinary citizens in support of making the promise of America accessible to all young people. America’s Promise Alliance frames its work around what they call the “Five Promises” to be kept to all young people: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education, and opportunities to serve.

The GradNation Campaign: America’s Promise Alliance launched the GradNation campaign in 2010. It is now a large and growing online community of dedicated individuals, organizations and communities working together to end America’s dropout crisis.

American Graduate: Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, American Graduate has partnered 80 public media stations with 1,000 community organizations and at-risk schools to increase understanding of all facets of high school dropout rates, including the important role that caring adults play in the lives of young people.

Finally, some additional resources:

American Promise Overview

American Promise companion book, Promises Kept.

American Promise Workshops and Toolkits

The Trouble with Black Boys: The Role and Influence of Environmental and Cultural Factors on the Academic Performance of African American Males 

How School Segregation Divides Ferguson–and the United States

These resources are limited to what I have come across through my work with POV and independent research. If you have your own resources or films to recommend, let me know in the comments!

*If you are interested in screening American Promise for any kind of public event, you’re going to face copyright issues if you use Netflix. Check out the Community Network at POV and see if you can borrow the film for free (if you are screening the film at a university, college, or private school, you have to buy the film).


1 thought on “tl;dr: Introducing the Black Male Achievement Gap

  1. I think you’ll like this poem from Malcolm London. “I hear education systems are failing, but I believe they are succeeding at what they’re built to do…”


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