The recent release of the Steve James documentary, America to Me, a film about race and the achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School, has provoked a great deal of community handwringing these last four weeks.

Oak Park prides itself, deservedly so, on being a model of racial integration. The cause of the angst is the revelation that although the OPRF student body is 56% white and 44% students of color, the gap between the scores on achievement tests between the first and second cohorts is not only disturbingly wide but getting wider. Equal access, apparently, has not resulted in equal outcomes. To be fair, our own school district, District 91, faces the same issues.

Reactions to the disturbing data have included a gamut of opinions as to the cause and an accompanying abundance of blaming. Conversations in coffee shops and letters to the editor in Wednesday Journal assign blame for the gap to a variety of factors like racism, white privilege, teacher insensitivity, inadequate training of staff, poverty, the administration, ignorance of history, and poor feeder schools.

My awareness of the disagreements east of Harlem, both the diagnosis and the remedy, set me up to be both startled and intrigued by an impassioned speech given by D209 board member Rodney Alexander at a PTMAN (Proviso Township Ministers Alliance Network) meeting a few weeks ago at the Rock of Ages Baptist Church in Maywood. What he said is not the answer but his voice is worth hearing.

Alexander, who was born in 1968 and is himself African American, declared, “There has been a dramatic dropping of the ball in my generation in the black community. Along with crack cocaine in the 1980s we had an epidemic of babies having babies. My generation got sisters pregnant at an astronomical rate.”

The result, he said, has been black children growing up in single-parent families without their fathers present and added, “Children with problems are a direct result of the lack of nurture that has been given to them by their parents. If you plant appleseeds, you’re going to get apple trees.”

I got together with Alexander a week later to try to understand if he was blaming single moms for their children not doing well in school. What I learned is that’s not what he was saying. His was the first generation of African Americans who grew up with the rights granted in 1964 by the Civil Rights Act and fair housing legislation.

And instead of taking advantage of that new playing field, he argued that many of his contemporaries in the black community failed to be accountable as parents and take responsibility for raising their children because many of them were “blinded by the get, get, get mentality. We were taught to believe that by acquiring things we would be equal.”

He has trouble with folks he calls “excuse makers” who blame racism and police brutality for the failings of black youth. Referring to the history of what black people have gone through for 400 years — the first slave ship arrived in Virginia in 1619 — he argued that what people of color encounter is not remotely close to what their forbears survived.

He acknowledged that he has been pulled over for “driving while black” and that the atrocities done to black people over the centuries have left many emotional scars — PTSD if you will — that have yet to be adequately treated. 

But based on his experience of growing up in a two-parent family, five years in the army and 17 years working as a parole officer, he contends that even though blacks may be the victims of racism, they have to let go of seeing themselves as victims and take charge of their lives.

What struck me even more is that all of the black ministers present at that PTMAN gathering voiced their “amens” to what Alexander was saying, and so a week after that meeting, I asked Rev. Bill Teague, the pastor of Hope Tabernacle here in town, to meet me for coffee and tell me if the black pastors really agreed that black families are the foundation of everything else that does or doesn’t happen in the black community.

His response, in a word, was “absolutely.” Now Pastor Teague wasn’t denying that racism and white privilege and income disparity are very real, but he explained that he and all the other ministers see the root of their community’s problems as lying underground in the condition of the family.

He added a story that made it all come together for me. He called his church a “no judgment zone.” He said his members are working with a high school girl who got pregnant and gave birth to a baby. But instead of blaming her, they are pitching in with their time and money to make sure that, in her situation with all of its inherent deficits, she can succeed. And on top of that, because the boy who fathered the child is still around, the men of the congregation are stepping up and teaching that young man how to be a father.

Some people refer to that response by using the term equity.

Back to Rodney Alexander, he agreed that in this society skin color matters. If you have a dark complexion, you may have to go 12 yards in this society to get a first down, but you have a choice. You can use that reality as an excuse, or you can acquire the character needed to survive that system and even thrive. And family is where that happens or does not.

“I’m not talking about jobs,” he explained. “I’m talking about morals and values that allow you to build upon and achieve. The mindset that allowed Barack Obama to do what he did didn’t come from the schools he went to. It came from how he was raised. Knowing how to respect your elders and respect your peers, knowing how to listen and how to behave in public settings, I learned all of those things at home.”