The Status of Black Males:
At the Intersection of Risk, Resilience and Response
by Pedro Noguera
New York University, New York
On February 26, 2012 an unarmed male teenager named Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by 28-year old George Zimmerman, a volunteer on neighborhood watch patrol. Trayvon Martin was black, and George Zimmerman was initially described by police as “white” (Zimmerman is in fact half Latino). The killing, which generated a national wave of protests because Zimmerman had not been charged with a crime by the police or local prosecutors for over a month after the killing, fit into a well-established narrative in America’s long troubled history of race relations (Legum, 2012). While the details of the incident are still emerging, and the trial of George Zimmerman will occur after this paper is published, it is clear is that Zimmerman deemed Martin’s mere presence in his gated community as “suspicious”. Zimmerman justified his pursuit of the teenager on the grounds that he posed a “threat”. He followed the teen, even after he was instructed by the police not to do so, first in his vehicle, then on foot, and eventually confronted him. A physical conflict between Zimmerman and Martin ensued and resulted in the shooting death of the teen. Conflicting stories from witnesses made it difficult to determine exactly what had occurred; in the darkness, nothing was clear. However, in the aftermath the police determined that Martin had a right to be in the area (he was visiting his uncle) and was not involved in any criminal activity. In fact, the only items Martin carried were a can of Arizona Iced Tea, $40 and change, a red lighter, and a now iconic bag of skittles (Treyvon Martin Case, 2012). Surveillance video from the local convenience store shows Martin purchasing these items while wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, also known as a “hoodie”, shortly before his encounter with Zimmerman.
The killing of unarmed Black men is hardly a new or unusual phenomenon. Young black men between the ages of 16 and 25 die in greater numbers, most often by violence and typically at the hands of other black men, than any other segment of the US population (Greenberg & Schneider, 1994; Violence Poverty Center, 2007). The Trayvon Martin killing stood out because it followed another pattern: black men killed by police or vigilantes because they are presumed to constitute a threat. In just the last few years, stories of unarmed black men such as Oscar Grant in Oakland and Sean Bell in New York, being killed by police officers for “brandishing” items as banal as a cell phone, candy bar or wallet (Associated Press, 2007) have become all too common. The idea that black men are inherently dangerous, pose a threat and must be controlled and contained, has deep roots in American history (Fogel, 1989). Even now, as a black man serves as president of the United States, images and stereotypes of black men as thugs and predators, are pervasive in American media and popular culture (Ford Foundation, 2007). Throughout America’s history, black males have been characterized and depicted as threats to the social order and the very personification of violence. Hundreds of black men were lynched by white vigilantes in the aftermath of slavery, and that bloody record is perhaps the most vivid reminder that the Trayvon Martin killing has a very disturbing precedent in America’s history (Brown, 2011).
The Treyvon Martin case compels us to consider how social identities tied to race, gender and class frame the ways in which black men are “seen” and inform our national narratives about victims and victimization. Understanding the dynamic ways in which race, gender and class interact and intersect is important for examining the experience of black males. No other segment of the US population is as likely to be subject to incarceration, school failure, persistent unemployment, or an early death. Nor is there any other group that is as likely to be castigated, shunned and vilified (Gibbs 1988; Waters, 1990). Low-income black males, constitute a pariah group in American society, and because of their status, relatively little public concern has been generated over their plight. Understanding why and how black males have come to be so marginalized is important particularly for educators, who are charged with supporting and nurturing the intellectual and social development of black males. More often than not, schools are the places where marginalization of black males begins. Educators, policy makers and parents who are serious about finding solutions to the challenges confronting black males must first understand how they, and black males themselves, may be implicated in perpetuating these hardships.
