Race Matters

How black young men are overcoming the label of educational 'failure' to achieve success

University of Nottingham academics Prof Cecile Wright, Prof Uvanney Maylor and Sophie Becker explore how young black men seek to resist the label of school ‘failure’ to and transform themselves into success

 Young black males are often associated with ‘underperformance’ in the context of school academic achievement. Perceptions about this ‘failure’ are influenced by ideas around black masculinity. Yet despite these challenges young black men, by great personal effort, are working to overcome negative school experiences, see possibilities for their future and seek to transform school ‘failure’ into personal and educational ‘success’. Even permanent or temporary exclusion from school does not necessarily deter young black men from pursuing their education.

The ways in which young black males work to transform their negative school experience are complex and their narratives reveal a determination to succeed and the ways in which cultivation of this determination by the family, organisational and community agents promotes a sense of possibility.

bel hooks once wrote:

The portrait of black masculinity that emerges in this work perpetually constructs black men as ‘failures’ . . .. Yet, there has never been a time in the history of the United States when black folks, particularly black men, have not been enraged by the dominant culture’s stereotypical, fantastical representations of black masculinity.”

hooks’ comment exemplifies the dominant negative stereotypical narrative of black men in the United Kingdom and the United States societies. It portrays the presence of black males as problematic to the extent that black males are considered to have ‘failed’.

Indeed, it is widely recognised that part of the wider perception of black masculinity is the notion of ‘failure’. This is evident particularly within the context of education and with regard to black boys in the UK and the US in relation to them being labelled as ‘underperforming’. This has, in turn, been reflected in US and UK statistics relating to black male academic achievement, such as disproportionate unemployment and over-representation in the criminal justice system.

Within the UK, young people of African-Caribbean heritage, particularly young black men, feature disproportionately in terms of low educational achievement and high rates of exclusion from school. This is compared to Chinese and Indian heritage children who are consistently denoted as high achievers in terms of 5 A*–C GCSE passes (including English and mathematics), followed by white British, Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage children.

If unchallenged these notions of ‘failure’ become internalised and negative learner identities can be difficult to escape. A further problem is that rather than being regarded as individuals, stereotyped notions of black failure held by teachers can serve to limit a student’s ambitions because they are constantly told their goals are impossible to achieve.

The considerable variation in educational achievement for young black men is also linked to high exclusion rates. Exclusion from school, particularly black student exclusion, far outstrip those of other countries in Europe and North America. However, even in the US, school exclusion and suspension figures indicate that significantly high numbers of black students, particularly males, are being suspended and/or excluded, often for relatively minor incidents and at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.

In 2014, Barack Obama said:

As a black student, you are far less likely than a white student to be able to read proficiently by the time you are in 4th grade. By the time you reach high school, you’re far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. Black kids are nearly four times as likely [as white kids] to be suspended. And if a student has been suspended even once by the time they’re in 9th grade they are twice as likely to drop out, we know young black men are twice as likely as young white men to be ‘disconnected’ – not in school, not working. Fewer young black and Latino men participate in the labour force compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults.”

Obama’s comment concerning the educational outcomes of ‘Black kids’ resonates strongly with the situation in the UK, but a number of writers go beyond this (Channer, Rhamie, Byfield and Wright) by offering evidence of young black people’s successful personal and educational outcomes of post-compulsory education. It is important to explore all aspects of black students’ experiences within the education system, not only the pattern of differentiated attainment, but also the factors that fracture that pattern and enable academic success.

Low attainment at 16 is not the disaster which is often portrayed to be, as it can be a platform for making a fresh start in a new learning environment on a journey to improve longer-term career prospects. An understanding of how low GCSE attainment can lead to renewed self-belief in a non-mainstream school environment is needed to gain a sense of educational progression of young black people. One route for this is further education, as further education colleges offer opportunities and courses for black young people who have been alienated by their experience of school.

Indeed it is evident that African-Caribbean males are more likely to continue their studies in further education than white males. Data also suggest that the proportion of UK domiciled black students pursuing higher education degree courses has increased since the academic year 2003/04. The desire for further and higher education study highlights the commitment of young black people to challenge conceptions of black ‘failure’.

One young man, Leon, told us:

My mum and dad just said, when I was excluded they just said the main thing was to turn the negative into positive in the long run by what I did, what I achieved, my exam results, which basically [is] like spitting in the head teacher’s face.”

This was a typical example of comments which explicitly talked about the need to resist and re-negotiate the school ‘failure’ identity label ascribed to them through the school exclusion process.

Aspirational and resistant capital is the desire to be highly ambitious, even in the face of considerable barriers. The desire to achieve educational success, carving out a career path and social mobility was a common theme emanating from the black males narratives that emerged in our University of Nottingham interviews.

A study by David Merolla found black parents’ high aspirations combined with ‘black students high expectations act as a critical buffer against the reproduction of racial inequalities in educational attainment’ and create the conditions for future possibilities. The young men became engaged in pursuing the ‘turnaround narrative’, aided by strong family bonds.

As Nelson expressed to us in our study:

She (mother) believed in me. I think it might have brought us closer together closer because she actually believed me and trusted me and showed me how to cope. I was happy that she believed me. I was glad that she was there to support me.”

Participants’ told us how they sought to re-negotiate their identity as school ‘failures’ and how this strongly related to aspirational and resistant capital alongside the ‘turnaround narrative’ developed through their family.

The role of mothers is pivotal to how black males traverse and transcend the educational terrain to ensure a positive outcome. Localised community programmes such as those offered by black community organisations, black churches and black supplementary schools, also influence young black men by providing advice, mentoring, inspiration, information about accessing education and training opportunities which enabled them to convert their social capital directly into navigational capital.

The focus of these services would appear to be two-fold. Firstly, navigational capital in the form of practical and emotional support such as advice, career advice, tutoring services, self-affirming classes, access to educational opportunities which were critical to black males pathway to educational and personal success. Secondly, engaging in political activism concerning obstacles to black young people accessing educational opportunities.

In essence, these organisations’ help young black men to develop a pro-active approach to accessing educational opportunities, think about strategies to achieve social mobility, and encourage constructive racial and cultural identity and a focus on achieving success through personal transformation.

Over 50 years after the ‘Race Relations Act, 1965, education inequality remains central to the wider black struggle against inequality. The “ground level” activism can play a key role in the transformation of this situation.

  • This article is a shortened version of an academic essay (‘Young black males: resilience and the use of capital to transform school ‘failure’) published here with references and footnotes.


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