We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation’s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryce Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. —The Editors

A question not too many Americans are forced to ask themselves: Where are the people that look like me? Imagine with me for a moment you’re just entering the ninth grade excited to see all your friends from last year, but as you walk into your high school you encounter a feeling completely foreign to you. You are the only one in your entire school who remotely looks like you. You are the only black face in an ocean of white faces, and every glance at you is an attempt to ignore your existence. No one even bothers to wave. Gone are the bonds with the friends you once had, gone are your lunch buddies, the table where everyone is like you, and where you are understood.

This is my reality, a reality I’d grow to know well throughout my high school years as I watched black face after black face picked off one by one each year like a cancerous tumor, leaving only ragtag humiliatingly low numbers of survivors. And every year, as the solitary number seemed to inch closer and closer, I would ask myself, “What is happening? Where are all the black kids going? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care?” A black face in my high school would become as foreign as a repressed memory that everyone just seemed to forget existed.

I’d discover that this mysterious epidemic extended beyond the hallways and the lockers of my high school to infect schools across the city and the nation. In my city predominately black schools have the lowest graduation rates in the state of New York. At city schools, where the majority of students are black, only approximately 45.9 percent graduate, while predominately white schools in the suburbs have a graduation rate of 94 percent. Nationally, every twenty-six seconds a student drops out of school. This statistic for black Americans is a ticking time bomb for a race in which less than half of our students graduate.

Political and cultural critics argue that the devastatingly high dropout rate of African-Americans is a direct consequence of the unfortunate and often “typical” circumstances affecting members of the African Diaspora, the age old tale of teenage pregnancies, single-parent households and rundown urban environments. By making such a one-sided assumption America places the blame firmly on the shoulders of African-Americans themselves.

I believe the high dropout rates of black Americans are a consequence of a conservative white America’s hunger for power; it is a result of a premeditated cycle of oppression that Americans pretend to ignore. A cycle created with laws forbidding black slaves to gain an education, transforming into further black disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction, as black Americans moved to urban centers and were confined to slums, a result of discrimination and unequal pay leading to white flight from cities, and the reality for so many of my generation, (black, poor white and brown) today.

No one cares about us. Our cities are making budget cuts to our already substandard education; we do not have teachers dedicated to both understanding and meeting our needs, nor do we have adequate supplies. And no one has cared to make our education as much of a priority as it for white Americans. We are in the pothole that we see today as a result of centuries of constraint of the advancement of our status. It is a cycle that has enslaved us. An uneducated group cannot advance economically or socially because it cannot afford to break out of that which confines them to a slum. They do not have the means to leave.

I have been a witness to America’s failure within its high school educational system. I witnessed educators unwilling to make an effort to help minority students achieve academic success. And as a result of this I have watched black students become disempowered by circumstance and fall victim to a devastating statistic.

And as I visited college campuses I found no greater hope. I am still in search of more who look like me, especially black males. I realize that I have, and so many other ethnic minorities, have become a commodity to so colleges and universities because of our color and rarity. What does this rarity mean? We as a nation have created a generation of uneducated minorities, who cannot be leaders, politicians or businessmen and cannot better their communities because the United States has for centuries used education as a weapon to keep individuals who look like me down. And if nothing continues to be done, the epidemic will demolish our communities.

If a black kid falls out of school in the ghetto and no one is around to hear him, does he make a sound?