Grading Obama: Michael K. Fauntroy

Alexander Heffner’s Grading Obama series published in The Root is an interesting read. He asks a collection of Black academics the same questions and their responses reveal a surprisingly mixed view of President Obama’s first term. As an academic, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, I want in the conversation. Below are my responses to Heffner’s questions. I encourage other academics, especially political scientists, to join in the conversation with their own responses.

Question 1: What were your expectations of President Obama’s administration as that of the nation’s first black commander-in-chief? Does he embody today whatever you saw in him during the campaign?

Michael K. Fauntroy:  I didn’t have super high expectations and he has turned out to be who I thought he was. I watched his campaign – primary and general – carefully and concluded that he would be very similar to past presidents in that his talk about change was insufficiently specific. He has stayed true to his campaign but because many people were so happy to have someone other than George W. Bush, the reality of his political philosophy was somewhat obscured. He is a neoliberal and smartly allowed voters to apply their own hopes and aspirations upon him without having to really demonstrate who he was or what he was about.

Candidate Obama played cute in dealing with the obvious distinguishing characteristic, his race. On the one hand, he downplayed race (“there is no Black America or White America, there are the United States of America!”) which comforted nervous Whites. On the other, he played “wink-and-nod” with African Americans which left most Blacks accepting the “he’s got to play the game” logic without holding him accountable on the issues as other groups of Americans have.

Question 2: Do you believe that Obama has adequately fought for the nation’s black communities?

MKF: No. His first big opportunity was the 2009 economic stimulus package and he didn’t deliver. According to a 2010 report by the Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University studying the first year of stimulus spending, African Americans own about 5.2% of all businesses, but received 1.1% of all federally contracted stimulus funds in the first year of the law. Those needing the most help got the least.

More stylistically, fighting for a group of citizens begins with making their plight known to everyone else. Black people have disproportionately been on the short end of the sub-mortgage crisis, the criminal justice system, and many other policy areas. I would like for him to make visible the suffering that many Black people are living under these days. That’s a start. And enough of this “Black men have to step up and be there for their children” stuff. I want my president to focus more on policy than anything else.

While President Obama is not responsible for the growth in economic disparity between African Americans and Whites, he doesn’t appear to have done much to reverse it.

Question 3: What was your reaction to Obama’s rousing “stop crying” speech to the Congressional Black Caucus?

MKF: I thought it was insulting. I get it that he thinks the CBC should be quiet and just do what he needs done, but that’s not enough for the people CBC members represent. CBC members represent constituencies in some cases with the highest unemployment, incarceration, and health problems and the lowest educational attainment. These members are on the front lines and hear from their voters all the time about what’s going on.

Lastly, he would not have dared to come out of his mouth like that to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, or any number of other organizations.

Question 4: Do you believe that Obama has made marked strides toward a “postracial” America?

MKF: Yes and no. His campaign and election obviously serve as important mileposts in the movement toward a more just racial society. His presidency has forced the country to expand its view of Black people generally and Black men in particular. For that he should be commended.

However, his unwillingness to use his bully pulpit to educate the country on racial issues and how corrosive they are to the nation as a whole, has been frustrating to me. He has a legitimacy that no other person in the history of this nation has (with the possible exception of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and has chosen to leave it on the table. I’m reminded of the “race speech” he gave during the campaign. While I saw it as rhetorical cotton candy for the consumption of nervous White suburban voters, he scored well with a full range of Americans. To my knowledge, he hasn’t really spent much time on it since, other than to say he can’t focus just on Black people because he is the president of everyone. It should be noted, however, that there is a lot of space between focusing only on Black people, on the one hand, and ignoring Black needs, on the other.

This speaks to my biggest frustration with the President. He has so much potential to permanently change the structure of racism in America but hasn’t done much with it. I am still hopeful he will.

Question 5: In what areas of public policy, if any, do you believe Obama has most neglected the concerns of black Americans?

