What it means to be black in the American education system

Many people still believe that racism is no longer a problem in America. After President Obama was elected, academic John McWhorter claimed that racism in America was, for all intents and purposes, dead. Prominent African-American conservative scholar and economist Thomas Sowell argued that “racism is not dead, but it is on life support”. Harvard professors William Julius Wilson and Roland Fryer also discussed the declining importance of race and discrimination.

However, as we wind down the final months of Obama’s presidency, the waning prominence of narratives of race and discrimination seem to be at odds with the lived realities of African Americans. President Obama himself has faced racist treatment, such as the birth controversy and a congressman saying “you’re lying.” And then one incident after another has highlighted the painful reality that black men are disproportionately likely to die at the hands of police compared to any other demographic.

Unfortunately, racism and discrimination are part of the lives of many black Americans. As an African-American scholar who studies the experiences of black students, I am particularly interested in this question. My research found that black college students report higher levels of racial discrimination-related stress than other racial or ethnic groups. The sad reality is that black Americans face subtle and overt discrimination from kindergarten through college.

Here’s what the studies show

The results of a recent Pew Research Center survey underscore this point. The survey found that black Americans with some college experience are more likely to say they have experienced discrimination than black people who reported no college experience.

Additional survey results revealed several differences between blacks with college experience and blacks without college experience. For example, in the past 12 months, 55% of people with some college experience said people had acted suspiciously towards them, compared to 38% of those with no college experience.

Similarly, 52% of people with some college experience said people acted as if they thought the individual was unintelligent, compared to 37% of people with no college experience.

So what are the race-related struggles experienced by African-American students throughout their schooling?

Tyron’s story

Take the case of Tyrone. Tyrone is a four-year-old black boy raised in a two-parent family. Like most four-year-olds, Tyrone is intellectually curious and has a wild imagination. He enjoys books, coloring and painting, and also enjoys physical activities like running, jumping, and playing games with his friends.

What is the early school experience of black children?
Teacher image via www.shutterstock.com

Behaviorally, Tyrone is also like many four-year-olds in that he often likes to talk more than listen and can be temperamental. He may engage in punching, kicking, and spitting behaviors when angered.

One day Tyrone was playing a game with a friend and he lost. Tyrone got angry and threw the ball at his friend. A teacher witnessed this and immediately confronted Tyrone about his behavior.

Angry at being confronted, Tyrone began to walk away. The professor grabbed his arm. Tyrone reacted by pushing the professor away. The professor sent Tyrone to the principal’s office. After consultation with the principal, Tyrone was deemed a danger to students and staff.

He was therefore suspended.

The first years of schooling

At first glance, this looks like a simple case of imposing the appropriate punishment for misbehavior perceived as serious by a student. There doesn’t seem to be anything explicitly racial in the interaction.

However, consider the fact that there have been numerous instances of white students engaging in the same behavior, none of which have ever resulted in a suspension. This is the racialized reality that black students experience every day in American schools.

Black boys are almost three times more likely to be suspended than white boys, and black girls are four times more likely to be suspended than white girls. The (bad) behavior of black students is more often criminalized than that of other students.

Black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white kids.
Image of children via www.shutterstock.com

While black children make up 18% of preschool enrollment, they make up 48% of students who receive one or more suspensions. Getting cases stayed because it correlates with being referred to law enforcement and arrested. Black students make up 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students arrested, despite making up only 18% of enrolled students. As a rule, black students often don’t get the benefit of the doubt when they engage in bad or questionable behavior.

School experience

When Tyrone entered fourth grade, the teachers noticed a change in his behavior. Her enthusiasm for school and learning had diminished considerably. He no longer raised his hand impatiently to answer questions. He didn’t seem to like books and listening to stories anymore. He seemed to have little fun participating in class activities. His teachers called Tyrone “unmotivated”, “apathetic”, having “learning difficulties” and “a bad attitude”.

