The Schott Foundation for Public Education recently released some very disturbing information on the high school graduation rates for young African American men. In a sentence, the headline was that less than 50% of young black men graduate from high school setting off a fresh round of questions about race, opportunity, school performance, economics and individual responsibility. While all of these are areas that deserve discussion and the finger of blame can fairly be pointed in many directions, I recently read a book which, I think contributes much to the discussion. The book is the The Other Wes Moore: One Name Two Fates and it tells the story of two young African American men who lived briefly in the same neighborhood in Baltimore-- but grew up to live vastly different lives.
You might have seen Wes Moore the author on Oprah talking about his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar, decorated Afghanistan veteran and White House fellow. The man who shares his name is serving a life sentence for his role in the murder of a Baltimore police officer. Both men had their share of troubles as boys--and both had scrapes with the law. Both were largely unmotivated in school, and both were raised by their mothers. But it is there that the similarities end, because although both grew up without fathers the reasons behind their fathers absences were very different.
One Wes Moore's parents were married; his father died when he was very small. When the difficulty of raising her family alone became too much, one Wes Moore's mother moved the family to New York City and into the home of her parents, who offered the boy additional family support and stability while she worked several jobs to send him to private school. Even more, when it became clear that "street life" might engulf young Wes, his grandparents mortgaged their home to help his mother send him to a military high school. He graduated.
Meanwhile, the other Wes Moore's mother and father never married. The boy met his father only a couple of times: both times the man was violent and drunk. His mother had little to no family support--she had fled her own abusive family situation at a young age. His mother had little education and often worked multiple jobs just to pay the rent, but she did her best to remove Wes from an environment where she knew his options would be limited. Still Wes sold drugs, became a father himself at 16 and struggled to break free of the lure of the street. He dropped out of high school.
It's easy to determine which Wes Moore is which. The differences of family support and financial resources-- and the options they provide--make it easy enough to predict which Wes Moore becomes a Rhodes scholar and which ends up in jail. But Wes the felon offered an important distinction on the fatherlessness of the two boys and the impact it had on his life. He said to Wes the author during a prison interview: "Your father wasn't there because he couldn't be. Mine wasn't there because he didn't want to be."
In addition to economics, environment and a system that seems to prefer incarceration over education, there is something to be said for the link between family composition and school performance. Numerous studies have shown again and again that children do best with two parents--whether those parents are two mothers, two fathers or a mother and a father-- regardless of the race of the child. It also helps that the parents were married-- even if they don't stay that way. Once again, this is true regardless of the race of the child, or the parents. The commitment of marriage brings a benefit for children--not only in resources but in self-perception. Those findings have called into question not only families like Wes the felon's who are headed by a single female by default, but also those of single women who opt to get pregnant by sperm donor, too. A parent who is absent by choice tells kids something about their value that they take with them into other areas of their lives-- not the least of which is the classroom.
Family composition certainly isn't the only factor that contributes to the alarming drop out rate of African American young men-- but it is a factor. Family is the foundation of our lives. As we go about the process of trying to solve some of our culture's most complex problems, it makes makes sense that we spend at least a little inquiry on family structure, on the impact of out of wedlock births, and on the importance of fathers to their sons and daughters--before branching out to the responsibility of our culture at large.
There's a movement afoot to change the mindset about the acceptability of out of wedlock births called "No Wedding No Womb"... and I'll be talking more about it in the weeks to come. In the meantime, if you haven't already, pick up The Other Wes Moore. It's an interesting story with much to teach us.