The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the founders of Black History Month, held its 91st annual Black History Month luncheon on Feb. 26 at the Renaissance Hotel in Northwest D.C. The event celebrated the accomplishments of Blacks, and began to challenge systemic disparities in Black education.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn tells participants at the ASALH luncheon Feb. 26 that Blacks need to stand together to fight academic injustice. (Photo by Rob Roberts)

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn tells participants at the ASALH luncheon Feb. 26 that Blacks need to stand together to fight academic injustice. (Photo by Rob Roberts)

With an overflow crowd of guests, ASLALH national president Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham said 2017 theme, “The Crisis in Black Education,” was most relevant in the wake of Betsy DeVos being named Secretary of Education and continued racial inequality across all levels of Black education.

“Current litigation and newspaper coverage call attention to not only unequal resources, but also incidents of racial prejudice in urban public schools. These problems are multiple and varied in nature,” Higginbotham said. “The lack of resources in inner city schools, the pipeline-to-prison reality for many youths, the summer-learning gap, the too-often placement of Black male children in special education classes, the severe financial challenges in many historically Black colleges and universities, and not least of all the failure to teach correctly, if at all, the experiences as well as contributions of African Americans to this nation, are all among those problems.”

Many luncheon goers voiced particular concern about the national trend that funnels large numbers of Black children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems – known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services, participants said.

Howard University graduate student Lawrence Mayfield, who attended the luncheon with colleagues from the school’s history and social work departments, told the AFRO that the “zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, and are probably more detrimental to Blacks students in 2017 than lack of access was in 1917.

“These young people in many instances are not being treated as human beings at all – when someone is interpreting your behavior, your deportment, your inability to sit still or focus on a behavior problem and calling for it to be counted as a criminal act,” Mayfield said. “We have to go back in and teach parents how to advocate on behalf of their children and hold all elected officials in districts where this is happening, accountable to the point of replacing them when necessary.”

Mayfield echoed the sentiments of ASALH luncheon keynote speaker U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, (D-S.C.), who offered an impassioned directive to attendees to fight always against the rising tide of academic injustice.  “We’ve had a crisis in Black education ever since education and blackness were lined up together. But even in a time of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois there were different beliefs about how to address that crisis. Washington and DuBois did not agree on the best form of education, but they both adapted their surroundings,”

Clyburn told the audience.

Clyburn stressed that because the crisis in Black education began during slavery with restrictions on reading and writing for the enslaved, it was imperative that each person use the tools at hand individually to fight a collective problem.

“Your importance to society depends on what time it is; it depends upon what crisis it is that visits our communities or our families. I don’t think DuBois or Washington were at all far apart in their desires for Black people. They were facing different types of crises and both rose up to challenge them,” Clyburn said. “The question is ‘what’s in your portfolio that will help you fight and face the challenges we have today.”