In this paper, we examine how the educational and social experiences of Black males from low-income communities are shaped by structural and cultural forces that operate at the micro, meso and macro levels of interaction (Brofenbrenner, 1975). Institutionalized racism, economic marginalization, mass incarceration and gender socialization within schools, families and communities, work in concert to perpetuate the status and the vulnerability of black males in American society. Understanding how this occurs is critical if we are to figure out how to craft solutions to the broad array of challenges they face. Though in recent years there have been growing calls for action to be taken to address the plight of black males (Fergus & Noguera, 2011), in many communities and schools throughout the United States, the failure of black males is so pervasive and persistent that it has been normalized; it is increasingly accepted as a permanent part of the American social fabric. It is undoubtedly for this reason that the mass incarceration of black males documented in such vivid detail by Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow (2010), has generated so little of a response from policy makers (Noguera, 2003).
On all of the indicators of academic achievement, educational attainment and school success, black males are distinguished from other segments of the American population by their consistent clustering in categories associated with failure (Schott Foundation, 2010). In most schools and districts throughout the United States, African American, and in many cases Latino males, are overrepresented in educational categories typically associated with failure and sub-par academic performance. Similarly, on those indicators that are associated with success enrollment in honors or gifted classes, advanced placement courses, college enrollment and degree attainment, etc. black and Latino males are vastly under-represented. In cities across the United States, less than half of all African American males graduate from high school (47%), and those that do are less likely to go to college (Schott Foundation, 2010) than other students. Nationally, African American and Latino males are more likely than any other group to be suspended and expelled from school and more likely to rank at the bottom on most indicators of academic performance in most subjects. It is worth noting that Trayvon Martin, who has been described as likeable and kind by teachers and friends, was suspended at the time of his shooting and had been suspended at least three previous times for incidents ranging from possible drug possession to lateness.
Despite their importance and relevance to academic performance, risk variables and statistics do not by themselves explain these patterns much less individual behavior. The fact is, some Black males are at greater risk than others. While there is evidence that the achievement of middle class black males typically lags behind that of their white middle class counterparts (Ferguson, 2001), in most cases, the privileges associated with class do accrue to middle class black males and buttress them from the hardships that are more common among their lower class counter parts. Middle class black males are more likely to come from families where fathers are present and are more likely to have strong relationships with caring adults who act as advocates and mentors (National Fatherhood Initiative, 2012). Research suggests that social capital generated through strong, positive relationships with family, friends, teachers and coaches can serve as protective factors that shield young black men from the well known risks (Thomas & Stevenson, 2009). Black males from low-income households and communities are less likely to have access to such support systems and more likely to have opportunities for mobility and success denied to them early on. Consider the fact that low-income black males have the highest infant mortality rates and are more likely than any other segment of the population to be categorized as mentally retarded in school (Office of Minority Health, 2010). Furthermore, failure rates for black males (and females in many cases) are much higher in schools where poverty rates are high and resources are limited (Noguera & Wing, 2008).
In addition to the vulnerabilities associated with class status, empirical research also suggests that race and gender are equally important to understanding the problems that beset black males. Black males are substantially more likely than black females to be placed in special education (Losen & Orfield, 2002), to be suspended or expelled (Gregory, Skiba & Noguera 2010; Krezmien, M. P., Leone, P. E., Achilles, G. M. 2006), and to dropout or be pushed out of school (Meade, Gaytan & Noguera, 2009). They are also more likely than girls to express a sense of disaffection from school and from learning generally (Pollard, 1993).
Ethnographic research carried out within schools suggest that many of the behaviors that are more frequently associated with males, namely disruption, defiance and disengagement, are frequently cited by educators as the reason for black males being subjected to a disproportionate number of negative sanctions (Pollack 2004; Carter, 2005; Noguera & Wing, 2008). This does not necessarily mean that other groups of students (e.g. Latinos, whites, Asians, and girls generally) do not exhibit such behaviors. Rather, the research suggests that when challenging behaviors are exhibited by males of color they are more likely to result in a more severe response (Dance, 2002). In her important book entitled Bad Boys (2001), Ann Ferguson utilizes her extensive ethnographic research to demonstrate that the black male students were more likely to be labeled as “slow”, “unruly” or generally problematic by teachers and administrators. Rather than such labels resulting in greater support or the application of effective early interventions, Ferguson found that they were more likely to result in the labels being internalized by the students upon whom they had been affixed (Ferguson, 2001).
