Finally today, another of my sad but true stories. A while back I was working on a lengthy television documentary with a colleague who was a very experienced producer, a veteran of many lengthy and complicated projects; in other words: she knew what she was doing. We had gotten to the final edit stage of a project where we were going back over a story that had been huge news at one point, but about which there had been a lot of misinformation, and one of the things we were trying to do with our piece was correct the record.
Well, for some reason one of the other producers assigned to help us get on the air kept putting a line in the script that we knew from our reporting was not true. We kept taking it out — and she kept putting it back in — and finally my colleague said to her, "Look, do you want the truth or do you just like your story better?"
Can I Just Tell You? This is what comes to mind often as I see stories in the news and I hear people opining about them and repeating things which even a little bit of effort would show that what they are saying is not true.
I was also thinking about this because I came across some refreshing new research by Howard University psychology professor Ivory Toldson. He is currently working on a White House initiative about Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Toldson is very interested in the whole question of academic success among school-aged black males and one of his projects is debunking what he says is the myth that black boys don't care about education.
He says, in a piece reported last week in The Washington Post, that research on black boys in Washington, D.C., suggests that their desire to go beyond high school actually exceeds that of white males. He also wrote, in a lengthy piece for the online publication The Root that, "the often stated notion that more than half of black males drop out, or do not graduate, is not true." He says that this number does not account for boys who graduate early, or late, or transfer schools, or obtain a GED, and all of that complicates the overall picture.
But Toldson had another point which was this: This representation of a crisis scenario too often leads to extreme and unhelpful solutions, including a dumbing down of the kinds of educational opportunities that are often directed to blacks boys, not to mention an ongoing stigma that even the most motivated and excellent students have to fight. He says this refusal to look at the data closely — to prefer a story over the facts — creates more problems than it solves.
Now of course there are those who quarrel with Toldson's view of what is true — and they did so in the comments section of The Root's piece. But it was telling to me how many revert to the "everybody knows this about that argument" and didn't bother to take seriously the question of whether the way we talk about black boys is itself part of the problem.
Professor Toldson has sparked controversy before for being too concerned about stigma and less about substance — for example he suggests that the low marriage rates among African-Americans have more to do with the high cost of housing and wage stagnation in the cities where blacks tend to live than it does with any cultural aversion to marriage — but it is worth noting how often stigma, or stereotypes, do affect substance, and in fact create substance. Recently, for example, we've been learning more and talking about the effects of stereotypes on other groups like women and Asian-Americans — for example, women are often presumed to lack technical or math skill even when they have it, and Asians are often presumed to have technical skills even when they don't. It doesn't take a genius to see how these attitudes can distort opportunities for some and unfairly advantage others, and how even an advantage at one point in life can become an albatross at a different one, like when we look for example at why some people are considered leaders and others are not.
Still, it seems to me that people like Professor Toldson who desire to shed new light on old issues should be applauded. So a good question to ask as this school year winds down and we begin to plan for another one is, are we really interested in tapping everyone's full potential in our schools and work places, or do we just like our story better?
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