Identity and School Attainment

Identity and School Attainment

There are many theories about black American educational attainment as attempts are made to look for interventions to close the ‘achievement gap’ between underrepresented minority students and their white counterparts. A brief review of the statistics shows that all minority groups are not created equal with black and Hispanic students faring much worse than their Asian counterparts in high school graduation rates, standardized test scores, post-secondary

degree attainment etc. There is also an achievement gap between black groups; between what I call multi-generationally American Black families that endured slavery and/or institutional oppression under Jim Crow and African immigrants and their families. John Ogbu writing from the 1970’s-1990’s theorized that these American Black families were ‘involuntary minorities’ a group that did not choose to be American and thus have an oppositional culture. This opposition manifests as a rejection of ‘dominant culture’ in exchange for a unique cultural identity. Ogbu’s theories purport that this mentality may result in participating in behaviors that may be stigmatized by the dominant culture in an attempt to show a lack of assimilation.

Ogbu’s theories seem to reflect an idea that was clearly born from his status as an African immigrant who attempted to understand the unique aspects of the ‘involuntary minorities’. This distinction is important in educational theory because it touches on the need to tease out the differences between educational attainment in different sub-groups of black skinned peoples. Ola Ojewumi in her blog titled African in American touches on this distinction  noting that “Nearly 43.8 percent of Africans living in the United States possess college degrees, which is four times greater than black Americans.”

I disagree with some of Ogbu’s theories fundamentally, but I am glad he had them. His thoughts add to the discussion on black achievement because he looks at them through his own African lens; that of a black skinned person who was not hung up on the same identity crises as his American Black counterparts. His unique perspective added to the discussion and helped to lay a foundation for a thought model that explores racial identity. In an excellent article published in the journal Child Development in 2003, Chavous and colleagues reported on their findings from demographic and interview data from 606 African American 17 year olds in a study entitled Racial Identity and Academic Attainment among African American Adolescents. The study used a multidimensional model of racial identity, and explored 3 aspects of identity a) the importance of race to one’s identity b) private regard or personal feelings about being a black person c) perceptions of societal beliefs or whether the immediate society views black people positively or negatively. They found that those who had a positive sense of self as a black person, had confidence in their abilities and had a realistic view of the hardships of being black in America had the highest educational achievement. More importantly, they found that regardless of how central race was to a student’s identity, having strong private regard was highly associated with achievement. The link here is internalized racism. Seeing society as racist did NOT negatively affect the adolescents’ school performance UNLESS they had a low opinion of the fact that they themselves are black. Favoring blackness positively was associated with success. Obviously this merely opens the door to many more questions, but I find it breaks open the notion of black achievement as compared with Immigrant African (or Caribbean) American achievement in that a sense of blackness may not be as negatively ingrained in these groups. Self confidence in the black identity is then seen as paramount. I theorize that this confidence is better achieved in African immigrants and their children because the core of the identity is filled with contradictions to a negative view of their personal history and culture.

Unlike Ogbu I do not agree that black Americans reject education as a ‘white phenomenon’. I have not met a black parent that has not emphasized the importance of education to their children (college notwithstanding). But much of academic achievement is rooted in perseverance; when one fails how motivated are they to continue. Low self-worth changes the narrative of failure, from ‘just a part of the process’ to an inevitability that breeds hopelessness. Ogbu is a trailblazer in that he brought the question of identity to the surface of the discussion on black achievement. Educational attainment is very complex and multifactorial but I wholeheartedly agree that identity plays a role. I found this reflected in an interview  with Akintunde Ahmad, the Oakland California teen with a 5.0 GPA profiled on national media. He highlights stereotypes he has faced while conveying a strong self-pride.

Black students, of any background, are well served to have a strong sense of self. Fostering this in our communities should be of utmost importance to all of us. When looking for statistics for this article I came across Black Demographics.com. I immediately noticed that the way the statistics are described are all from the positive perspective. The photos are of happy achieving black faces. Instead of reporting the dropout rate, they report the graduation rate. They describe the rate of blacks in college by noting how many more black students are in college compared to prison. Narrative is vital for the development of identity. I realized how viscerally excited I was reading these numbers. How hopeful I was about the future of black peoples, and how proud I am to be in those groups. I hope this strength based model can serve as an example of something simple yet impactful that we can all do in an attempt to bolster the positive sense of self that our black youth needs to succeed. The more we highlight the achievements of black students like Akintunde Ahmad and his counterpart Kwesi Ennin the more we contradict the negative images bombarding youth as they begin to understand their place in the world. The more we identify as a unified collective the more the strengths of African immigrants can be seen AS the strengths of Black Americans. I am now just as proud of the achievements of Africans as I am about the achievements of Black Americans, because in my sense of self, all African’s are my community. Or as Ojewumi writes in her post, “History has caused a division amongst us and we can chose to remain divided or be united. I choose the latter.”

Merrian Brooks

Merrian is a medical resident studying the specialty of pediatrics in the USA. She was born and raised a Black American and feels proud to be the descendant of a group as a resilient and strong as those known as African slaves. She hopes to one day be a part of a movement to make medical systems work better for people of color in the US, and children and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa.

Leave a reply