Because this is apparently a week that involves a lot of me lowering my head slowly and deliberately to my desk a la Peggy Olson, First Lady Michelle Obama decided to trot out some very old talking points in her commencement address to the 2013 graduating class at Bowie State University:
“Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours, playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper,” Obama continued. “Right now, one in three African American students are dropping out of high school, only one in five African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 has gotten a college degree.”
But priorities should change, she said, because “getting an education is as important if not more important than it was back when this university was founded.”
While those statistics are absolutely worrisome, I’m pretty sure that the challenges of preparing a competitive resume, getting equal access to standardized test prep, navigating the admissions process, and managing the cost of financial aid are also relevant issues to this conversation. Some of those barriers have been priorities for her husband’s administration. Mrs. Obama acknowledged the odds that a number of the graduates faced to get to and complete their educations Bowie State, though she focused on the cost of tuition and difficult family situations more than other structural issues that might affect students’ abilities to get access to a college education. And she framed their success as a matter of personal will and determination. I can also see why she might have wanted to continue a conversation of long standing within African-American communities given the setting, and as part of her larger, and important historical lesson about the obstacles that black students have faced to get educated in America.
But this particular talking point, which both Mrs. Obama and the President use relatively frequently, could do more to address the structural elements that prop up a culture that values athletics over academics. Personal motivations may be a problem, but the massive public investment in college athletic facilities, the fact that coaches are some states highest-paid public employees, and the allocation of both scholarship money and admissions spots to athletes who are unlikely to complete their academic degrees before entering professional drafts. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to dismantle “the slander that a black child with a book is trying to act white,” but I’m not sure the fantasy career aspirations of black children are the only, or even the main thing, at issue here.
And if we’re going to talk personal motivations, wanting to be “a baller or a rapper” is not a dream that’s solely the property of African-Americans. America has three major televised singing competitions right now, American Idol, The Voice, and X-Factor, all of which promise that it’s possible to rise from anonymity to remarkable fame and a career in music, and the first of which actually became notorious for airing auditions of people who had neither the skills to realistically pursue their aspirations, nor the self-knowledge to recognize the gap between their abilities and their ambitions. Participation is hardly limited to African-American singers by design or choice. There are plenty of white folks who hope to make it big in the manner of Taylor Swift in the same way African-American boys might be dreaming of growing up to become Jay-Z.
The same is more true for sports than Mrs. Obama’s remarks would suggest. In Division I men’s basketball, 1,443, or 27 percent, of the 5,265 players who participated in the 2011-2012 season were white, while 3,158, or 59 percent were African-American. During that same season, in Division I baseball, the figures were most striking. 8,304, or 82 percent of the 10,093 players, were white that season. Clearly, in the college athletic programs that feed into careers in professional sports, there’s a great deal of white interest and participation, even if it isn’t evenly distributed by sport. Miami Heat star LeBron James may be an argument for skipping college in pursuit of a professional athletic career right out of high school, but so is Washington Nationals left-fielder Bryce Harper, who earned a GED and didn’t even finish high school in a classroom setting, all so he could focus on baseball instead, even though the idea that any ordinary person could emulate either of their paths is equally improbable.
The difference, then, might not be between the wildest dreams African-American and white prospective college students harbor in their hearts, but the risks and costs associated with pursuing them. The black-white wealth gap that has expanded dramatically over the last quarter century means both that there are fewer African-American families who can, as Serena and Venus Williams’ father, and as Bryce Harper’s parents did, did, devote the resources into turning their children into professional athletes—and who have the resources to get their children back on an academic path if those efforts fail. It may be easier to call for African-American students and their families to put aside unrealistic dreams in a commencement address than it would be to address the entire architecture of inequality that makes pursuing such dreams a riskier proposition for African-American families than white ones, just as pursuing a basic education once was. But building what Mrs. Obama called “an even better future for the next generation of graduates from this fine school and for all of the children in this country,” means building the right to dream big, and to fail and to find a new path, not just to walk the straight and narrow one.