Educational achievement, and life outcomes of Black youth

Educational Researcher, Vol. 45 No. 5, pp. 301–311
DOI: 10.3102/0013189X16656938
© 2016 AERA.
June/July 2016 301
The role that racial identity plays in the well-being, educational achievement, and life outcomes of Black youth in
the United States has received tremendous attention from
the early post-slavery years through today. Nevertheless, it is a
surprisingly contested area of study. The question of whether a
strong, positive racial identity is both “possible” and “beneficial”
for Black youth has long been an area of controversy and contestation within the social science literature. The educational literature is no stranger to these controversies, and, as we demonstrate
below, questions about the meaning and implications of a
strong, positive racial identity among Black youth have not been
uniformly resolved by educational researchers and theorists. Our
objective in this article is to surface questions about why Black
identity has been so controversial through an exploration of the
history of the meaning attached to Black identity in U.S. social
science research from the early post-slavery years through the
present. Why, 150 years after the end of slavery, do we still give
so much credence to questions about whether Black identity is
antithetical to education, personal well-being, and professional
Our purpose in this article is to interrogate and critically analyze the outsize attention that debates about the value of a strong,
positive Black identity have received in the United States, particularly regarding the relationship between Black identity and education. We argue that these debates reveal much about our
perspectives and underlying beliefs—as both educators and social
scientists—about Black youths’ well-being and educational
achievement. Empirical research demonstrating that a strong,
positive Black identity is positively associated with a stronger
commitment to education and better educational outcomes measured in numerous ways is pervasive, consistent, and robust.
Despite this, we still see a steady stream of widely read and discussed books and arguments suggesting the opposite: We see it in
teachers’ suggestion that perhaps a strong, positive Black identity
is “dangerous,” distracting Black youth and even their peers away
from school and academic accomplishment (e.g., see S. J. Lee,
2005). We see this in research demonstrating that educators often
656938EDRXXX10.3102/0013189X16656938Educational ResearcherZirkel and Johnson
Santa Clara University & Mills College, Oakland, CA
Medgar Evers College, CUNY, Brooklyn, NY
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: A Critical Examination
of the Conceptualization of the Study of Black Racial
Identity in Education
Sabrina Zirkel1
and Tabora Johnson2
The role that racial identity plays in the well-being, educational achievement, and life outcomes of Black youth has received
tremendous attention from the early post-slavery years right up until today, and remains a surprisingly contested area of
study. We call for the examination of why images of Black racial identity as “damaged” and “dangerous” persist despite
scores of studies that demonstrate otherwise. Despite a proliferation of theories suggesting a “damaged” Black psyche
and suspicion about its value to Black youth, we find the history of research about Black racial identity reveals robust and
consistent evidence that Black racial identity is linked to a broad range of positive outcomes from measures of well-being—
including greater resilience, coping with discrimination, higher academic performance, greater commitment to education,
and improved educational outcomes on a number of measures. Given this, we question why Black identity has been so
controversial and why, 150 years after the end of legalized Black slavery, theories suggesting the “danger” of Black racial
identity still hold so much power with both lay and professional audiences.
Keywords: anti-Blackness; Black education; Black history; Black identity; critical theory; descriptive analysis; race
Feature Articles
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perceive Black youth to be unmotivated and uninterested in education regardless of how the students describe themselves (e.g., P.
L. Carter, 2006; Pollack, 2013; Seglem & Garcia, 2015; Warikoo
& Carter, 2009; Zirkel, 2016; Zirkel & Pollack, 2016). We see it
in arguments suggesting that there is something fundamentally
“wrong” with Black culture and ways of being (e.g., Payne,
1996/2005; see also Dumas, 2016b; Dumas & Nelson, 2016;
McKenzie & Scheurich, 2003; Valencia, 1997, 2010, for critiques) and that a strong Black identity might lead students away
from school for fear of “acting white”1
(e.g., Fordham, 1988;
McWhorter, 2001, 2003, 2006; Ogbu, 1974, 1978).
