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Much research has been conducted in recent years about the barriers black students face in finding college success on predominantly white campuses. They struggle with underrepresentation, social isolation, academic hurdles and racial stereotyping from both their peers and their professors. All that can be especially true for black men, researchers have found, with two-thirds of black male undergraduates not earning a bachelor’s degree within six years.

But in a new article published in Harvard Education Review, Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, decided to take the research in a different direction: investigating how the one-third of black male students who persisted through graduation at predominantly white colleges and universities managed to do so.

“So much has been written about deficits concerning students of color, and men of color in particular, and that’s important,” Harper said. “But if we want to know something about barriers to success, there are thousands of pages that have been written that gives us some insight into that. Comparatively speaking, there’s very little research on black male success that actually focuses on success. If we really want to bolster success, we should commit at least a fraction of our energies on studying those who have been successful.”

Harper visited 30 predominantly white public and private institutions and interviewed 143 black male students he considered “achieving” -- students with high grade point averages who were also involved in leadership positions in black student organizations, student government and other groups. All but two of the students reported dealing with racist stereotypes on campus.

The students frequently reported being asked by white students about their presumed dancing, rapping and athletic abilities. They described faculty members asking if they had plagiarized academic work, not on the basis of any evidence but because it was good, and other students asking how they, as black students, were admitted to college in the first place. One black Indiana University student recalled being stopped outside his residence hall and asked by two white students if they could buy marijuana from him. The student, dressed in a suit at the time, was a prominent member of the university’s student government.

“Despite their status on campus, these guys were not exempt or immune to racial stereotyping,” Harper said. “On a number of these campuses, there were guys who were student president, people you would think are so visible that no one’s going to mistake him for being one of the football players or a drug dealer. I would have thought white students would think, ‘Well, that black guy is our student body president, not our weed man.’ But their status on campus did not give them immunity.”

The students’ involvement on campus did help in other ways, however, Harper found. The students reported that the more involved they were as student leaders, the less professors seemed to stereotype them. “I am definitely privileged because my teachers know me and don’t make ignorant racist comments to me,” one student told Harper. “Now, the way they treat other African-American students in class is another story, a sad story.”

The students also said that their roles in student organizations -- and the communication lessons they learned from older members of those groups -- helped them speak up against stereotyping and other forms of racism they saw in the classroom and elsewhere on campus, including in meetings with the institution's president or the Board of Trustees. Harper noted that many of the students referred to a three-step process they frequently used to respond to racist assumptions:

  1. A white peer asks a question like, “You got weed?”
  2. The achiever responds by calmly asking, “What made you assume I sell, smoke or know where to find weed?”
  3. The achiever waits patiently for the white peer to reflect and answer the question. During this reflecting period, the stereotyping peer usually comes to understand on her or his own that the question posed or assumption made was racially problematic.

The students said they still left such situations feeling frustrated, but much less so than in earlier encounters when they were angry at themselves for not speaking up. They also credited their high grades to their involvement in campus leadership roles and the related benefits. “I am frustrated by the misperceptions white students have about African males on Michigan State’s campus,” one student said. “I am involved because I want to do something.”

But witnessing and standing up to racism -- especially when paired with other aspects of college life such as tough course work and extracurricular activities -- can be exhausting, the students said.

‘Emerging Mental Health Crisis’

While Harper explores black male students who are succeeding, another new study looks at the cost that success can have on many black students. A recent paper published in the journal Educational Theory discusses the mental health issues that can arise from such work. Based on interviews with students and review of decades of research on the subject, the paper warns that the notion of “grit”-- the popular idea that students can persevere through adversity with enough mental toughness and resilience -- is masking “an emerging mental health crisis” among black college students fighting to combat stereotypes.

The researchers refer to the students’ coping strategy as “John Henryism,” comparing the students to a folk hero who pitted his own strength against a powerful steam-powered hammer in a race to drill through a mountain. Henry won the race but quickly died when his heart gave out.

“We have witnessed black students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat of perceived intellectual inferiority,” Ebony McGee, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University, stated. “We argue that the current enthusiasm for teaching African-American students with psychological traits like grit ignores the significant injustice of societal racism and the toll it takes, even on those students who appear to be the toughest and most successful.”

Harper, too, said he is worried about black students -- even those who are achieving -- devoting so much energy to fighting stereotypes when the energy could be invested in academics.

“I had men in my study talk about how their white peers would be able to go to class and focus on being engaged in student organizations,” Harper said. “Meanwhile, the men in my study had to do that, plus actively work to dismantle racism and confront stereotypes. These students worked so hard and people have worked hard with them to help them become more resilient, which is great. But resilience and grit wouldn’t be as necessary if predominantly white institutions were less racially hostile.”

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