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BLACK TEENS MUST EMBRACE EDUCATION

Bill Gates just made me look like a dope. I couldn't be happier.

Back in June, I used the Microsoft mogul and his $90 billion personal fortune as the jumping-off point for a rant about acquisition. There is, I argued, something soulless about the person who piles up massive amounts of unneeded money while suffering goes unabated, hunger unfed and ignorance untaught.

Good point, lousy example -- a fact Gates just drove home in dramatic fashion. He recently gave a gift of unprecedented proportions -- a billion dollars over 20 years -- to fund scholarships for thousands of minority students who have the talent but not the wherewithal to go to college.

That, my friends, is an unalloyed good. I grin through the egg on my face, knowing that the door to opportunity swings a little wider today. Now there's just one problem -- getting black kids to walk through it.

Yes, the Gates Millennium Scholarship is also open to Native American, Hispanic and other minority young people. But I single out black kids here for a reason. Because it's black kids who have come to scorn academic achievement, black kids whose popular culture celebrates a fatalistic code of urban toughness antithetic to learning.

No, we're not talking about all black kids -- not by any stretch of the imagination. But we're talking about enough that you begin to worry. Enough that you find yourself marveling at how dramatically African-American mores have shifted.

Think about it. Where earlier generations thought of education as a weapon of advancement and shield of self-esteem, many in this generation think of it as cultural betrayal. In their eyes, to do well in school or speak standard English is to "act white." To do poorly or be able to communicate only in a slang-filled patois is to "keep it real." As if being stupid and ill-spoken were somehow more authentically black. But beyond the bravado that pretends that rejection of academics represents cultural fidelity, one senses in those kids a certain fear -- a certain gnawing self-doubt about their ability to compete. We'd do well to remember that it can be difficult to excel in a place where nobody looks like you.

I'm reminded of a 1997 Sports Illustrated story about the declining prominence of white athletes. According to the article, black dominance of team sports is now so complete that many white kids wonder, what's the point of even trying? They feel there's something in the very fact of their whiteness that dooms them to athletic mediocrity.

Maybe hearing that, you want to explain to those discouraged kids that black achievement in sports has less to do with inborn ability than with confidence -- the belief that athletic excellence belongs to the person who wants it most and works the hardest. That's even truer of books. Which is the lesson black kids need to learn -- fast.

We're living in the midst of technological renaissance. Indeed, it has been said that the ultimate dividing line of the future won't be between blacks and whites nor even between haves and have-nots. Rather, it will be between those who control information and those who do not. Education will be the key to life success.

So the black kid who opts out because getting an education means "acting white" is committing social suicide. And if we stand by and watch it happen, we are accomplices to the act.

I understand how difficult it can be to achieve in a field where few of the exemplars look like you. But I also understand what Marcus Garvey meant when he roared, "Up, you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will!"

Most of all, though, I understand what a tragic waste it is for a child to hide brilliance behind bravado. Especially when a door to better things stands open to him. And waiting.

The Miami Herald

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