As educators and educational researchers ourselves, we ask
why we, as a field, so often seem to theorize—sometimes explicitly, but often implicitly—that the road to Black educational and
professional success is through the adoption of what are termed
cultural practices. In this way, we see ourselves coopted
into equating “white” with “professional” or “studious” rather
than expanding our conceptions of what is “Black.” Here, we
build on the influential theorizing of Yosso (2005) in her critical
examination of how we decide whose culture has value and
Dumas’ (2016a; Dumas & ross, 2016) theorization of anti-Blackness in education. For example, we find educational research that
explores whether Black youth are better off if they adopt “white”
ways of dressing (Arroyo & Zigler, 1995; Ford, Grantham, &
Whiting, 2008; Fordham, 2008; Ogbu, 1978), “white” attitudes
and beliefs (Fordham, 2008; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986), have
more white friends (Antonio, 2004), live in predominantly white
neighborhoods (Ogbu, 1974; Wells & Crain, 1994), or study
and adopt what are described as “white” orientations to education
(Ford, Grantham, & Whiting, 2008; Fordham, 1988, 2008;
Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu, 1978). Some theorists, of
course, have problematized these social constructions of Black
identity (e.g., see Nasir, 2012; Nasir et al., 2009; O’Conner,
et al., 2007; Warikoo & Carter, 2009). In this article, we ask why
ideas purporting that a strong, positive Black identity is “dangerous” and likely to lead to negative outcomes for Black youth have
such traction. In what ways are we—as educators, educational
researchers, and theorists—complicit in the persistence of this
argument? We wish to raise questions about our conceptual
frameworks for understanding Black resistance and success, and
also ask our field to reflect upon which empirical questions are
investigated and which are not. How have anti-Black theories and
assumptions about damage and deficits about Black youth, Black
families, and Black culture informed our conceptual frameworks
and the research questions we ask?3
Black Racial Identity
A historic exploration of the meaning and implications of Black
racial identity is, in many ways, the history of Black people in
the United States. From the onset, antislavery, Black Nationalist,
and later Black Power movements in the U.S. alike have all
focused, in different ways, on the importance of the development of a Black identity (see, e.g., Austin, 2006; Nasir, 2012;
Rael, 2002; Wintz, 1996). Black theorists with ideas as distinct
as DuBois (2013/1903), B. T. Washington (1901), and Garvey
(2004) all point to the development of a distinctive African or
Black identity as a central task in the development of Black
American success post-slavery. This focus on the development of
identity occurs in large part because both slavery itself and proslavery rhetoric were so focused on depriving Black slaves of
their humanity through the obliteration of personal identity
(Gordon, 2003).4
Black racial identity theory increasingly presumes identities
are complex, that they include understandings of one’s individual
self as well as the social context of being Black (e.g., Cross, 1991;
Helms, 1990; Marks et al., 2004; Nasir, 2012; Nasir, McLaughlin,
& Jones, 2009; Sellers et al., 1997; Sellers, Smith, et al., 1998;
Tatum, 1999, 2003, 2004), and that they are sociological constructions as much as psychological ones (O’Connor, 2001). Our
working definition of a strong, positive Black racial identity is
intentionally broad—our purpose here is not to debate different
specific models of Black racial identity. Our conceptualization of
a strong, positive Black racial identity rests on two foundations:
(a) a strong and positive identification with being Black combined with (b) a racial consciousness of the historical, social, and
cultural context of being Black in the United States, including a
critical consciousness about race and racism.5
Is a Strong, Positive Black Identity Even
Much of the theory and research on Black racial identity from
the post-slavery period to the present can be described as asking
the central question of identity: Given depth of anti-Blackness in
U.S. history (see, e.g., Dumas, 2016a; Dumas & ross, 2016), is
it possible for Black youth in the United States to have a strong,
positive, personal and racial identity? Using DuBois’s terminology of “contempt and pity,” Scott’s (1997) comprehensive history of social policy debates regarding Black people from 1880
to 1996 emphasizes the prominent role that what he terms
“damage imagery” has played throughout much of this history.
From the political right, this “damage imagery” centered on
images designed to elicit or provoke contempt for Black people,
centering on deficit views of, for example, Black biology, genetics, culture, or family structures (e.g., Lewis, 1966; Moynihan,
1965; Payne, 1996/2005). In contrast, “damage imagery” emerging from the political left, or sometimes from within the Black
community itself, was centered on eliciting something closer to
pity. These theorists located the source of the “damage” they
described to Black psyches as emerging from influences external
to the Black community itself—in segregation, prejudice,
stigma, and discrimination. Intended as an indictment of the
treatment of Black people in the U.S., these theorists sought to
elicit sympathy and guilt from white people and put forward
their perspectives in an attempt to shape law and policy with
regard to the regulation of the treatment of Black people. From
DuBois’s (1903/2013) double-consciousness to the Clarks’
(Clark & Clark, 1950) doll studies, to the Supreme Court decisions in Brown (1954) and Grutter v. Bolinger (2003), the
emphasis from the left has typically centered on the damage
done to the psyches of Black people by stigma, discrimination,
and segregation. Tuck (2009) pleads with us to “suspend” this
damage research because of their destructive nature.
Balancing an awareness of the real damage caused by white
racism and white supremacy while simultaneously articulating
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that Black racial identity may well be strong and healthy has
presented a theoretical as well as a practical dilemma. The
dilemma of those who argue for the positive nature of Black
racial identity is to do so without obscuring the many destructive
aspects of living with white racism. In order to address this,
strengths-based narratives of Black identity generally center on
one of three approaches: (a) a focus on the African origins of
much that is culturally or linguistically Black, with particular
attention to the positive implications of these cultural practices;
(b) a focus on the important conceptual difference between how
Black people see themselves and how others, especially white
people, might see them, and emphasizing the importance of the
former in identity development; and (c) models that focus on
the creative and resilient ways that Black people resist and ameliorate the negative impact of prejudice and discrimination on
Black identity.
