A Study of Academically High Achieving, Economically Challenged African American Young Men

John F. Young

Teachers College, Columbia University










This study examines the characteristics of academically high achieving, economically challenged African American young men who attend an Ivy League University. From the analysis of the data, I will bring to the forefront the emotions, attitudes, and beliefs that influenced these young men’s academic success. This research study will bring to light the lives of academically accomplished young men who are normally invisible. Their prospectives will provide important interpretations and understandings of how academically successful African American young men have negotiated their multiple worlds to become academically successful. The results of this study can be used by the community and interested persons to help other young men to become academically successful.


In popular print and electronic media, African American males have been disproportionately portrayed as either incorrigible criminals or incredibly gifted and talented athletes or entertainers. The images of African American males being successful and accomplished scientists, mathematicians, professionals, researchers, or scholars are seldom seen. Michael Jordan, Sammy Sosa, Jay Z, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Carmello Anthony are, by far, more recognizable figures than James Comer, Jamie Escalante, Robin Kelly, and Ben Carson. Academic achievement is so reviled among many young African American males, it is viewed as being "un-cool" or "acting white" to excel academically in school (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). This can be clearly seen in schools where the male student who is known in the school community as "Dr. Professor", "mad scientist", "supergenius," or "nerd," is constantly castigated, ridiculed, and humiliated among and in front of his peers.

As Hrabowski (1998) has pointed out, arguably the most famous, ridiculed African American "nerd" seen on television was the character Urkel, from the 1990s popular situation comedy Family Matters. More recently, Jabari, has appeared on the BET (Black Entertainment Television) reality series College Hill. None of Urkel’s or Jabari’s peers liked them, and they were both the constant brunt of jokes and ridicule. What young man, particularly if he is African American living in an urban area where poverty may be a constant way of life and survival in this environment is the primary concern, would want to be treated in such a mortifying manner?

African American Males’ Dilemma

Insinger (2004) points out that for young African American men, knowledge of the "code of the street" is particularly important in projecting manhood and commanding respect which are essential for negotiating the potentially threatening environment of the streets. If a young man does not know and abide by the street code, he places himself at peril for not only ridicule and harassment, but possibly physical harm (Insinger, 2004). Thus, African American males must adopt a veneer of toughness and lack of fear in order to earn peer respect and prevent challenges from others. In many instances, an academic orientation will not be their goal and reaching for academic excellence is completely out of the question.

African American males are more likely to be tracked into remedial and low-ability courses and more likely to be absent from advanced placement and honors courses (Oakes, 1985; Pollard, 1993). The location of African American males, in remedial classes or waiting for punishment outside the principal’s office, and the roles they perform in school settings suggest that intellectual activities are incompatible with their socially constructed identities (Conchas, 2006). It is far more accepted among urban high school students to see African American young women achieve academically than to see African American young men do the same. Here we see shades of how boys and girls are expected to assume roles in school based on peer group pressure (Fine, 1986; Grant, 1984; Valenzuela, 1999).


Academic Achievement Important?

For many African American young men, academic achievement is not a top priority or a possibility. Therefore, it is not surprising that "one in five African American students drops out before the end of high school" (Graham, 1989, p. 63). Watson (2006b) has reported that in Chicago, 18% of African American men have earned a college degree. Usually concentrating on athletics is much more important than earning good grades in the classroom (Graham et al, 1998; Lamb, 2006; Thompson & Lewis, 2005). Most of these young men want to be a part of the in crowd and do whatever is considered cool, such as playing sports.

Graham et al (2005) found in their research that although nearly a third of African American middle school boys respected and admired high achieving, socially compliant girls, nearly three quarters of the boys surveyed felt that academically low achieving, social deviant boys were most admired, respected, and the object of emulation. More time is spent developing their physical attributes such as playing basketball and football instead of concentrating on school work. The dream is usually to get a college basketball scholarship, get drafted by the NBA and sign a multi-million dollar contract, and sign another multi-million dollar basketball shoe contract. Of course, this rarely happens.

What actually happens in many resource poor, all African American urban high schools is that the tougher and more "gangsta" the young man acts, the "cooler" he is considered, and is placed on a social pedestal (Suskind, 1998). This sentiment is supported by a high achieving, African American young man who attended a high school in East Baltimore, "Everybody is trying to be like that [gangster] so the people who actually really do have potential lose the drive because they’re not competing with anybody around them. Everybody’s trying to be a thug" (Thompson & Lewis, 2005, p. 6).

Influence of Social Institutions

Many African American males living in major urban centers of the United States face numerous social and economic barriers. Drug activity, violence, and crime give them a personal experience with all the things they do not want to be in life. For young men who want to become something other than gangsters, professional basketball players, or rap stars, there is very little support or encouragement among their peers to pursue career goals that require extensive college and university education (Thompson & Lewis, 2005). Because the school systems that these young people attend reflect the dominant, White middle-class, mainstream culture, the values and experiences found in their culture are not valued, thus, some of these students enter into the school system with an educational disadvantage (Delgado Bernal, 1998).

The use of standardized tests to assess students is rampant across America. These tests mirror the same dominant White middle-class, mainstream culture that places African American males disproportionately in special education classes and does not identify them for gifted and talented programs that will prepare them for advanced academic and college preparatory work (Lamb, 2006). The confounding of socioeconomic status with race has clear and evident results when examining SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) scores. There is a clear correlation between income level, race of the students taking the exam, and score achieved (Van Tassel-Baska & Willis, 1988).

