Facing Identity Conflicts, Black Students Fall Behind

Students in Melissa Cooper's sociology classroom. i i

Students discuss stereotypes in Melissa Cooper's sociology class at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. Looking at pictures of people and guessing what they were like, students said a Latino-looking man looks like a "drug lord" and a white man in a suit looks smart. Nancy Solomon hide caption

itoggle caption Nancy Solomon
Students in Melissa Cooper's sociology classroom.

Students discuss stereotypes in Melissa Cooper's sociology class at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. Looking at pictures of people and guessing what they were like, students said a Latino-looking man looks like a "drug lord" and a white man in a suit looks smart.

Nancy Solomon

Second in a series about the minority achievement gap in schools

The identity issues facing middle-class black and Latino teenagers might be a clue as to why they don't do as well academically as their white and Asian counterparts, some researchers and educators say. The teens often live in dual worlds: the suburban one they live in, and the rougher street life they see glorified in the media.

Known as the "minority achievement gap," the lower average test scores, grades and college attendance by black and Latino students have long perplexed researchers. Many have focused on the values and attitudes of students and whether black students think doing well in school is "acting white."

Stereotypes And Students' Self-Image

Columbia High School sociology teacher Melissa Cooper begins class by projecting a collage of faces onto a screen and asking students what they would think if they saw these people walking down the street. The students say the Latino-looking guy is a drug lord. The white guy in a tweed suit is smart.

"How does he look like he's smart?" Cooper asks.

"He got glasses on," a student says. The other students laugh.

Cooper, 32, is African-American and has been teaching for 10 years at this Maplewood, N.J., school, which is roughly 60 percent black and 40 percent white. She pushes her students to challenge stereotypes — even the ones they have about themselves.

"Class, do I look like a sociology teacher?" Cooper asks her students. The class responds with a resounding "No!"

"If I would see you walking down the street," one student says, "I would ask you, like, how much you do perms — because you probably work at the beauty salon."

Cooper later laughs at the comment. "It's very interesting," she says, "because it all speaks to how they imagine themselves. You know, because sometimes people who are just like us are our mirror, what we're capable of."

'Authentically Black?'

According to Cooper, racial stereotypes are so powerful that black children are much more limited in how they see themselves, even in a place like Maplewood, which is largely middle-class.

"It's a freedom that white children have that black children don't have," she says. "They get to pick from this huge array of personality types, behaviors, authentic selves that they can put on and take off. There is a challenge for black children in terms of, when they go to the identity closet, how may options of what guise they can put on and take off, and still be considered authentically black."

This question of black teenagers and their identity is a clue to the mystery of why middle-class black students aren't keeping pace with white and Asian students. Middle-class black students do just as well as their white peers in elementary school, but as they become teenagers, they begin to fall behind. Pedro Noguera, sociology of education professor at New York University, says middle-class black children have the same benefits of middle-class white children— two parents at home, lots of support and extracurricular activities — but many of them desire to be more like poor children.

"In many black communities, it is the ethos, the style, the orientation of poor black kids that influences middle-class black kids in ways that [are not] true for middle-class white kids," Noguera says. "Most middle-class white kids don't know poor white kids."

Promo poster for Nancy Solomon's documentary

Reporter Nancy Solomon spent last year as a Spencer Fellow in Education Reporting to examine why good suburban schools are failing black students. Click the photo above to access Solomon's hourlong radio documentary on the topic. Courtesy of Nancy Solomon hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Nancy Solomon

'I Used To Be The Geek'

But middle-class black children know, and are often related to, poor black children. And, of course, they are influenced by media images that glorify the rough-and-tumble street. This can cause a lot of confusion for children, especially as they become teenagers.

"I used to be the geek," says student Keith Cordy. "Used to be the geek in the class, always raising my hand like teacher's pet."

Keith was 14 and flunking ninth grade last year. But he had skipped first grade at the recommendation of his teacher.

"During fifth grade, I just felt like I didn't have any friends, so I tried to fit in," Keith says. "I started doing less work — always with my friends, always in the back, playing around and stuff like that."

Keith's mom, Angela Gunnings, and his stepdad, Michael Elder, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to New Jersey partly because they wanted him in a suburban school. But his grades continued to plummet.

"I noticed the change from him being this young, sweet, listen-to-mama's boy, to all of a sudden developing a swagger, if you will," Elder says. "That's not always the right swagger to develop. I tell him all the time: 'We're trying to save your life, essentially.' "

Gunnings and Elder say they've done everything they can to help Keith. They've met with his teachers, bought him study guides, punished him and sent him to summer school. But they're up against larger forces, especially since they live at the intersection of two worlds. Walk out their door and to the left is an affluent suburb; to the right is Newark — poor, urban and black.

"And a lot of the kids, from what I can see, want to identify and want to be down and want that street credibility," Elder says. "And they know they can get it by crossing the imaginary border — or the border as it is, you know."

So, when a youngster like Keith walks into class late with his pants sagging, sits in the back and doesn't participate — he is basically striking a pose.

Peer Culture Vs. School

Prudence Carter, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, studied 70 low-income black and Latino students at a New York school and disagrees with the idea that black kids think doing well in school is "acting white." Instead, she says minority students are conforming to a peer culture that gets in the way of forming good relationships with teachers or feeling part of a school community.

"Those baggy pants, I may not like them necessarily, I might think you shouldn't show your underwear, but it doesn't have anything to do with what's going on in that kid's head," Carter says. "And unfortunately, we have policed and outlawed and denigrated those kids' styles to the point where they have become disillusioned or become defiant — like, 'How dare you?' "

Some children, Carter says, negotiate between these two worlds. They are popular with the poor black children, and they do well in school. She says those children should become the model.

Carter also says schools should train adults to help students straddle the conflicting worlds of peer culture and the classroom — including addressing issues such as how children dress, speak or act in class — so they can help students navigate classroom expectations.

If schools helped minority students with these sorts of relationships, Carter says, they could become active, engaged participants without having to give up their cultural identity.

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