MKF: I acknowledge he has a lot of things on his plate, but I think American criminal justice system is an abomination and is destabilizing Black communities all over the country. Black women have fewer men to choose from, too many of our children are fatherless, and men are released from prison without any real prospect for rehabilitation. While he can’t fix every aspect of this problem, much of this is on the states in our federal system, he can do something. I hope he will.

Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of numerous books and articles on race and politics. He earned a doctorate at Howard University and an undergraduate degree from Hampton University, both in political science. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, November 28, 2011
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Cain, Coulter, and Irresponsible Race Talk

The revelation that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, as CEO of the National Restaurant Association, engaged in behavior that led the organization to enter into financial settlements (including non-disclosure agreements) with two employees has left a wake of collateral damage and irresponsible race.

The most notable damage has been done to Cain’s campaign. While I never thought he had a serious chance of winning the Grand Old Party’s presidential nomination, this pretty much seals the deal. Unworkable tax plans, a narrow world view, and, now, a history of contractually-acknowledged questionable sexual behavior towards women is not the making of a winning politician in a party that has become, for some, a magnet for racial hostility.

The more important damage has been done to our already weakened racial discourse. The problem here begins with Cain, who has played cute on race. As a graduate of historically Black Morehouse College, he should know better than to ignore the racism that exists within the ranks of some Tea Party supporters while, out of the other side of his mouth, contend that Black people cannot think for themselves and are brainwashed by a “Democratic plantation.”

The irresponsible race talk is made worse by conservative talking heads who have used Cain’s race to obfuscate the facts in this matter. Ann Coulter is leading the this-is-nothing-more-than-liberal-media-going-after-a-conservative-Black-man. The argument is so weak, than Coulter was reduced to digging up and using Clarence Thomas’ tired “high tech lynching” line; it was a ridiculous then and remains so today. The Irresponsibles, as I call them, are throwing dust in the eyes of the public trying to get people to believe that the issue is Cain’s ideology and race rather than behavior. My answer to those who claim the media never goes after liberal Whites in this way? Bill Clinton.

Coulter, as usual, leads the parade of The Irresponsibles. Her quip that “our Blacks are so much better than their Blacks suggests to me that she views Black people as mere trinkets for conservatives to carry around in their pockets. Are the “better Blacks” on her side of the fence not offended by her continued condescension on race? They need to know that silence is consent.

Ultimately, The Irresponsibles are silent on his behavior – sufficiently egregious in the eyes of NRA lawyers and board members that they had to pay two employees to literally buy their silence – and the issue of sexual harassment in the work place. In being so irresponsible on Cain, they give cover to those who do not want to take workplace harassment seriously. They are so blinded by rigid ideology that they cannot wrap their heads around the facts. The NRA signed an agreement with the accusers. He acknowledged the agreement. While he initially lied about whether there were actual charges, throwing liberal-media-is-out-to-get-me dust in the air, his defense has never been believable. Yet The Irresponsibles continue their march off the cliff of reason and into the valley of ideological lies.

Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University where recently convened a national conference on race and public policy. He is also author of Republicans and the Black Vote. He He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, November 03, 2011
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Herman Cain’s (and the GOPs) Confusion About Black Voters

Herman Cain recently gave voice to a tired narrative Republicans offer to explain the Grand Old Party’s pathetic performance with Black voters that is as absurd as the notion that he will win his party’s presidential nomination. Mr. Cain stated in an interview on CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer that “many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.” This is a decades-old canard that does not hold up to scrutiny and, worse, shows that Republicans, including Mr. Cain, do not understand Black political behavior.

I interviewed dozens of Black Republican activists when researching my book Republicans and the Black Vote and a majority of them cited some form of the notion that Black people were “brainwashed,” “forced,” or otherwise “tricked” in to not voting Republican. It goes something like this: Black liberals like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, among others, have some mystical, magical mind-control over Black people.  These untrustworthy leaders have used their powers for evil, convincing Black people that conservative public policy preferences would hurt Black interests. They, through their White liberal patrons, keep their thumbs on Black voters to keep them beholden to the Democrats.

