Understanding Obama's African American Education Commission

President Barack Obama Signing Executive Order.

On Thursday July 26, 2012 President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order creating the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans. The initiative creates a commission that is tasked with monitoring and improving the educational performance of African American students. At its best, Obama’s creation of this commission is groundbreaking and signals the start of a national commitment to the educational needs of Black children. At its worst, this could be a political hat tip but provide little force in shifting the trajectory of Black education. What will be the deciding factor between these two? You will be.

The creation of the commission should come as no surprise with the 2012 Election campaign in full swing. This is not to suggest that this is simply political pandering by Obama, rather I’m suggesting that the president knows keeping the African American electorate on his side is essential. With political stumping in full session, the NAACP National Convention and the National Urban League meetings having just passed, Obama must answer the call of constituents. While his 2009 campaign was described as “wink” to the Black electorate, several prominent commentators ranging from poets to preachers have questioned Obama’s investment in the uplift of the Black community. Fredrick Harris, Columbia University professor and author of The Price of the Ticket, argues that Obama has stepped back over time from directly addressing racial inequality and emphasized race-neutrality instead, which subsequently has weakened the fabric of Black politics and left the needs of many Black people unmet.

While not all agree with the critiques about the willingness of Barack Obama to target the needs of the Black community, this initiative, importantly, carries the name of African Americans. The commission is tasked with affecting the educational opportunities and skills of children from the time they enter school until they graduate from college, which is an ambitious range. Freeman Hrabowski III, President of University of Maryland Baltimore County, will chair the advisory commission and will include up to twenty-five appointed advisors including two representatives from the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

However, this type of initiative is not new. The first President to create such an education and ethnically targeted initiative was George H.W. Bush in 1990, when he created the Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. For 22 years, this commission has been in operation under various presidents and its work has largely meant the production of reports on the educational opportunity of Latino children and a parroting of the Department of Education’s agenda. While reporting on disparities is important, unless these reports are able to shift the national conversation on education as well as force federal education policy to change, the value of these commissions is limited.  For this reason, my hopes for the Commission on African American Education Excellence are tempered.

If this new initiative is going to have influence on the lives of Black children and adults, it needs to be more than a mouthpiece for the Department of Education. It must recognize the goals of the Department but simultaneously challenge the Department to directly address the struggling educational condition of Black people. With debates heating up on charter schools, the achievement gap, privatization, school segregation, single-sex schools, high-stakes testing, affirmative action, high school completion and college readiness the educational landscape is ripe for change. At this moment, there is more concern and innovation happening around Black education now than there has been ever before which is promising. These innovations are still very tied into politics, ideologies and power, which we cannot afford to bog down the Commission. As citizens, we must make sure the Advisory Commission understands the variety of different perspectives within the Black community on education, but never loses sight of the goal of educating all Black children excellently.

Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website.