Reading's racial disparity

Back to School: The First 'R' / Race



When it comes to reading, race can matter.

A young black male has a better chance of getting teased for reading books instead of playing sports. Black children are less likely to have parents who read to them at an early age and expose them to books.

Until recently, black adults were largely ignored by some book publishers who believed black people don't read books. And many black people had not been reading books because there were fewer books on the market that appealed to them.

"The racial disparity in reading is a reflection of the differences in the kinds of backgrounds that children enjoy," said Helen Faison, director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute at Chatham University.

"We have to surround children early on with reading," Ms. Faison said. "You have to create an environment where books are everywhere."

The audience for black readers has grown, but it seems black women represent the larger reading population among blacks.

As an African-American novelist, Brandon Massey is part of a small cadre of writers who earn a livelihood spinning suspense thrillers that appeal to black people who enjoy fiction.

While the main characters in his novels are black men, his audience, for the most part, is black women.

"I can't tell you how many times at book signings a man will approach my table and say, 'Your book looks interesting. I'll buy it for my wife,'" said Mr. Massey, 34, of Atlanta. "I'll ask them, 'Why don't you buy it for yourself?' And they'll say, 'I don't read made-up stuff. I want to read something real.' "

Some of the differences between black and white readers are set early in school.

By 12th grade, black students are scoring significantly lower in reading than white students, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card. Add to that the fact that 12th grade boys overall score lower than 12th grade girls. That puts the average black male high school senior at the bottom of all reading groups.

Much of the reading disparity stems from habits children learn from an early age, said Esther Bush, executive director of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, who has worked closely with schools over the years.

"The vocabulary of African-American children is so much [smaller] than children of other races even when they enter kindergarten. All of us as Americans ought to be teaching our kids good [behavior] such as reading books."

While the numbers in the Nation's Report Card show some racial differences, Luther Clegg, a retired professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth who did research on multicultural children's literature, said, based on his experience, reading success is more related to a child's socioeconomic background than race.

"Socioeconomic background will better determine the parents' educational background and the expectations they have for their children," he said. "Two parents who have to work hard to put food on the table will not have as much time to work with a child on reading or read aloud to that child.

"Another aspect that's important and related to race is that it wasn't until around 1965 that children's books began depicting African-Americans and other races in positive [illustrations]. I think that makes a difference when children look at books and try to identify with the characters."

Although book clubs have been around for years, their popularity increased after Oprah Winfrey started hers in the 1990s. The STARS (Sisters That Are Readers) book club was started by 10 African-American women in Pittsburgh to not only share their love of reading, but form a social network with other women with similar interests.

M. Gayle Moss, president of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP, has been a member of STARS for five years. Since that time, three members have retired from their jobs here and moved away, but they still participate in the monthly book club meetings by speakerphone.

"The common thread that holds us together is we all like to read," Ms. Moss said. "We read mysteries, current events, autobiographies and multicultural authors."

She said they never have had a man attend their meetings, which are held in the homes of the members. No men ever expressed an interest in attending even on occasions when they have invited authors to attend.

Issues related to reading in the black community are especially complicated. Many black men consider reading -- especially reading novels -- to be a feminine activity.

"What I have found is that black men will read a newspaper, a magazine or a nonfiction book on business or a political topic," Mr. Massey said.

Ms. Moss said she is still surprised to encounter elderly African-Americans who cannot read. Many were deprived of the opportunity to learn because they had to leave school to work and help support the family as a means of survival.

And through her volunteer work in the jail system, she is meeting an alarming number of young black men behind bars who either cannot read or have weak reading skills. They are able to improve their reading skills, however, through programs offered in jail.

To the chagrin of some, this seems to be a reading audience that more publishers are seeking.

According to the top trade magazine, Publishers Weekly, one of the fastest-growing genres in the book industry today is Street Lit, also called Urban Lit, Hip Hop Lit and Gangsta Lit, much of which focuses on crime and the hardships of life on the streets.

It has sparked a growing interest in reading among black men, particularly inner-city black men.

Not everyone in the publishing industry believes this genre is a move in the right direction.

"My gut feeling is more black men are reading [Street Lit] because of the content," said Marie Brown, a New York literary agent. "It centers on the extreme dysfunction of African-American life: crime, prostitution, life on the edge.

"You don't have to be a writer to publish this, which is why there is a void in our literary canon. There is a narrowing of opportunity for other [African-American] writers based on the thought that Street Lit is what sells."

Barbara Lowenstein, a New York literary agent who represents several African-American authors, said her agency has not pursued Street Lit authors.

"African-American book readership is growing," she said, referring to both men and women. "Our writers first focus on their own market and then at a certain point want to cross over so they're not boxed in."

Ms. Lowenstein, whose publishing career started 30 years ago, said the industry's attitude toward African-American readers has changed dramatically over the years.

Originally, the thought among book editors was that African-Americans didn't buy books. But she said the fallacy of that thinking was made clear around 1991, when Anita Hill made her sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas during his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings. It allowed the public to see a parade of intelligent African-American witnesses who graduated from Ivy League colleges testifying on national TV.

"Publishers opened their eyes and saw a market they had totally avoided," she said.

While book publishing research groups are constantly doing studies to assess the reading and buying patterns of adults based on race and gender, there is little data along those lines concerning students in grades K-12.

Al Greco, a senior researcher at the Institute for Publishing Research in New Jersey, compiles statistics on readership for the book industry in New York. He said white readers buy more books than black readers because books are bought with discretionary income, and in general, black consumers have less.

At public libraries, which are free, participation of black and white readers is more equal. In an American Libraries Association survey of adults earlier this year, 63 percent of whites, 64 percent of blacks and 49 percent of Hispanics said they visited their public libraries.

John Thomas, superintendent of the Aliquippa School District, said the notion that black men who read books are less masculine is one that should be dispelled in the African-American community.

"It's just as powerful to carry a book as it is to carry a football or a basketball, because the power of knowledge is in the books," he said.

"If we prepare our bodies for the gridiron or the basketball court, to me it's just as important to prepare your mind to survive in society.

"The body will soon wear out for athletic competition, but knowledge you have will carry you through life."


Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591. First Published August 30, 2007 4:00 AM


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