This, of course, ignores decades of conservative political symbols and policies that have demonized African Americans, undermined Black progress, and repressed Black political participation. It ignores the hostility in some corners of today’s Republican Party toward African Americans. From dismantling federal civil rights enforcement to opposing or vetoing civil rights legislation and from racist incarceration policies to “welfare queens” and from economic policies that encourage the movement overseas of blue collar jobs to opposing increases in the minimum wage, conservatives have almost always been on the other side of the street from Black people. This is not brainwashing. It is an honest assessment of an ideology, practiced by a political party, that is antithetical to the interests of most African Americans.

Black voters are were they have always been: center, center-left. They were with the Republicans when the GOP fought for their interests. They stayed where they were and watched the GOP move away from its long held policy positions. African Americans have been far from brainwashed about the Republicans and, more specifically, conservative ideology. If anything, Black voters have been remarkably consistent: As both parties have shifted positions, it is Black voters who have remained constant. If you give Black voters a reason to support you, Mr. Cain, then I am sure they will. Given where you stand now, however, I’m not optimistic you will get more than token support.

For too long, conservatives have blamed Black leaders for Republican failures with Black voters. Herman Cain’s view suggests that looking inward is something the Republicans are unable, or unwilling, to do. As former U.S. Representative J.C. Watts told me, Republicans simply “don’t get it” on race. And the notion of mind-control just doesn’t wash.

Michael Fauntroy is author of Republicans and the Black Vote and associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, September 30, 2011
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George Mason University School of Public Policy Race and Public Policy Conference

I’m very happy to invite you to the first George Mason University race and public policy conference on Monday, October 10th (Columbus Day) on GMU’s Arlington, VA campus. I am convening a group of some of America’s best academics, journalists, practitioners, and others to discuss the ways in which race and public policy intersect. We’ll bring some solutions caused by this intersections and I hope you’ll be able to attend this important conference. It’s free and open to the public. You can find out more by visiting the conference website. We expect C-SPAN to be in the house and audience members will get to query panelists.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, September 17, 2011
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New Audio: Michael Fauntroy on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin

Here is a link to my 9.1.11 discussion on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin. I, along with Mathew Continetti, discuss the Obama-Boehner spat over the President’s jobs speech and the Republican presidential primary field. It was an interesting discussion and I hope you’ll share it with friends.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, September 01, 2011
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In Defense of Tavis and Cornel

I am friends with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, so it has been hard for me to watch and hear the often nasty attacks leveled at them both. While no person is above criticism, and I would not have used some of their words, much of what I’m hearing about them just leaves me shaking my head in wonder about where we are going as a nation that has so many needs. The Smiley and West “poverty tour” has presented their critics with another opportunity to accuse them of everything from grandstanding to undermining President Barack Obama. That is nonsense and reveals a more significant truth with which we all must deal: some people so hate the messenger that they can not accept the message no matter how important it may be. It has gotten to a point where their critics seem to be saying “if Smiley and West are for it, then I am against it.”

Who can reasonably argue against greater governmental action on poverty or leveling the economic playing field for all Americans? Who really believes it is a bad idea to call attention to the millions of people now living near or below the poverty line? And we can afford to be picky about which public figures spend their time trying to draw attention to this crisis? Really? Consider this. According to the U.S. Census Bureau more than 45 million Americans live in poverty.  Imagine a state the combined size of California and Virginia in which every person lived in poverty. Wouldn’t that warrant attention? Also, more than 20 percent of American children live in poverty and 2009 saw the largest single year increase in the U.S. poverty rate since the U.S. government began calculating poverty data in 1959. America now has record numbers of food stamps recipients and nearly 17 percent of Americans are now participating in at least one anti-poverty program. And, oh by the way, it is not like living just above the poverty line means you are fine.

