Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment. – US Department of Education (1993)
Discrimination against the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States is a cradle-to-(all-too-early) grave affair. Black infant mortality is higher than White, Black school readiness is lower, as are Black levels of educational attainment. Black incomes are lower at equivalent levels of education, Black wealth is for all intents and purposes non-existent. Black life-spans are shorter than those of White Americans and Black incarceration rates are unspeakably higher. In every case these outcomes are the personal responsibility of those who have the power to change the circumstances, rules and policies, leading to them.
American public education has always been and continues to remain one of the most powerful instruments for racial discrimination. Schools that have predominate Black enrollments are underfunded in comparison both to schools predominately attended by White children as well as in comparison to their needs. Gifted and Talented programs are an example of how this diversion of resources is accomplished. Special programs for children designated as gifted and talented receive superior resources and prestige. They are also discriminatory on their face.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights 2009 report (the latest available) 12 percent of Asian children in public schools are enrolled in Gifted and Talented programs, as are eight percent of White, non-Hispanic children. Just five percent of Latino children receive that special treatment, as do just four percent of Black children. That’s half the proportion of White non-Hispanic children; a third of the proportion of Asian children. These numbers were essentially the same as in reports from the National Center for Education Statistics in 2004 and 2006.
What accounts for these variations in the percentage of children allowed to take advantage of the superior resources of Gifted and Talented programs? The difference between the proportions of Latino, Asian and White gifted and talented students is a powerful counter argument to racist explanations. After all, none of these categories is homogeneous. Latino or Hispanic, who, as the Bureau of the Census reminds us, may be of any race, are distinguished only by national origin, which may be remote. The category of “Asian” is utterly useless as a basis for analysis, comprising Han Chinese and Turks, Tamils and Tibetans. And “White, non-Hispanic” is simply a residual category, about the same as “Other,” including the descendants of many immigrants once considered racially inferior, such as southern and eastern Europeans. So it is with Black Americans, who also may be of any “race,” descended not only from enslaved Africans, but also from their White enslavers, Latinos, and American Indians.
The racial and ethnic explanation for the gross under-representation of Black children in Gifted and Talented programs fails unless the “one drop” of blood once defining membership in the caste is taken to carry with it overwhelming genetic disadvantages, something it is doubtful any responsible scholar would wish to argue in the twenty-first century.
The most reasonable explanation seems to lie instead in the classification system and procedures themselves — especially in light of evidence, including recent results for Black and Latino students when they take Advanced Placement courses. As with the fundamental Texas study of school discipline, along with research on special education, this would point to something other than the performance and potential of children, to the prejudices of adults, expressed if not in so many words but in actions: the action of classifying twice as many White and three times as many Asian students as gifted or talented as Black children. When this happens repeatedly, when this happens year in and year out, it is only reasonable to assume that it is being done deliberately. Otherwise, the responsible adults—teachers, counselors, school and district administrators—would look at the data, notice the problem, and correct the procedures and policies responsible for this form of discrimination.
They do not.
Although there are perhaps twenty times as many children enrolled in Gifted and Talented programs, nation-wide, as it so-called “exam schools,” the latter are highly visible. Arguably the most visible is Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a subject of earlier discussions on these pages.
This is a large school, enrolling 3,300 students. It is housed in a new, state-of-the-art facility near the World Trade Center. It epitomizes the advantages of Gifted and Talented programs and their ilk. It also epitomizes their discriminatory character. Twenty-two percent of Stuyvesant’s students are White, 73 percent are Asian (who may be of any racial group), two percent are Latino and one percent, perhaps 33 individuals, are Black. Last year one percent of Stuyvesant’s students were Black and 2 percent were Latino. The previous year one percent of Stuyvesant’s students were Black . . . and so forth.
Every few years the media notices the racist outcomes of the admission process to Stuyvesant and other specialized “exam” schools. Various reasonable proposals for change are identified, such as admitting, say, one percent, of the top students from each middle school. But it always seems terribly difficult and the system is left unaltered.
Left unaltered by whom? Not by some vaguely indicated “government officials,” but by very specific individuals who are responsible for maintaining these racist outcomes: the Governor of New York; the leaders of the legislature; the Mayor of New York City; the chancellors of the State and City Departments of Education. They, and their equivalents in other cities and states, fail to reform Gifted and Talented programs, of which Stuyvesant is perhaps only one of the most egregious examples, and failing to do so contribute to maintaining educational Jim Crow.
Featured photo of Stuyvesant High School courtesy of the New York Post.