The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities, by Joe R. Feagin, Heman Vera, and Nikitah Imani. New York: Routledge, 1996. 196 pp. $17.95, paper. Reviewed by Joy M. Scott, Northeastern Illinois University.
For more than 30 years, scholarly books, articles, and dissertations have been written about the academic and social experiences of Black Americans matriculating at predominantly White colleges and universities. In the mid-1960s, Clark and Plotkin (1964) noted that for Black college and university students, academic success and student motivation are not related to prior academic experiences and entrance exams. Two decades later, Fleming (1984) reported that predominantly White institutions have not fully addressed Black students' feelings of social isolation and perception of classroom biases. She also argued that the intellectual gains of Blacks are highest when they attend predominantly Black institutions.
In The Agony of Education, Feagin and colleagues report on similar findings and challenge conservative views about American colleges and universities. The authors also challenge a commonly held notion that Black students dropout rate is due to low intelligence, poor character, and community and family problems. The book's seven chapters provide qualitative firsthand commentaries through interviews with 36 high-achieving Black students and their parents. For various individual and collective reasons, these families had selected the unidentified "State University" as their college choice. Like many predominantly White urban colleges and universities in the United States, State University is situated in a Black community; yet, according to the sampled Black parents, the university has a reputation for racial intolerance. Throughout the book, Feagin and colleagues exhibit exceptional skill in their interpretations and summarizations of student and parent commentaries. The authors' summaries underscore that the "choice of a college for African Americans involves serious dilemmas and major struggles not generally faced by white Americans" (p. 48).
The first chapter, "Black Students at Predominantly White Colleges and Universities: The Rhetoric and Reality," is especially useful for those who seek a better understanding of the often perplexing social interactions between culturally diverse groups of people in academic settings. The authors present the students' experiences with racism in their own words and validate their claims by incorporating reports about Black students attending predominantly White colleges and universities across the country. Such "experienced realities" cannot be dismissed as paranoia or overreaction on the part of these students.
The second chapter, "Educational Choices and a University's Reputation: The Importance of Collective Memory," is a collection of commentaries from students and parents. It also presents the authors' philosophical position on why Black students' interpretations and responses to discrimination, hostilities, and stereotypes are appropriately predicated on their present and past experiences with racism. Thus, the authors note, Black students cannot dismiss racial slurs and epithets nor interpret "racialized looks" as figments of their imaginations. In chapter three, "Confronting White Students: The Whiteness of University Spaces," Feagin et al. note that Black students segregate themselves on predominantly White college campuses partly as a reaction to overt displays of unwelcoming behavior by White students such as physically leaving an area when Blacks arrive. The most important point in this chapter is the acknowledgment that, in U.S. society, Whites are more likely to segregate even when given the opportunity to do otherwise. This behavior is due, in part, to negative stereotypes about Blacks.
Chapter four, "Contending with White Instructors: You Can Feel When Someone Wants You Somewhere," addresses a major problem faced by Black students at predominantly White institutions: the unwillingness of White faculty to recognize Black students in the classroom. …