In the first approach, efforts are made to explore and uncover
African culture and to use this growing understanding of African
cultural roots to inform and reframe our understanding of Black
cultural practices (Gay, 2010; C. D. Lee, 2007). In other words,
“contemporary Black culture is continuous with its African origin” (Jones, 2003, p. 223). Such perspectives are explicitly anticomparative and insist that we understand Black culture on its
own terms, not in comparison to white society (see, e.g., Akbar,
2007, 2008; Asante, 2003; Jones, 2003; Woodson, 1933).
The second approach acknowledges that Black Americans
live and must operate in a racist society in which prejudice and
discrimination are ubiquitous and often institutionalized, but it
highlights that the attitudes and actions of others need not be
incorporated into one’s own personal identity. One can understand that one’s group is stigmatized and denigrated and still
have a fully functioning, strong, positive, and healthy sense of
one’s personal and racial identity because one does not internalize these attitudes. In this model, we see theorists who emphasize
the need for educators and other adults to help Black youth see
themselves as part of a community and culture that actively
refutes negative experiences, attitudes, and images seen in schools
and elsewhere (see, e.g., Cross, 1991; Robinson & Biran, 2006;
Sellers, 2003; Tatum, 2004).
The third approach also acknowledges the need for Black
youth to cope with stigma, prejudice, and discrimination, but
highlights the strengths that the Black community has developed
to manage these issues (Ladson Billings, 2009; C. D. Lee, 2007).
In other words, rather than speaking about the psychological
damage caused by white racism, these theorists emphasize how
these struggles have helped Black people develop strengths and
resilience, as individuals and as a community, that are worthy of
examination and admiration (D. Carter, 2008a; Chavous et al.,
2008; Cross & Strauss, 1998; C. D. Lee, 2007; Oyserman,
Harrison, & Bybee, 2001; Sanders, 1997; Tuck, 2009). Many
theorists combine more than one aspect of these three approaches,
but all seek a narrative frame that integrates Black self-determination and incorporates efforts to perceive and describe Black
Americans’ experience in their own terms, rather than in comparison to white people’s experience.
Despite social scientific and lay assumptions that Black people in the U.S. must not feel very good about themselves,
empirical research consistently demonstrates that Black youth
and adults typically report levels of self-esteem that match or
exceed those of white people in the U.S. In Cross’s (1991)
reanalysis of the 20th-century literature on the development of
Black identity, he finds no evidence of low self-esteem or a negative Black racial identity. Indeed, he argues that research purporting to find “damaged” Black psyches was politically
motivated by both the right (to demonstrate weakness or deficiency) or the left (to demonstrate the impact of segregation or
other Jim Crow policies). For example, he notes that earlier
interpretations of the Clarks’ doll studies were that white participants insisted on a racially matched doll because they were less
racially “open” (i.e., more discriminatory) and that Black children picked dolls from a variety of racial groups because they
were more open to interacting across races. In other words, picking dolls from a range of racial groups was seen as a strength, not
a weakness. Later, as the political needs of the Civil Rights
Movement required evidence of damage, these data were reinterpreted to mean that the Black children were choosing non-Black
dolls because racism led them to hold a damaged racial identity.
Cross’s (1991) careful analysis of research on Black racial identity
throughout the 20th century reveals that Black people have
always evidenced a strong and positive personal identity, even as
they may have been very aware of negative social views towards
their racial group. Sellers’s (Sellers et al., 1997, 1998) influential
Multidimensional Model of Racial Identity builds on this analysis by separating the measurement and analysis of Black
Americans’ personal view of their racial group from their understanding of public views of their group. In decades of research
across dozens of studies, Sellers and his collaborators have found
positive but very low correlations between Black people’s personal view of their racial group and their perception of the views
of a broader public (<.15) (see, e.g., Rowley et al., 1998; Sellers
et al., 1998; Yip et al., 2006).
Prevalence of Strong, Positive Racial Identity
We know of no large-scale epidemiological studies of Black identity that would allow us to know the national prevalence of a
strong, positive Black racial identity. However, the many studies
of Black identity offer clues to its widespread presence. These
include a wide range of studies over a 20-year period exploring
Black racial identity among adolescents and adults that collectively included over 5,000 participants. These studies reveal a
highly consistent pattern across teen, young adult, and middleaged samples from different parts of the country: Black people
report extremely strong, positive beliefs and feelings about their
racial group (averaging 6.25 on a 7-point scale) and also quite
strong ratings of how important being Black is to them (averaging 5.5 on a 7-point scale) (see, e.g., Caldwell et al., 2004;
Chavous et al., 2003; Neblett & Roberts, 2013; Rowley et al.,
1998; Yip et al., 2006). Our purpose is not to argue that all Black
people uniformly possess a strong, positive racial identity but, rather,
to show that the evidence supports Cross’s (1991) analysis—a positive Black identity is normative rather than unusual. Only a small
number of Black Americans may suffer the “damage” presented
in so many theoretical frames.
