The CW’s Black Lightning starts with Jefferson Pierce having left superhero life nearly a decade prior to the events of the show, but it’s incorrect to say that he ever stopped being a hero.
The series’ pilot makes it clear that Pierce’s job as Garfield High School’s principal has led to academic success for his students, due in part to the creation of a safe learning environment in an otherwise gang-ravaged area. The type of heroism that Pierce displays as an educator doesn’t involve shocking street-level criminals and their bosses. Instead, it actually accomplishes one of the basic goals of heroics: A better future for the next generation.
Garfield High School’s graduation rate is critical to understanding how Pierce’s heroism takes on a different form after he retires from being a superhero. Early in the series’ premiere, the school holds a fundraiser, at which Senator Turner remarks that Pierce has raised his school’s graduation rate far into the “90s.”
Compared to the real world United States, that number is well above average. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, revealed that the graduation rate hit an all-time high of 84.3% in 2016. However, despite that rising graduation rate, there’s still a major race-based disparity between students. According to the NCES, 76.4% of black students graduated on time as compared to 88.3% of white students.
It’s also important to note that there’s a link between those graduation rates and crime. In 2011, a policy brief from the CIBC Centre for Human Capital & Productivity at the University of Western Ontario indicated that increases in high school graduation rates would result in a reduction of crime, meaning that low graduation rates may equal more crime.
While the exact racial makeup of the fictional Garfield High School isn’t clear, the majority of characters appearing in the background during scenes set there are people of color, many of whom are — statistically — less likely to graduate than their white counterparts. However, under Pierce’s leadership, the school boasts a higher-than-average graduation rate. That higher graduation rate means that Garfield High School’s students will have more economic opportunities and chances at post-secondary education than they might have had otherwise, in turn decreasing the likelihood that they’ll commit crimes.
Black Lightning never makes it entirely clear what Pierce has done as principal to increase his graduation rate, but his conversation with Lala, a member of the One Hundred gang, hints at one important factor: The designation of his school as a “safe zone.” Safety is fundamental to learning, and the premiere makes it clear that crime in Freedland is increasing. While the episode does feature a problem at the school, Pierce himself makes clear that there hasn’t been a single incidence of violence in his seven years as principal prior to that. He has found a way to keep gangs out of Garfield High School, leading to a safe learning environment for his students.
Although the series is certainly focused on the character’s return to vigilantism, his role as principal has led to increased graduation rates, which means that his students have better outcomes and a lower likelihood of incarceration. Pierce, as an educator, is a hero in a different way from Black Lightning, and that heroism is no less important.
Airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, Black Lightning stars Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning, China Anne McClain as his younger daughter Jennifer Pierce, Nafessa Williams as his older daughter Anissa Pierce, Christine Adams as Lynn Pierce, James Remar as Peter Gambi, Damon Gupton as Henderson, Marvin “Krondon” Jones III as Tobias Whale and Chantal Thuy as Grace Choi.
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