An example of how this may occur may be helpful to illustrate this point. About ten years ago, a middle school that we have worked with in northern California decided that it would create a separate classroom for its most difficult and troubled students in response to requests for assistance by teachers (Noguera, 2003). The teachers complained that their efforts to raise achievement levels were being thwarted by the misbehavior of a small but highly problematic group of students. In response to their request for help the superintendent asked the teachers to identify the most troubled students. Once identified, the students were placed in a separate classroom with a specially trained teacher. At the time the initiative was announced parents of the identified students were told that their children would be provided with additional resources in the form of tutors and mentors. They were also told that in order to be “helped” their children would be isolated from their peers, have a separate lunch period, and a different schedule so that they would not interfere with the rest the school.
The teachers proceeded to identify their “worst” students, and in this racially diverse school of six hundred students, a list of the twenty-four most difficult -- all of whom were African American males -- was generated. To meet their special needs a teacher was assigned to the school to work with the students. He too was a black male but as it turned out, he was new and inexperienced. In fact, it appeared that the only qualification he had for doing this sort of work was that he was formerly a college football player who was quite large and physically intimidating. The students and their parents were told that the supports that were promised would eventually be made available to them.
What is most telling about this experience is how quickly all parties involved assumed that the cause of the problem was the individual students. Completely overlooked in their analysis of the problem was the fact that some of the teachers at the school had no trouble managing the behavior of the students who had been identified. In their desire to address the problem of classroom disorder they assumed that the problem resided in the students alone and not with their teachers or in the learning environment itself.
This example is important because there are undeniable parallels between the problems confronting young black males within schools, and the problems confronting adult black males in society. In response to the fear of crime, black males have been incarcerated at a rate that far exceeds their percentage of the US population (Alexander, 2010). While some of those incarcerated have been sentenced for committing violent crimes, the vast majority have been put away for drug related offenses, often for longer sentences than white males charged with similar offenses (Alexander, 2010). Even at a time when crime rates in many cities are at historically low levels, incarceration rates for black males have barely begun to decline (Gopnik 2012).
Mass incarceration like the excessively high suspension rates meted out upon black and in many cases Latino males, have been largely accepted as necessary (Losen, Martinez & Gillespie, 2012). Because black males are the embodiment of America’s greatest fears, their arrest or suspension from school is often rationalized as necessary for the well-being of others. The consequences of this type of targeting are devastating for black men and boys. Black males who dropout, or in many cases are pushed out (Fine, 1991) of school, are more likely to be unemployed or to be permanently relegated to low wage jobs. In most cities across the United States, black males have the highest rates of unemployment (Moss, Phillip & Tilly, 1993), even during periods of prosperity (Stoll, Holzer & Ihlanfeldt, 2000). The prison population in the United States is not only made up of a disproportionate number of black males, but the vast majority of those who are incarcerated have weak literacy skills, high rates of learning disabilities, and in many cases, their delinquency was first exhibited within school (Alexander, 2010). More often than not, we disproportionately incarcerate those we have failed to educate (Gregory, 1997). Researchers from John Jay School of Criminal Justice have coined the term “million dollar blocks” to describe neighborhoods in cities from which the vast majority of the prison population is drawn (Clear, 2007). In such neighborhoods, vast sums of public funds are expended to pay for the incarceration of black men while other services - parks, libraries, health clinics, etc. are cut or inadequately funded. For these reasons, understanding how the US economy and public institutions like schools influence the marginalization of black males from low-income communities is essential. Black males are more likely than other segments of the US population to experience a broad array of negative outcomes including a declining life expectancy . Understanding why these risks exists and why so many black males are vulnerable in so many ways is an essential first step that must be taken before strategies are devised that might begin to counter them. (Office of Minority Health, 2010)
Yet, it would be a mistake to frame black males as merely victims of a racist and indifferent system. Many of the behaviors that get black males into trouble in school -- fighting, defying authority figures or selling drugs --- are venerated in the popular media and often generate a sense of admiration and even envy from peers (Majors & Billson, 1992). To provide an example, a recent article appearing in the New York Times suggested that because the rapper known as Jay-Z (aka Shawn Carter) was a product of the Marcy Houses (a low-incoming housing project in Brooklyn) and had an early career as a drug dealer, his credibility as a new co-owner of the Nets basketball team was “indisputable” (Halbfinger, 2012). Jay-Z’s collaborators in this business venture include Bruce Ratner, a multi-million dollar businessman, Mikhail Prokhorov a Russian businessman, and Robert Rubin, the former Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton. The fact that such prominent and powerful individuals are happy to be associated with Jay-Z because of the “street cred” he brings to their business venture speaks to the complexity of the images surrounding black males.