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The Impact of Black Identity on Well-Being and
Educational Outcomes
Perhaps the most disturbing controversy that has emerged in
research on Black identity concerns questions about whether a
strong, positive Black identity is linked to improved or diminished
life outcomes and well-being. In a surprising number of contexts,
we see the perspective presented that a strong, positive Black
identity—centered on an understanding of and engagement with
Black culture and history and a critical racial consciousness about
issues of race in the United States—is somehow harmful to young
people’s chances in life. By this, we do not mean that educators or
researchers routinely and explicitly state a belief that a strong,
positive Black identity is harmful for students’ educational outcomes. Rather, we argue that educators and researchers often
express discomfort with what are sometimes the aesthetic or cultural markers of either a strong, positive identity in Black youth or
markers of the exploration that is likely to lead to a strong, positive
racial identity among Black youth. These markers might include
signs of Black youth culture or might involve evidence of young
people’s engagement in a process of immersing themselves in
their own racial identity group to the exclusion of all others. This
process can seem particularly disconcerting to educators or researchers who are working from a model in which integration—and particularly connection with white peers—is an essential marker of
students’ interest and motivation in school (e.g., see Tatum,
2003, for an overview). Some see a strong, positive Black identity
as discouraging the development of the cultural and social capital
necessary to “succeed” or as a sign that young people have developed an “oppositional identity” in regard to education (e.g.,
Fordham, 1988; Ogbu, 1978).
We all too frequently see this pattern among teachers and
teacher candidates. Steeped in pervasive deficit assumptions
about Black youth, they often understand aspects of youth culture that can be associated with Black identity exploration and
developing a racial consciousness as “bad” and read them as suggesting such youth are not interested in education. For example,
in S. J. Lee’s (2005) influential ethnography of Hmong youth in
a Wisconsin high school, she found that teachers read all students who engaged in what was seen as “Black urban youth culture” as antischool and antieducation (S. J. Lee, 2005). Similarly,
studies of teacher beliefs about students’ interest in and motivation to succeed in school and the value of education found that
a sample of white teachers misread Black youth’s strong racial
identity as an indicator that they were not interested in school
(e.g., Pollack, 2013; Seglem & Garcia, 2015; Tatum, 2003,
2004; Zirkel, 2016). It is only in the most recent years that we,
as a field, have begun to move away from similar assumptions
about youth, youth culture, and identity. Indeed, the empirical
evidence for the positive impact that developing a strong Black
racial identity can have for both youth and adults is vast.
Linking Black Racial Identity and Well-Being
A large and growing body of empirical research demonstrates the
positive impact of a strong, positive, Black identity on overall
well-being. Consistently, a stronger, more developed Black racial
identity has been associated with higher levels of self-esteem (see,
e.g., R. L. Allen, 2001; Pierre & Malalik, 2005; Rowley et al.,
1998; Seaton et al., 2006; Spencer et al., 2006; Street, HarrisBritt, & Walker-Barnes, 2009; Wakefield & Hudley, 2007);
greater numbers of friends in school (Datnow & Cooper, 1997;
Zirkel, 2004); improved interpersonal functioning (Street et al.,
2009); increased life satisfaction (Whittaker & Neville, 2010;
Yap, Settles, & Pratt-Hyatt, 2011); reduced levels of depression
and anxiety (Brittian et al., 2013; R. T. Carter, 1991; Seaton et al.,
2006; Street et al., 2009); greater optimism about the future
(Spencer et al., 2003); greater coping skills and evidence of resilience (Brittian, 2012; Caldwell et al., 2002; Neville, Heppner, &
Wang, 1997; Zaff, Blount, Phillips, & Cohen, 2002); reduced
numbers of drug and alcohol problems (Brittian et al., 2013; R. T.
Carter, 1991); and fewer symptoms of extreme psychological distress, such as depression, paranoia, or hallucinations (R. T. Carter,
1991; Seaton et al., 2006). This means that we also see the opposite: That those with a weak and/or negative Black racial identity
exhibit lower levels of well-being.