I am not hearing very much talk about this from our leaders or media, particularly among Black hosts. I know some are but we hear more talk about how Tavis hates the President than what should be done about poverty (I guess talking about negativity is more interesting). So when are we supposed to raise a fuss about this situation, after President Obama leaves office? When congressional Democrats get some backbone or their Republican counterparts get some compassion? If not now, when?

Tavis and Cornel have been criticized on a number of fronts. One criticism I hear often is that they focus too much on President Obama. I have never discussed this with either of them, but I think there are at least three reasons for focusing on a President. First, when a President speaks on an issue, it is instantly legitimized and congressional allies are emboldened to push legislation. Conversely, when a President is largely silent on an issue one would expect him to push, it is seen by his political opponents as indifference so they can continue to ignore the issue. Second, congressional Republicans could not care less about poor people, poverty, and anything else that relates to the downtrodden. They just pushed a debt deal that will cut funding for many of the lifeline social programs that are now overflowing with people in need. They have a “blame the victim” mentality about poor people which makes it easier to demonize and marginalize them. I do not think it is a stretch to say most congressional Republicans believe people are poor because they are lazy. They see poor people as low wage grist for the mill of American capitalism and disposable beings unworthy of dignified consideration. Poor people will find no help among the Republicans in Congress, which brings us to the third reason. Senator Barack Obama ran on the theme of change. His compelling personal story and charisma presented America with a real opportunity to move in a new direction, one that would make a difference for everyone. Given the choice, where would you focus your attention?

I know the President has to dance with the Republicans but I believe he has spent too much time trying to curry favor with people who hate him and are actively trying to make him fail. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are not among those people. They do not hate the President. They do not want him to fail. They see the enormous potential for change President Obama represents and want him to live up to it. They are not just happy that we have a Black President. And I am glad they are calling attention to such a critical issue as poverty. And to their critics: don’t let your dislike of them lead you to turn away from the importance of their message.

Michael Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Tuesday, August 09, 2011
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Will President Obama Become Mayor Dinkins?

Consider this the sounding of the alarm.

A narrative is beginning to develop regarding the 2012 presidential election that, while true, interesting, and worthy of discussion, seems to miss the more important point.  It goes something like this: With astronomically high unemployment rates and a general lack of attention, a limited amount of grumbling has begun to develop in some segments of the African American community regarding President Barack Obama and his policies. The grumbling, as the narrative goes, will not impact African American support for President Obama’s reelection because Blacks want to protect the President. But something is missing in this narrative and is a more important point that Mr. Obama’s campaign would do well to include in its electoral calculus. President Obama could retain the same proportion of the African American vote, but of a smaller Black electoral pie. If that happens then President Obama could become David Dinkins – a groundbreaking electoral winner who loses reelection, at least in part, because Black apathy keeps a significant portion of his base at home.

David Dinkins had a long and distinguished political career when, in 1989, he beat incumbent mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and Republican-nominee Rudolph Giuliani in the general election to become the first African American mayor of New York. There was a huge historical outpouring of support to get Dinkins elected mayor and his victory made international headlines. Even with record African American turnout, it was still a tight race in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. As Jonathan P. Hicks noted in a 1993 New York Times article, a shift of 22,000 voters in the total of 1.8 million voters would have swung the election toward Giuliani.  Dinkins lost a rematch with Giuliani four years later, in part because Black turnout receded.

It is understandable why some Black voters are concerned.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the June 2011 Black unemployment rate stood at 16.2 percent (for context, the June 2001 Black unemployment rate was 8.3 percent). This number does not reveal the true picture as it excludes people who work part time because they can’t find full time work or people who have given up and are no longer looking for work, so the effective unemployment/underemployment rate is likely higher. Add to this a plunging of Black wealth in the economic crisis and Republican efforts to suppress the Black vote and it won’t be any wonder if some voters conclude that there is no point in showing up on election day. To the extent that the President has anything to say about African Americans, its about the need for Black fathers to “step up” and show “personal responsibility.” While that is an important message, it is one that anyone can give. The President needs to use his bully pulpit to bear witness to Black suffering and publicly show that he cares. When a President speaks on an issue, it immediately becomes important. Conversely, an issue can be seen as inconsequential if he publicly ignores it. Ignoring the unique issues in Black America could leave some, and it does not have to be a lot, to ignore him on election day.