Educators and researchers have referred to this phenomenon as the “fourth grade failure syndrome” for black boys. Early childhood educator Harry Morgan has suggested that this phenomenon occurred around this time because the classroom environment changes between third and fourth grade, moving from a socially interactive style to a more individualistic one. and competitive.

By the fourth grade, a child’s enthusiasm may wane.
Boy image via www.shutterstock,com

This change in style runs counter to the more communal and cooperative cultural learning environment that research shows Black students tend to prefer. Fourth-grade failure syndrome refers to a bias in schools (e.g., cultural insensitivity, disproportionately harsh discipline, reduced teacher expectations, tracking black students in special education or remedial classes) that has the cumulative effect of decreasing the number of black students (especially boys) enthusiasm and motivation for school.

In high school, Tyrone no longer identified with school. His sense of pride and self-worth increasingly stemmed from his popularity and athletic ability rather than his intelligence. Psychologist Claude Steele has called this “school disidentification”, a phenomenon where a student’s self-esteem becomes disconnected from their performance in school.

Tyron is not alone. According to a study based on national data of nearly 25,000 students, black males were the only students to show significant disidentification throughout 12th grade. My research also confirmed this, although I found no evidence in black women, white men, or white women.

What is the college experience?

Although the narrative that more black men are in prison than in college has been thoroughly debunked by psychologist Ivory Toldson, it is still true that black men are underrepresented in college. According to data from the US Census Bureau, there were 887,000 black women enrolled in college compared to 618,000 black men.

Thanks in large part to his family’s emphasis on education, Tyrone is lucky enough to be accepted into college. Excited and nervous about being away from home, Tyrone can’t wait to begin his college experience.

Like many students, Tyrone enjoys going to parties hosted by Greek organizations and he frequently attends parties hosted by black fraternities. While attending a party, Tyrone and his friends became upset when campus police broke up the party over complaints of loud music and threatened to arrest attendees.

Tyrone has partied with white friends and knows firsthand that their parties often involve drugs and reckless behavior, but, as my students tell me, the police almost never break up their parties. It turns out that white fraternities are often the perpetrators of racist incidents, prompting Tyrone and other black students to engage in campus protests.

For example, in 2014, Arizona State University fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon was suspended for hosting a racist Martin Luther King Jr. party where they drank watermelon mugs, held their crotches, carried bandanas and formed gang signs with their hands. .


To add insult to injury, Tyrone and other black students read opinion pieces in the student newspaper complaining about how affirmative action discriminates against white students and makes “minority” students less qualified on campus.

Tyrone finds refuge in black studies classrooms, where he learns theories such as “critical race theory” and terms such as “institutional racism”, “white privilege”, and “hegemony”. Exposure to these classes provides Tyrone with the critical vocabulary and analytical tools to better understand the challenges facing black people.

Black student interest in earning a degree remains high.
chandlerchristian, CC BY-NC-ND

Not surprisingly, then, black college-educated people like Tyrone are more likely to report experiencing discrimination in college than black people with no college experience in college environments where racist incidents and racial microaggressions are frequent. reported. Despite the desire of many for America to be colorblind, at all levels of education, black students face disproportionate discrimination.

In many ways, my research on African American students reflects my own experiences as a black male negotiating the challenges of being in predominantly white academic environments. The silver lining to this story is that black students are incredibly resilient and there are positive things to report.

In 2016, for example, enrollment at historically black colleges and universities increased. Whether this increase is related to the negative experiences of discrimination that black students often face on predominantly white campuses is unclear, but it suggests that black student interest in obtaining a college education remains high. According to 2016 data published in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, black women now have the highest graduation rate of any demographic at the University of Georgia.

For every positive result for students like Tyrone, there are unfortunately too many negative results for other similar students as well. The educational experiences of Tyrone and all black students should be of concern to everyone.

While education is not a panacea for experiences of racism and discrimination, education can equip us with the tools to better understand, analyze and ultimately find solutions to the tragic incidents we too frequently see involving the killings of Blacks by the police.

Janice G. Ball