In exploring the means by which a strong Black racial identity
has a positive impact on well-being, much of the research has
focused on the ways that a strong, positive racial identity can
provide a buffer against the negative impact of racial discrimination and prejudice. A strong and positive racial identity may provide a framework for anticipating, making sense of, and
facilitating appropriate responses to racism and discrimination
(e.g., see Cross & Strauss, 1998; Sellers & Shelton, 2003; Sellers
et al., 2003, 2006; Smalls et al., 2007). However, the findings in
this area are complex. In a few studies, Black racial identity did
not provide this buffer against the impact of discriminatory
experiences (e.g., cf. Burrow & Ong, 2010; Seaton et al., 2011),
perhaps because a critical race consciousness has revealed more
persistent racism to Black youth.
Black Identity and Educational Outcomes
There is also a substantial and growing body of research demonstrating that a strong Black identity is linked to improved educational outcomes and higher academic achievement. Black youth
with a strong, positive racial identity place more importance on
academic goals (Carson, 2009; Chavous et al., 2003; Robinson
& Biran, 2006) and career aspirations (Helms & Piper, 1994;
Parham & Austin, 1994; Tovar-Murray, et al., 2012); are more
likely to embrace education as a means of “getting ahead”
(Bonvillain & Honora, 2004; Byrd & Chavous, 2009; Swanson,
Spencer, Dell’Angelo, Harpalani, & Spencer, 2002); demonstrate greater enjoyment of and effort expended in the service of
academic goals (D. Carter, 2008b; Cokley & Chapman, 2008;
Smalls et al., 2007; Wright, 2011); and demonstrate higher levels of performance in academic settings as measured by grades
(Bonvillain & Honora, 2004; Byrd & Chavous, 2009; Chavous
et al., 2008; Cokley & Chapman, 2008; Eccles, Wong, & Peck,
2006; Gordon et al., 2009; Nasim et al., 2005; Oyserman et al.,
2003), academic self-efficacy (Shin, 2011), and test scores
(Gordon et al., 2009; Robinson & Biran, 2006). They were also
more likely to pursue higher education (Chavous et al., 2003,
2008; Smalls et al., 2007) and show increased investment in academic achievement over time (Altschul, Oyserman, & Bybee,
2006; Carson, 2009; Kerpelman, Eryigit, & Stephens, 2008;
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June/July 2016 305
Robinson & Biran, 2006; Sellers et al., 1998; Smalls et al., 2007;
Wakefield & Hudley, 2007). Again, the opposite is also true: We
see poorer educational outcomes when Black youth have a weak
or negative racial identity.
The strong, positive Black identity at the heart of these educational advantages does not represent a lack of awareness or
experience with racism and discrimination. For many, academic
achievement was part of a critical race consciousness that incorporated a deep critical awareness of racism and incorporates
Black achievement into a framework of resistance (e.g., Carter
Andrews, 2009). Indeed, research reveals that Black students’
awareness of racial discrimination can, in some instances, serve
as an impetus for academic achievement (D. J. Carter, 2008a,
2009; O’Connor, 1997; Sanders, 1997). Wright (2011) found
that Black students with a strong Black identity understand that
teachers’ expectations are often lower for Black students, but
they were able to overcome this by setting their own, higher
intrinsic standards for their work. Black youth who are aware of
racism and discrimination have created tools of resistance and
resilience to gain and maintain school success (D. J. Carter,
2008a; Chavous et al., 2008; Oyserman, Harris, & Bybee, 2001;
Sanders, 1997). Students with this awareness are often better
able to navigate the school domain (i.e., the classroom, social,
and extracurricular aspects of school).
Why Is a Strong, Positive Black Racial Identity
So Controversial?
As we review the history of thinking about Black identity, we see
that Black Americans typically maintain a strong, positive Black
identity within a context of oppression and discrimination. The
breadth, depth, and consistency of the research showing that a
strong Black identity is linked to improved well-being, better
health, higher educational ambitions and educational outcomes,
and improved life outcomes is staggering. This begs the question:
What would lead us to have ever theorized otherwise? Why would
we need over a century of social science research to convince us of
the positive role Black racial identity can play? We need to ask
ourselves if there is any other context in which, or any other
group about whom, we would consider a strong, positive identity
to be detrimental. We believe the answer is “no.” BlackCrit theory
helps us understand this singular suspicion of Black identity as
dangerous and threatening (Dumas & ross, 2016).
Readers may be skeptical that we have—as a field—held these
negative beliefs about Black racial identity. However, theories
that assume that a strong, positive racial identity is “bad” for
Black youth’s education and aspirations have received widespread support in education. Somehow, a strong connection to
the Black culture history, or music, or a critical consciousness
about the history and current status of Black Americans is perceived as threatening or at least uncomfortable for many white
educators. As Warikoo and Carter (2009) and Nasir (2012)
point out, we often confound our understanding of young people’s investment in school with their investment in white culture,
ways of being, and styles of dress and music. As educators, we
often confound schooling and academic ambition with whiteness and then project those conceptualizations onto children.