Dinkins’ reelection campaign was hurt by, among other factors, a feeling that developed in some Black neighborhoods that he was more focused on other parts of his electorate. As one African American political consultant put it in 1993, “When Black people see the Mayor traveling to Israel during the Gulf War, but not visiting their community in New York City, it fuels the perception that he cares more about other communities in the city.” Substitute Mayor with President, Israel with Wall Street, and New York City with America, and the similarities between Dinkins in 1993 and Obama in 2011 could become more than coincidental.

The President could lose his reelection bid if enough Black voters stay home because they either do not believe the Republican nominee can win or they just do not feel the same urgency to show up on election day. Not voting for your candidate is the same as voting for his or her opponent, so it could be African American voters who keep the President from a second term. In 2008, Mr. Obama won Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida by small margins on the strength of Black votes.  If enough Black voters in those states stay home, then the Republican nominee will take the oath of office in January of 2013. While there are other segments of Mr. Obama’s base that are lukewarm at the moment, there is no way he can win with a smaller universe of Black voters.

David Dinkins’ name is not on the tips of very many tongues these days, particularly among people who do not live in New York. Obama campaign officials would be fools if they did not learn a thing or two about him and how he lost his reelection bid nearly 20 years ago.

Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Thursday, August 04, 2011
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New Audio: Fauntroy Discusses Anthony Weiner and Michelle Bachmann

I had the pleasure of appearing on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin. I, along with Mary Kate Cary, discussed Anthony Weiner’s resignation and Michelle Bachmann’s prospects for winning the Republican presidential nomination.


Here is the link. Let me know what you think.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, June 17, 2011
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New Audio: Fauntroy Discusses Republican Presidential Hopefuls

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I recently discussed the growing group of 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls on Tavis Smiley’s Public Radio International Show. It’s always good to be on with him and I hope you’ll check out the link. As always, please pass it on to someone you know.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, May 30, 2011
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Michael Fauntroy Discusses Black History Month

Here are two clips from a recent roundtable discussion I participated in on Fox 5 Morning News in Washington, DC. I was pleased to be on with Dr. Edna Medford, history professor at Howard University, Kinshasha Conwill of the Smithsonian Institution, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of DC.

Part 1 - Black History Month Special: MyFoxDC.com

Here is part two of the discussion:

Part 4 - Black History Month Special: MyFoxDC.com

Posted by Admin on Sunday, February 27, 2011
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New Audio:  Michael Fauntroy and Ron Christie Discuss Obama Budget Proposal

Here is the clip of a discussion I participated in on the Thursday, February 17, 2011 edition of NPR's "Tell Me More" with Michel Martin.  I, along with Republican strategist Ron Christie, discuss President Obama's FY 2012 budget proposal.  While I am concerned about the cuts in programs I think need more support than they already get, I understand that this is just the first step in the budget battle and I'm hopeful that fewer reductions will be targeted at the poor and working class people.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Friday, February 18, 2011
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You Can Now See “The Forum with Michael Fauntroy”

"The Forum with Michael Fauntroy" is now on the air! I'm really excited about the show, a 30 minute one-on-one interview with newsmakers, authors, and others and hope you'll check it out when you get a moment.  So far, I've interviewed former member of Congress Walter E. Fauntroy, TransAfrica Forum President Nicole Lee, professor and author James Pfiffner, professor and author Susan Tolchin, and ACLU of the National Capital Area Executive Director Johnny Barnes.

