Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Overcoming Obstacles: Academic Achievement as a Response to Racism and Discrimination

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Overcoming Obstacles: Academic Achievement as a Response to Racism and Discrimination

Article excerpt

Previous studies have suggested that in response to occupational and educational discrimination based on race, many African American students have mentally withdrawn from the schooling process, as indicated by low levels of achievement and high levels of school dropout. By contrast, the present study's analysis of interview data collected from 28 African American urban eighthgraders indicates that some African American students with a high awareness of racial discrimination respond to this discrimination in ways that are conducive rather than detrimental to academic success. For these students, positive racial socialization was a primary factor influencing and promoting academic success. Implications for future research on the academic performance of African American students are discussed.


Several authors have examined the relationship between racial and economic inequality and individual mobility. Among these, Ogbu (1978, 1988, 1991) has arguably had the greatest impact on the way educators today view the relationship between racial inequality, educational attainment, and academic achievement, especially among African American students. Chief among Ogbu's contentions is the argument that, as a response to racial discrimination and limitations on their educational and occupational opportunity, African Americans have failed to develop a strong academic orientation. In an attempt to explain differential achievement levels among minorities in the United States, Ogbu (1991) identifies immigration status as a key factor determining minorities' academic attitudes, efforts and levels of success. Using the terms "caste-like" and "involuntary" to describe the minority status of African Americans, he contends that the historical legacies of racism and discrimination, especially as they relate to educational and employment opportunities, have had a decidedly negative influence on the school performance of African Americans.

Ogbu's (1988) argument rests on the supposition that African Americans have adapted to discriminatory educational and employment policies and practices by disengaging from the schooling process. He maintains that African Americans have come to characterize striving for academic success as culturally "subtractive" (p. 177). As Ogbu posits in a 1978 article:

As caste-like minorities, [African Americans] have had access mainly to inferior education; they have experienced the job ceiling and other caste barriers that prevent them from maximizing their efforts in school in terms of future social and economic rewards; they have, generally speaking, responded to these barriers with "mental withdrawal" failing to persevere in their schoolwork. (p. 237)

In an extension of Ogbu's earlier work, For&am and Ogbu (1986) advance two additional factors influencing the academic achievement of African American adolescents: an oppositional collective or social identity and an oppositional cultural frame of reference. Accordingly, they assert that:

Subordinate minorities like black Americans develop a sense of collective identity or sense of peoplehood in opposition to the social identity of white Americans because of the way white Americans treat them in economic, political, social, and psychological domains, including white exclusion of these groups from true assimilation .Along with the formation of an oppositional social identity, subordinate minorities also develop an oppositional cultural frame of reference which includes devices for protecting their identity and for maintaining boundaries between them and white Americans. (p. 181)

Fordham and Ogbu further contend that oppositional identity and oppositional cultural frame of reference enter into the schooling equation for African American adolescents through these students' perceptions and interpretations of schooling as "learning the white American cultural frame of reference which they have come to assume to have adverse effects on their own cultural and identity integrity" (p. …

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