Tropes about “those boys” with their “sagging” jeans or their
music—aspects, arguably, of a process of adopting a strong, positive Black identity (see, e.g., Cross & Strauss, 1998; Tatum,
2003; Zirkel, 2016)—are inevitably read as markers of “trouble”
(Dumas, 2016b; Dumas & Nelson, 2016). Such ideas linking
aspects of Black identity to a disidentification with school have
resonated with many adults so thoroughly that they have become
a central component of lay understandings about “what’s wrong”
with Black youth.6
These ideas are not even constrained to white
or non-Black audiences—prominent Black Americans from Bill
Cosby (Cosby & Poussaint, 2007) to Barack Obama (Winfrey,
2004) can be heard exhorting Black youth to “stop” thinking of
doing well in school as “acting white.”
From the time of slavery onwards, there has been a distinct
pattern of popularizing research that highlights Black Americans
as a damaged and degenerate group whose problems are caused
by their own culture and behavior (Scott, 1997). Scholarship
that supported such a view receives outsize attention from
media and the public. From the reinterpretation of the Clarks’
doll studies as evidence of low self-esteem (Clark & Clark,
1950) to Lewis’s (1966) and Moynihan’s (1965) “culture of poverty” to Ogbu’s “acting white” hypothesis (e.g., Fordham &
Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu, 2002) to Payne’s (1996/2005) sweeping
statements about “the poor,” negative assumptions about Black
identity have captured the public imagination. As educators and
educational researchers, we need to explore why these theories
have such traction.
It is important to note that much of the research base informing these views is either slim or missing altogether and has been
refuted many times. Horowitz’s (1939) work, which formed the
basis of the later “doll studies,” was based on data from only
three children. Fordham and Ogbu’s (1986) widely cited study
about “acting white” focused on only eight students. Payne’s
(2005) writing about “poverty,” Chua and Rubenfeld’s (2015)
treatise on the “culture of success” (that enables non-Black or
Latino groups to succeed despite discrimination, they argue),
and McWhorter’s (2001, 2003, 2006) writing about Black
“self-sabotage” are not based in research at all. Rather, all three
rely on personal experience to illuminate their theses, in each
case arguing for simple explanations to complex and multifaceted problems and groups of people. Payne’s (2005) writing is
based on her “observations” of how “the poor” think. In the
introduction to her book, Payne explains that she began her
work to help a friend who was an assistant principal at a school
with increasing numbers of students from low-income families.
Payne listened to her friends’ concerns about student discipline
and, without so much as visiting the school, was able to provide
solutions based upon her “knowledge” of poverty. Payne notes,
“Where had I gotten the data? … I was married more than 30
years to Frank, who grew up in poverty” (p. 1). Similarly,
McWhorter (2001, 2003, 2006), a linguist, draws almost exclusively from “his own experience” as a child and later a professor
when writing about what he describes as “anti-intellectualism”
in the Black community. He offers no data, nor any extensive
analysis of the social science literature, and no examination of a
broader scholarly context for making sense of his experience.
Instead, he offers platitudes and a constrained analysis of a very
narrow set of data and draws primarily upon his personal
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These ideas are thoroughly refuted by strong data and welldesigned studies. Darnell and Downey (1998), for example,
found that Black students are especially popular when they are
viewed as a “good” student and that, on the whole, Black students demonstrated more “proschool” attitudes than their white
peers. Tyson (Tyson et al., 2005) and Steinberg (Steinberg et al.,
1992) demonstrated that this pattern of denigrating peers’ efforts
in school is universal, and not limited to a particular racial or
cultural group. Smalls and her colleagues (2007) found the most
evidence for an “oppositional identity” among Black students
who most identified with an assimilationist, pro-white racial ideology rather than among those whose racial ideology focused on
Black solidarity. Qualitative studies that explicitly ask students
to reflect on and discuss the theory of “oppositional identity” or
what has become known as the “acting white hypothesis” find
that students do not identify with this explanation for the underachievement of Black youth (e.g., Bergin & Cooks, 2002; P. L.
Carter, 2006). P. L. Carter (2007) conducted an intensive qualitative study of Black and Latino youth and presents students’
voices on the value, function and meaning of race and culture in
their lives. Her study highlights an important and often ignored
perspective—students do not label themselves as “at risk,”
“endangered,” or “damaged.” It is the adults in their lives, and
particularly their teachers, who do. P. L. Carter (2006, 2007)
found that students showed a range of approaches to managing
issues of discrimination, identity, and school, but that students
overwhelmingly aspired to educational success, though they varied in how much they did or did not aspire to “white” cultural
styles of dress and speech: “on the contrary, resistance to ‘acting
white’ for many Black students is about maintaining cultural
identity, not about embracing or rejecting the dominant standards of achievement” (P. L. Carter, 2007, p. 61; see also Warikoo
& Carter, 2009). As Nasir (2012; Nasir, McLaughlin, & Jones,
2009) points out, these relationships are undoubtedly complex
and there is no “one” Black identity. However, to the extent that
identity includes a racial consciousness, Black identity has
repeatedly been observed to be associated with better, not worse,
educational outcomes.
