West Point, Swimming, and Developmental Equality
Two separate stories in the news speak volumes about our expectations, assumptions, and knowledge about the lives of children of color. We know they develop under an expectation of failure rather than success. Rather than an equal opportunity to succeed, we know, implicitly, that they are funneled to failure. Thus, when we find children of color unexpectedly successful, we are startled by their transcendence.
We should examine our expectations, our acceptance of the structural discrimination that we passively support or ignore that perpetuates inequality. Once we do, we have to confront the harshly unequal developmental path for children of color.
The first story is about a photograph of a group of 16 African American women in their dress uniforms as graduating seniors at West Point. West Point still has only a minority of women (the 2014 entering class was 78% male), and remains mostly white (70%). The women in the photo represented all but one of the Black women graduating, a mere 1.7% of the graduating class. The women are posed outside the oldest barracks, a favorite setting for graduation pictures replicating similar groups of graduates for over a 100 years. Each of the women stands with her arm bent upward ending in a raised fist; some have their arms simply at their side, while a few extend theirs over their heads.
So what did the women in this photograph mean by their pose?
A statement of black female empowerment? A statement of personal fortitude and accomplishment, and group solidarity? A statement of protest? A statement of difference, separating them from other graduates? A statement of political content, perhaps with #Black Lives Matter or #Say Her Name, movements that have raised consciousness about the inequalities in black lives?
Read as protest, it would violate the norms of universality, of color and gender blindness, and of conduct becoming an officer. The picture generated enormous controversy for several days. Each person viewed it from their context, including their view of women, of women of color, and of these women’s place in this setting and institution historically male and white. Also part of the context was making meaning of their common gesture of a raised clenched fist. Triggering calls for disciplinary action against the seniors, the controversy finally ended when it was determined that the students had done nothing that required disciplinary action.
For me, in addition to the debate about meaning was the universal unspoken assumption that black women in this place were out of place; not because they did not deserve to be there or to pose like countless other graduates of West Point, but rather, they had transcended the expectation that their place was elsewhere.
The second story is about an outstanding young swimmer who is trying out for the summer Olympics, Reece Whitley, 16 years old. The typical part of his story, repeated often every Olympic cycle, is his dedication to his sport, endless practice and strengthening, unusual for one so young. He also is an outstanding student at a private Quaker school, William Penn Charter School, a bit different from the usual locations from which such athletic talent emerges. He is also atypical because his height (6’8”) and body frame are unusual for breaststroke, as he is quite tall and slender, rather than the stereotypic shorter breaststroke competitors. But what really makes him stand out is the fact that he is Black. He is out of place in a white sport; the only Black student in his elite private school, the son of two doctors. He is an exceptional person in unexpected settings in so many ways. Moreover, it is not only his race that makes him stand out; his coach breaks the norm as well. Rather than the typical male coach, his coach is a woman. Crystal Coleman is unique among male swimmers at this level of competition. Because she is white, she blends into the racial landscape of swimming. But her gender sets her apart. A picture of her coaching him embodies difference connected to difference.
The universal unspoken assumption of this second story not only is that black men do not appear in competitive swimming. It is also that they do not attend private school, do well in school, come from a family of two professionals, or usually succeed in general. Like the women of color at West Point, this swimmer has transcended, and by doing so, he is out of place.
Both of these stories suggest our expectations for most children of color. Those expectations are linked to knowledge, knowledge tied to structures that we know do not support success or opportunity for children of color. We expect children of color to have fewer if any supports in early childhood; for their families to be pressured by adverse economic circumstances and discrimination in housing and employment; for their neighborhoods to be affected by violence and a lack of resources. We expect them to come to school less prepared, as they are less likely to have experienced high quality childcare or early childhood education. We expect they will do less well in school, and that differentiation will affect their opportunities for further education and for jobs. And if we happen to visit the courtrooms where juveniles are present, we are not surprised that a disproportionate number of the kids in court are kids of color.
In short, we expect kids of color to fail, not to succeed; we know to look for them in places that funnel them to failure. So we are surprised to find young black women at West Point. And we are surprised to find even one young Black man swimming to compete in the Olympics.
We are surprised because we know our systems reinforce inequalities rather than support the equal opportunities of all children. And too often, we use the examples of transcendence, of those who make it despite the odds, as proof that every child can. To the contrary, we should be asking why these structures theoretically designed to support children instead create hierarchies and inequalities among them. And also why we continue to be surprised by exceptions.
It is time to connect our recognition of what is unusual and uncommon to a deeper understanding of what is the norm, and how inequality is perpetuated. One place we can focus is on the life course of children, and the developmental support provided to all children.
Inequalities among children are so glaring that we can likely predict, standing in the newborns’ nursery of any hospital, who will likely succeed, and who will fail. Our predictions likely will be linked to race and gender. To perpetuate systems that differentiate among children and create or reinforce inequalities is fundamentally unfair, unjust, and unacceptable. I propose that we begin to demand developmental equality: to use our embrace of developmentally informed rules (such as to determine what we expect of children, how they should be treated at various ages, and what decisions they can make for themselves) to argue for a model of developmental equality as a means to use law to insure developmental opportunity and equality, by providing a right to affirmative, and equal, support for every child have the opportunity to become all they can be.
In my next blog, I will outline my model of Developmental Equality.