Bad boys may get into trouble in school but bad boys are also looked up to if they are fighters like the boxer Mike Tyson (who is now appearing in a Broadway show about his life and was also from a public housing project in Brooklyn), a professional basketball player like Allen Iverson (who was arrested several times and raised by a single mother in Newport News, Virginia), or a rapper like Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne, and a host of others. They are not only looked up to by other black males but by other segments of the broader society. When confined to familiar roles as athletes and entertainers, black males and the stereotypes that might otherwise undermine them had they not achieved fame and fortune, are valorized and in some contexts, even idolized. Homi Bhaba, the well known cultural theorist, explains this phenomenon. He reminds us that in societies characterized by domination and oppression it is not uncommon for the subaltern, those who are shunned and treated as objects of fear and scorn, to also become objects of desire (Bhaba, 1983). Phobia and fetish exist in tandem as two sides of the same coin.
It is for this reason it would be a mistake to merely characterize black males as victims. Like the working class lads in Paul Willis’ important book Learning to Labor, some black males embrace the stereotypes that have been foisted upon them and they becomes participants in self sabotage (Willis, 1981) and their own marginalization. As more information about Trayvon Martin is revealed the first image of the innocent boy taken when he was fourteen years old, the image that prompted President Obama to say that “If I had a son he would have looked like Trayvon” (Mackey, 2012), has been replaced by images of an older, angrier young man with a grill (the metallic frames often wore by rappers on their teeth). To the beholder, such images suggest that Trayvon may not have merely been an innocent victim after all but may in fact have been a person whose very presence might arouse fear and suspicion. The image does not change the facts of the case nor justify the killing, but it does introduce an element of complexity that cannot be ignored. If we are to fully understand how black men are seen by others (including even other black men) and how they in turn may see themselves in a society where being ordinary or even invisible (Ellison, 1995) is rarely possible for black men, then we must be willing to acknowledge the ways in which the framing of black masculinity has conditioned some black males to accept the roles that society has assigned to them.
What is missing from much of the research and many of the investigations on the status and academic orientations of black male students is a critical analysis of the ways in which the subjective and objective dimensions of identity related to race, class and gender are constructed --within schools and society -- and how these in turn influence academic performance and social behavior. Developmental psychologists who have carried out the bulk of the empirical and theoretical research in this area, have generally conceived of racial identity construction as a natural feature of human development, one that occurs through a series of stages (Phinney, 1989; Cross,1991). Missing from much of this of research is an awareness of the ways in which social context, social class and the cultural factors that give meaning to identity interact. Without a more complex, robust and nuanced understanding of the ways in which various social forces interact to construct social identities, we are less able to understand why certain individuals may be at greater risk than others.