Yet despite the overwhelming data refuting these models,
these ideas have garnered unprecedented attention and focus.
For example, a search on Google Scholar indicates that Fordham
and Ogbu’s (1986) original article introducing the idea of “acting white” has been cited 2,723 times. In addition, a later paper
by Ogbu (2002) rearticulating the same concept has been cited
915 times. Similarly, Lewis’s (1966) original “culture of poverty”
article in Scientific American has 1,185 citations, and Google
Scholar shows Moynihan’s book based on his report as having
2,643 citations. Of course, some of these citations emerge from
those critiquing the work—but it is a measure of the influence
these ideas have had in both professional and the popular venues. Payne’s (2005) book has sold over a million copies, is in its
fifth edition, and is widely used for teacher professional development. Barnes and Nobles named the fifth edition of her work
“Most Influential” and “Best of 2012.” McWhorter’s (2001,
2003, 2006) books have become bestsellers and are hailed by
many as the “real truth” about Black students and education.
Moreover, although the specific “culture of poverty” model
outlined in Lewis (1966) and Moynihan (1965) 50 years ago
might seem old-fashioned and out of date, we see modern versions of this all the time: Recent work exhorting Black parents to
“talk to their children more” in order to make them “more like
middle class children” (e.g., Nisbett, 2010), popular books purporting to “explain” why some cultural groups do better than
others because of certain cultural values (e.g., Chua & Rubenfeld,
2015), and even educators who focus uncritically on concepts
like “grit” (Duckworth, 2016) as what Black youth need fall solidly in this tradition.
We put forth a simple, yet provocative, question: Why are
statements that position Black people as deficient and needing of
“fixing” so readily accepted, and indeed lauded, even when these
statements are based in conjecture rather than research? We do
not suggest that these perspectives have gone unchallenged.
There have been strong critiques of popular work such as that of
Ruby Payne (e.g., see Gorski, 2006, 2008; Ng & Rury, 2006;
Osei-Kofi, 2005) and Ogbu (e.g., Ainsworth-Darnell &
Downey, 1998; P. L. Carter, 2006; Cook & Ludwig, 1998;
Horvat & Lewis, 2003; Spencer et al., 2001; Tyson, 2011;
Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005). These critiques have been
widely circulated and have even been broadly accepted among
many, though far from all, educational researchers. Nevertheless,
these critiques do not diminish the popular understanding of
these theories, where they remain as influential as ever both
within and outside of educational circles.
How is that research conducted over 30 years ago and refuted
many times since can still have so much influence in the public
imagination that a phrase like “acting white” still invades public
discourse about Black youth? We suggest it is because these ideas
run deeper than we care to believe. Such deeply and sometimes
unconsciously (or “dysconscious” as King [1991] articulates)
anti-Black perspectives cannot be uncovered without extensive
attention to this damage narrative. Like Tuck (2009), we argue
that it is the “damage” imagery itself that needs fixing and that
places the blame for the educational struggles of Black youth
squarely and solely on the shoulders of the youth themselves and
perhaps also on their families (Baldridge, 2014; Bonilla-Silva,
2003; King, 1991; Pollack, 2013; Pollack & Zirkel, 2013;
Valencia, 1997, 2010; Zirkel & Pollack, 2016). These lay narratives, so deeply embedded in the thinking of many of our teacher
and leader candidates, lie at the heart of our challenge for improving the educational experiences Black students. We cannot place
the blame for the popularity of these theories “out there” and
presume that “we” educators and educational researchers play no
role in this process. It is school and district leaders who are buying
and assigning all teachers to read Payne’s (1996/2005) book.
Included in the group of people who use, rely on, and popularize
“culture of poverty,” deficit narratives, and “acting white” hypotheses are many educators as well as educational researchers. We
suggest that the ongoing and outsize attention that these ideas
receive suggests that, as a field, we need to examine our own
assumptions about Black youth and their families at a deeper
level. Most importantly, we need to challenge ourselves to look
inward when trying to understand Black student outcomes rather
than looking outward toward Black racial identity.
We believe that understanding the value of a strong, positive
Black racial identity for educational outcomes and overall wellbeing can help us reframe the work we need to do. We aim, like
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June/July 2016 307
Tuck (2009), to help educators and educational researchers “flip
the damage narrative” and build a new conceptual framework
for our work with Black youth and families. Recognizing the
importance of a strong, positive Black racial identity leads to
questions about curriculum, pedagogy, and educational practices. Does our curriculum and pedagogy facilitate the development of a strong, positive Black racial identity? Do we see
evidence of its development in our students? How would we
know? When we propose interventions, policy changes, or new
practices to support Black student achievement, or endeavor to
“close the achievement gap,” have we paid sufficient attention to
whether these efforts will help or hurt young people’s racial identity development? Richert and her colleagues (2009) argue that
white educators need to learn about and understand the process
of racial identity development in order to become better educators. We agree, but go further: Educators and educational
researchers need to understand the role that the development of
racial identity has played in Black history and the impact of a
strong, positive Black racial identity for both overall well-being
and positive educational outcomes. We offer this review to help
researchers move away from a damage narrative to one of
strength, resilience, critical thinking, and deep engagement.
