Analysis: Illiteracy in Detroit a National Shame

Analysis: Illiteracy in Detroit a National Shame

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With an unemployment rate surging toward 12 percent, Detroit is now facing another staggering calamity: Nearly half the adults in Motown are “functionally illiterate,” according to a new report, which means an estimated 200,000 residents are struggling every day to read, speak and write.

And, sadly, most of these Detroit residents in turmoil are black.

"We have a crisis," Margaret Williamson, with Pro-Literacy Detroit, Michigan’s largest literacy organization, told reporters. "People can graduate, have a high school diploma and not be able to read it."

According to the study by the National Institute for Literacy, about 47 percent of the adults who are considered functionally illiterate have actually received high school degrees.

In addition, the report finds, one in three workers in Michigan lack the skills or credentials to pursue additional education beyond high school.

This is a shame. How can so many African-Americans slip through the cracks and not get the basic tools they need to make it through life? The support system in Detroit didn’t just break down. It collapsed in ways that are unimaginable.

The news from Detroit stunned many black professionals, who recalled in 1989 how Dexter Manley, the All-Pro former defensive end for the Washington Redskins, offered a startling and embarrassing confession to Congress, saying he almost made it to the age of 30 without being able to read.

Manley was embarrassed to say that he was illiterate and that he had memorized words and faked his way through life for years.

“I broke down and started crying,” Manley said in 1989. “How did I get through school when I couldn't read?"

Manley told Congress that at the age of 28, he entered The Lab School of Washington with a second grade reading level. He would eventually earn as much as $350,000 a year playing for the Redskins - and keeping his closely-guarded secret from his fellow players for years.

In 1989, The New York Times wrote, “In his efforts to conquer the written page, Manley has been tutored and has gone to night school for the last four years at The Lab School of Washington. His teacher said he was at first extremely defensive, insisting he simply wanted to improve his vocabulary. But she quickly discovered that he was merely guessing at the words.”

“Once Manley admitted just how poor his reading level was, he pursued his goal with what his teacher calls 'fierce determination,' and he arrived successfully at reading fluency,” the Times said. “But the disturbing fact remains. As a functional illiterate, Dexter Manley somehow graduated from high school and somehow was accepted at Oklahoma State University.”

Meanwhile, Detroit’s population has fallen by 25 percent in the past 10 years as more African-American families are bolting to the suburbs. The city’s problems with illiteracy are compounded by severe budget cuts which have forced schools to close, and social service administrators complain that they don’t have the resources to help people in need, like those adults who can’t read or write.

"We have woefully failed our young people," Williamson said. "It's really unacceptable."

So what can be done to help Detroit’s functionally illiterate population?

The report comes three years after the Michigan Council for Labor and Economic Growth released a study showing that one in three working-age adults - or 1.7 million Michiganers -- couldn't read well enough to get a job that would support a family.

That study discovered that many laid-off workers in the state could not enroll in federally subsidized job-training programs because they could not read at a sixth-grade level.

Detroit is plagued with problems. There is not enough work, and the city is a wreck. The Wall Street Journal reported that Detroit is finally focusing on blocks of abandoned homes that have been piling up for decades – about 90,000 abandoned buildings in total.

Mayor Dave Bing promised to tear down 10,000 structures in his first term in office to "right-size" Detroit.

When it's all over, Karla Henderson, director of the Detroit Building Department told the Journal, "There's going to be a lot of empty space."

So, now Detroit’s challenge is to rebuild buildings – and rebuild lives.

Nearly half of Detroit’s residents can’t read street signs or fill out job applications – but somehow they manage day to day.

“I don't really know how they get by, but they do. Karen Tyler-Ruiz, a Detroit advocate for those with illiteracy, told reporters. “Are they getting by well? Well, that's another question."