For example, in his ground breaking study of openly gay, black male high school students, Lance McCready (2009) discovered that by violating social norms associated with sexuality, the individuals he studied were also more likely to violate and undermine the deeply entrenched stereotypes associated with black males (McCready, 2009). McCready found that as they embrace a status related to their sexuality that places them at the margins of their peer groups, these individuals were more likely to open themselves up to engaging in activities that were at odds with the stereotypes associated with their status as black males, such as modern dance and theater. McCready found that by subverting the tropes of black male identity and participating in these unconventional activities, new possibilities for success were open to them. McCready makes it clear that black males who defy narrowly constructed masculine identities place themselves at risk and frequently experience considerable stress as a result of the ostracism, bullying and harassment they endure. Sociologist Michael Kimmel reminds us that more often than not, masculinity is performed by males for males (Kimmel, 2009), and the hierarchies males create to establish dominance often have the effect of narrowing the types of identities men and boys can experience. McCready’s research shows us that as black males transcend the narrow confines of the black male identity that are deeply entrenched within the schools they attend, new identities and unforeseen advantages, including a greater likelihood to succeed in school, become available.
In a similar vein, research on stereotype threats by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995) has shown how subjective awareness of the stereotypes and stigmas associated with particular social identities contributes to the under-performance of vulnerable individuals during periods when academic performance is being assessed, such as testing. The research on the prevalence of stereotype threats is extremely compelling. It shows that at an unconscious level, individuals are highly aware of the stereotypes associated with their group. It also shows that the effects of these stereotypes are context specific. Blacks are more likely to experience stereotype threats in predominantly white settings, while whites are more likely to experience stereotype threats on math assessments when tested with large numbers of Asians. The interesting thing about this research is that both Steele and Aronson have found that the stress that tends to accompany stereotype threats and which often undermines academic performance can be countered by measures that offset the stigma associated with the stereotypes (Graham, & Lowery, 2004).
These examples show us that the other side of risk and vulnerability can be well-being and resilience. Researchers who have studied the factors that contribute to resilience among students have found that they are more likely to have developed particular attitudinal and behavioral characteristics that distinguish them from others, namely: the ability to persist when confronted with adversity, the ability to seek help when needed, the ability to maintain a positive outlook, and the ability to defer gratification when pursuing long term goals (APA 2008; Tough 2012). The implications of this and the related research we have presented is clear: educators and service providers who adopt strategies for cultivating such traits within their black male students are more likely to help black males become resilient and successful.
In an important article on the factors contributing to the unusually high homicide rates of black males, sociologists Greenberg and Schneider (1994) pose the provocative question: “Young black men are the answer but what was the question?” Through their examination of the social conditions in neighborhoods in New Jersey where black men are killed at the highest rates (most often by other black men), the authors point out that the likelihood of being murdered is highly correlated with residing in areas where “jobs are scarce and the environment is toxic” (1994:p. 37). This example, like the case of the middle school in Northern California, remind us that it is not sufficient to focus on the behavior of black males, even when that behavior in question is extremely dangerous. Rather, we must be equally concerned about transforming the neighborhoods and schools where black males are educated and raised so that positive relationships and opportunities are the norm rather than the exception. As we show in the final section of this paper, where this is being done it is possible to significantly increase the number of black males who not only avoid the hardships and risks experienced by other black males, but also to enhance their chance of experiencing success in school and in life. In the final section of this paper we begin to describe how this might be done.
As we have shown throughout this paper, structural and cultural forces work in complex and dynamic ways to influence the formation of individual and collective identities. Returning to the example of Trayvon Martin, his death at the hands of George Zimmerman appears to have been largely due to who he was in terms of race and gender, and not what he was wearing. Hoodies are an increasingly popular style of dress. It is hard to imagine that if a white teenager had been walking in the gated community on that fateful evening that his mere presence would have elicited a similar response from the shooter, George Zimmerman. Undoubtedly, it was who he thought Trayvon was as signified by his race, gender (and presumed class) that made him a suspect and placed him at risk.