Summary and Conclusions
We trace the history of “damage” imagery in the study of Black
identity, and we report and review research demonstrating that
Black people in the U.S. often have a strong, positive racial identity and that the positive personal and educational impact of a
strong, positive Black racial identity is pervasive and robust.
Moreover, this has always been so and is not a recent development. At the same time, we see that the simple idea that it is
possible and beneficial for Black youth and adults to develop and
possess a strong, positive racial identity has been challenged time
and again in the social science literature. Our challenge, as educators, researchers, and theorists, is to examine our own deeply
held beliefs about Black identity and its meaning and implications for education. We must explore why we, as both scholars
and practitioners, keep returning to the idea that perhaps it is
not such a good idea for Black youth to have a strong, positive
racial identity. Why do we so readily accept flawed, unsubstantiated and weak research that says that Black youth are damaged
and ill equipped to succeed, academically and otherwise? We
believe that part of this reluctance to let go of these models
would require we look to ourselves, as educators, to explain
Black students’ educational outcomes, rather than pointing the
finger at Black families and communities. We call upon educators and educational researchers to question our hesitation in
believing that Black people can, do, and should have a positive
racial identity and that such an identity will enhance Black life.
We exhort educators and education researchers and theorists to
look in the mirror when we seek explanations for the outcomes
of Black students in U.S. schools. It is especially important for us
to ask ourselves why we imagined Black racial identity to be so
“dangerous” to Black youth and their peers. There is much that
we can do as both educational researchers and educators to
explore the implications of a strong, positive Black racial identity
and to help develop such an identity among those youth with
whom we work. We argue educational research with and for
Black youth will benefit from attention to Black racial identity
and its value for educational engagement and achievement. One
hundred and fifty years after the end of legal Black slavery in the
United States, it is time to move past notions that Black racial
identity is “dangerous” and instead to focus on how we can
encourage and facilitate racial identity development for Black
youth our schools.
The authors wish to thank their colleagues, Patricia Nunley and
JoDana Campbell, for comments on previous drafts of this article and
many discussions of the ideas we present here. We also wish to thank
the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful guidance
on its development. Sabrina Zirkel also wishes to thank Mills College
for sabbatical funding and Russell Sage Foundation Grant #87-15-02
for support during the development of this article. 1
Following Dumas and ross (2016), we capitalize “Black” because
it denotes a distinct and positive racial identity, whereas we do not capitalize “white” because it does not denote such an identity. 2
We use “white” in quotation marks in order to indicate places
where certain cultural practices or behavior are conceived by researchers
or the public as being what “white people” do but are in fact equating
“white” with studious, professional, or other characteristics. 3
We focus our attention on the study and thinking about Black
Americans—which in our formulation includes immigrants from the
African Diaspora in the U.S.—but we emphasize that these experiences
are mirrored in the experiences of the African Diaspora in much of
Europe and around the globe (see, e.g., Author, 2012; Waters, 1999). 4
Ironically, the denigration of Black identity depended in large
part on the development and conscious cultivation of a white identity
in the 19th-century U.S. (T. W. Allen, 1994; Painter, 2010). Before that
time, there was no coherent, pan-European “White” identity. 5
We believe that a critical racial consciousness is an important part
of the strong, positive Black racial identity. We thus distinguish our
conceptualization of a strong, positive Black racial identity from more
generic concepts such as self-esteem or even racial pride: One can feel
good about oneself or one’s racial group without feeling particularly
identified with it or have a strong consciousness about Black history
and culture. 6
These ideas have even been exported to Europe to explain the
educational experiences of African immigrants (Bisen et al., 2011).
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SABRINA ZIRKEL, PhD, is dean and professor of education in the
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as gender and class across educational settings and efforts to create classrooms, schools, and colleges that better serve students of color and other
underserved students.
TABORA JOHNSON, EdD, is an assistant professor and coordinator
of clinical practice and early field placement at Medgar Evers College,
CUNY, 1650 Bedford Ave., Suite 1007D, Brooklyn, NY 11225;
[email protected] Her research focuses on race and ethnicity in
education, culturally responsive teaching, preparing urban teachers, and
the experiences of Black students globally.
Manuscript received November 8, 2014
Revisions received June 26, 2015, and May 27, 2016
Accepted May 31, 2016
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