I also hope you'll be sure to tell a friend about "The Forum." The show can be seen online at GMU-TV at the following times:

Sundays at 8:30 AM
Mondays at 7:00 PM
Wednesdays at 8:30 PM
Thursdays 2:30 PM
Fridays at 7:30 AM
Saturdays at 8:30 AM

You can also catch the show on the following Northern Virginia cable systems:

Arlington County Comcast Communications, Channel 69
Alexandria Comcast Communications, Channel 73
GMU Fairfax Campus Campus, Cable 18
Fairfax County Cox Communications, Channel 18
Reston Comcast Communications, Channel 18
Northern Virginia Region Verizon FIOS, Channel 18
Northern VA/Washington DC/MD The Capitol Connection, Channel 9
Eastern Prince William County Comcast Communications, Channel 99
Western Prince William County Comcast Communications, Channel 99
Loudon County Comcast Communications, Channel 99 

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, February 05, 2011
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New Audio:  Fauntroy Discusses President Reagan’s Legacy on NPR’s “Tell Me More”

Here is the link to my discussion (with former Reagan appointee Linda Chavez) on NPR's "Tell Me More" with Michel Martin.  We discussed Reagan as we come to his 100th birthday and in the wake of Michael Reagan's column "Ronald Reagan -- Our First Black President?"

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, February 05, 2011
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Teaching Black History:  A Precious Legacy Lost?

It’s Black History Month, a time for all people to pause and celebrate the contributions that African Americans have made to the nation and the world.  These contributions, big and small, have helped make the America in which Blacks now live the world’s most important country and have also created a multi-century list of accomplishments of which all African Americans, young and old, rich and poor, can be proud.

But while I think it’s a time to celebrate Black culture, I can’t help but wonder what needs to be done to build on past gains to ensure future success.  I also wonder if our young people, who are increasing distanced by time from the Civil Rights Movement,  really appreciate that which has been given to them by the civil rights generation.  The change in America’s racial status quo that opened previously locked doors to them was won with the blood, sweat, and tears of the civil rights generation.  The fruit of their struggle is a precious legacy left to today’s teens and twenty-somethings.  I fear that many of the post-civil rights era babies are disconnecting from that past.

I’m particularly worried about young Black people and whether they understand what the civil rights movement was about or if they are getting the cultural enrichment that they need in order to have a well-formed sense of self.  The self-confidence that comes from understanding who one is and from where one comes can provide a wealth of protection from life’s cultural slings and arrows.  If this sense of self and understanding of what Black people in America have overcome is fading, then what are we celebrating each February?  Further, how do we keep traditions and history in the minds of our kids when the primary mechanism for transferring information from one generation to the next–family oral history–is less possible as the nuclear Black family has deteriorated to a point where more than 60 percent of Black children are born out of wedlock?

I think African Americans need a "right of passage" exercise–a cultural equivalent to Hebrew School, if you will–in which Black children learn all that they need to know about their heritage and the contributions made by their predecessors to the nation and world.  This is needed because much of the nihilistic and dysfunctional behavior coming out of some of Black America is due to a poorly formed sense of self.  It is needed as well because it is a mistake for African American parents to rely solely on schools to teach children about Black history (or any other non-white history for that matter).  Formal education should be supplemented by home and other cultural institutions, and should not be seen as the only form of learning.

Given that school systems around the country are homogenizing history and seeking to blot out or overlook anything that reflects poorly on the idealized view of America, it is incumbent upon Black families to impart more, not less, Black history upon our children.  Failing that, we can only expect more, not fewer problems in the Black community.

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Monday, January 31, 2011
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Follow Fauntroy on Facebook!

I just wanted to let you know that I also hang out at Facebook.  Please visit and tell your friends about my fan page: Dr. Michael K. Fauntroy. Like the page, if you like!

Until next time . . .

Posted by Michael Fauntroy on Saturday, January 22, 2011
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