Racial-Ethnic Identity, Academic Achievement, and African American Males: A Review of Literature

By Wright, Brian L. | The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Racial-Ethnic Identity, Academic Achievement, and African American Males: A Review of Literature


Wright, Brian L., The Journal of Negro Education


This article discusses broadly, the literature on racial-ethnic identity (REI) and its role as a factor to promote academic success in young African American adolescents, in particular males. The review also defines, describes, and interprets styles of self-presentation that reflect aspects of REI among African American males in and outside of school toward the development of a healthy REI. The overall objective of this review of literature is to change the often negative ways in which society thinks and talks about African American students, especially males, in terms of their REI and their academic achievement toward the development of a healthy REI.

INTRODUCTION

In trying to explain the educational experiences of young African American men, many researchers have adhered to deficit-oriented explanations (Bereiter & Engleman, 1966; Deutsch, 1963; Hess & Shipman, 1965). More often than not these explanations have focused only on deficiencies among African American families and their children, rather than on their strengths (e.g., Garbarino, 1995; Kozol, 1991; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003; Slaughter-Defoe, Nakagawa, Takaniski, & Johnson, 1990; Spencer, Harpalani, Fegley, Dell'Angelo, & Seaton, 2002). In addition, some social scientists (e.g., Hernstein & Murray, 1994; Jensen, 1969) have pointed to genetics, dysfunctional families, lazy and unmotivated students, and the "culture of poverty" in inner-city neighborhoods to explain the academic underachievement of African American students, particularly males. Unconvinced by earlier explanations as to why African American students persistently underachieve, Steele (1999) argued that a "stereotype threat" contributes to their school failure. Other scholars, including sociolinguists (e.g., Au, 1980; Heath, 1983), and educational researchers (e.g., Irvine, 2003; Lee, 2004), have focused on the cultural mismatch that contributes to the failure of African American students. In response, researchers of multicultural education (e.g., Banks, 2004; Gay 2004; Grant 2003), and curriculum theorists (e.g., Apple, 1990; Popkewite, 1998), have focused primarily on the nature of the curriculum and the school as contributing to the persistent academic underachievement among non- White students.

These researchers asserted that although some improvements in the curriculum relative to gender and minority issues show marked improvements, the formal curriculum or the Official curriculum' as it is sometimes referred to, is in reality, still wanting. For example, it is seen as fragmented, racist, and also sexist in favor of White middle-class Western students (Banks, 1996). For these reasons, when the official curriculum goes unchallenged, it can, and often does, contribute to the development of unfavorable attitudes and even disintegration on the part of nonWhite students with respect to their educational experience (see Sleeter, 2001). This is especially true of African American males who often perceive the curriculum as a negative critique of their racial-ethnic group in terms of their dignity and worth (Polite & David, 1999; Swanson, Cunningham & Spencer, 2005).

In response to their perception of the formal curriculum, it is believed that some young African American male students may demonstrate an "oppositional stance" toward their academic subjects and school. However, this is not because some may lack the ability to actually do the work or feel that education is unimportant to their lives, but rather because of the negative ways in which they are categorically presented in the curriculum. Therefore, rather than handle low academic expectations from teachers, as well as emotional and psychological assaults on their racial-ethnic identity (REI), as a result of racism and discrimination, many of these young men view the choice to leave school before graduation as their only option (see Ferguson, 2001).

Finally, ignored in all of these explanations are those socially and academically successful African American male adolescents who do manage to achieve at high levels while also asserting a healthy REI in the context of school, despite the factors often cited in the literature (e. …

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