In 2009, we conducted a study with several of our colleagues on dropout rates among Black and Latino males in New York City (Meade, et al., 2009). The results were disturbing but hardly surprising. In one of the few cities with a rising graduation rate (Official graduation rates in New York claim that graduation rates now over 65%), less than 40% of Black and Latino males were graduating, and fewer than 30% were graduating with a Regents diploma, the certificate used to determine college readiness. However, during the course of our study we also identified over twenty high schools in New York City where the graduation rate for Black and Latino males was over 80%. We were surprised both by the significant number of schools that were achieving at this level of attainment and by the fact that the knowledge they had gained was not being shared widely among schools throughout New York City.
Some of these were schools like Fredrick Douglass Academy and Thurgood Marshall in Harlem and Bedford Academy in Brooklyn; schools where high graduation rates had been the norm for several years. These schools serve students from low-income backgrounds who come from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged neighborhoods in the City, but unlike the other schools in their neighborhoods, they have found ways to create school cultures that counter the influence of gangs, promote strong relationships between teachers and students, and affirm the importance of learning. Our research in these schools showed us that strong, positive relationships between adults and black males students are critical to their success. Equally important is the need to provide personalized learning environments where students have access to mentors, counselors and other supports that make it possible to intervene early and effectively when problems arise. Not surprisingly, these schools also have strong and effective school leaders, who are firm but not authoritarian or intimidating. On the contrary, in the surveys we carried out at these schools we learned that students regarded their principals as guardians and father figures. Most of all, these are schools where students experience a high level of physical and psychological safety. They report that they feel as though they can be themselves and that the peer culture reinforces the value of learning. These are schools where character, ethics and moral development are stressed rather than relying upon rigid discipline policies.
Schools like these exist in small numbers throughout the United States. The Coalition of Schools Education Boys of Color (COSBOC), has developed a network of like-minded schools to make it possible for others to learn from the schools that have been most successful. It would make sense for policymakers to actively encourage these types of consortiums and exchanges rather than relying on pressure under the guise of accountability to force schools to improve. The evidence garnered from schools from over ten years of results under No Child Left Behind, the federal policy enacted in 2002, shows that not only are thousands of children still being left behind academically, but in the case of black males, many are being relegated to a life of failure on the margins of society as a result.
A central goal of this paper has been to make the case that research on identity must pay careful attention to the ways in which race, class and gender interact to frame the way in which black males are seen in schools and society. Institutions such as schools play an important role in producing attitudes and behaviors that contribute to the risks and vulnerabilities experienced by black males. Of course, schools do not act alone in shaping the identities of black males. Families, communities, the media, the economy (local, regional, national and global), political institutions and their agents, also play a role in shaping the ways in which black men and boys are seen and the identities they adopt and produce in reaction to these forces. However, schools may be the best place to look for new ways to challenge how black boys are seen and how they see themselves. Writing on the general importance of identity to studies of schooling, Levinson, Foley, and Holland argue "student identity formation within school is a kind of social practice and cultural production which both responds to, and simultaneously constitutes, movements, structures, and discourses beyond school” (Levinson, Foley &Holland, 1996). As institutions that have been charged with the responsibility of preparing young people, both academically and socially, for adult roles in society, schools can be transformed in ways that make it possible for black males to experience a degree of freedom from stereotype and stigma that may be more difficult to achieve elsewhere.
Examining the dynamics of identity construction may not get us any closer to knowing what really happened on February 26, 2012, the night when Trayvon Martin was killed, nor will it do much in the short term to prevent others like him from meeting a similar fate. However, if we can use this understanding to begin to design schools and programs where black boys can be supported and nurtured, we may eventually reverse the trends that have led this group to be labeled an “endangered species” (Taylor-Gibbs, 1988), and begin to see greater numbers of black men and boys who are able to grow, thrive and develop and contribute to the greater good of society.
If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
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