Consequently, considering the fact that African American males are not being identified as being academically high achieving combined with the tremendous peer pressure not to achieve, it is little wonder why so few African American young males are in honors or advanced placement courses (Cross, 2006). The reality for many of these young men is that they are much more frequently listed on the suspension roll than the honor roll. "When Black boys are brought together for any sort of special program, at least one will usually ask 'What did we do wrong this time?' because the only time when they think of themselves getting together collectively in school, other than in sports, is in some negative context" (Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif, 1998, p. x). Even instances of resilience, success, and competence displayed by African American young men in spite of adverse living conditions often go unnoticed and unrecognized, thus denying them a sense of success and accomplishment (Spencer et at., 2003).

The Advanced Placement Situation

Statistics bear out the practically non-existent participation of African American males in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. African Americans took only 5.2 % of all AP examinations administered in the United States (Cross, 2006). Only 7 % of African Americans took the AP English Literature test, which is the most frequently taken exam of the 35 AP tests. Of the very few who took the test, their test scores where far behind those of their White classmates. Nationwide, the mean AP score for White students was 2.98; the mean score for African American students was 1.99. Furthermore, in 2005, 63 % of the 984,405 White students who too AP exams received a qualifying score of 3 or above, only approximately 28 % of African American students fell in that range (Cross, 2006).

There Is Success

Shifting the thinking from viewing African American male students through a deficit lens to viewing these same students through a strength-based model has led researchers to investigate variables associated with students who are beating the odds of their predictive circumstances. A plethora of research abounds that seeks to explain the educational failure of African American males rather than exploring their successes (Gayles, 2002). Spencer et al. (2003)support this claim by stating that "The existing literature ignores the fact that many African American males are quite successful in spite of extreme reactive coping efforts required for life in high-risk environments" (p. 619). There are African American young men who truly beat the odds (Harrington, & Broadman, 1997; Hrabowski et al, 1998; Levine, 1996).

Barbarian (1993), Frieberg (1993), Rutter (1987), and Werner (1989) maintain that many African American males learn and succeed in school despite circumstances that include low socioeconomic status minimal teacher expectations, and inadequate representations of their successes. These young men overcome the barriers of economic disenfranchisement and social ostracism to flourish academically. They recognize the structural constraints in society, but they become determined not to allow these barriers to impede their social mobility (Conchas, 2006).

Achieving the American dream is very real for them. Individual determination, hard work, effort, and support are key ingredients high achieving African American males believe will assist them in overcoming obstacles to become successful (Conchas, 2006; Gayles, 2005, Wright, 1996). Not only do they survive their high school experiences, some excel academically to the point where they earn admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Research is needed to focus on African American young men who are both economically challenged and academically successful in order to shed light on how they develop and mature in American society. It is critical for me that their lives as real human beings who experience successes, failures, disappointments, triumphs, and set backs represent the full range of characteristics, attitudes, behaviors, values, and beliefs that comprise all individuals.


There is a gap in the research of the existence of academically high achieving, economically challenged African American males (Thompson & Lewis, 2005). Additionally, there is a limited body of scholarship that portrays the lives of African American young men who beat the odds and excel academically in high school (Simons, 2003; Suskind, 1998).

The purpose of this study is to understand the influences, attitudes, beliefs, and values of academically high-achieving, economically challenged African American young men attending an Ivy League university. By using several qualitative methodologies to explore the experiences of 4 academically high achieving, economically challenged African American young me who attend an Ivy League university, the following research questions will specifically address how these young men were able to achieve academically in high school:

Research Methodology

The participants in this study were African American males between the ages of 18 and 22 whose maternal and paternal grandparents are of African ancestry, and were born in the United States. They are members of the Opportunity Programs and Undergraduate Services (OPUS) program at Columbia University. OPUS is the umbrella program for two smaller programs, Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and National Opportunity Program (NOP). HEOP is a New York State program initiated in 1969 to assist low income and first generation college students in obtaining a higher education at private institutions. NOP is a Columbia University program established in 1986 that provides the same academic and financial support that HEOP provides but to students from all across the United States. In order to be eligible for the HEOP or NOP program, students must be outstanding academic students, and their families must meet certain income requirements. A small honorarium in addition to a light dinner was offered to the participants during every interview session.

One 90-minute focus group and one 45-minute individual interview was conducted over the course of a 2-week period. Each of the four individual interviews was semi-structured and influenced by grand tour, open-ended questions (Seidman, 1998). Both focus group and individual interviews were conducted in the afternoon on the Teachers College campus during the month of June. Dinner was provided at every meeting, and each participant was given $40 for his participation in the focus group and the individual interview.


Influences of the family, particularly the role of the mother as the first teacher, early identification in the 1st and 3rd grade for gifted programs in the elementary school, the importance of the African American church community, participation in extra-curricular activities, and the importance of peer and teacher support were some of topics the participants felt positively affected their ability to succeed academically in school. All of the participants agreed with the statement made by the oldest participant that "I could not have made it in high school, let alone excel without the help and support of my family and other people in my community." This revelation supports the popular adage that "It takes a village to raise a child." that is quoted widely today.

The study also revealed that many of the participants had meaningful relationships with their peers, and two related that they were considered members of the "in crowd" and were elected members of the student government. The oldest participant said that a few of the girls in his class made reference to him as the "sexy nerd." One participant had little to no contact with peers because he spent most of his out-of-school time involved with church activities (Peoples, 2003). His experience coincides with the literature that asserts the importance of the church in some academically high achieving students. An intriguing commentary made by all four participants was that while enrolled in AP courses, they did not spend a large part of their time studying but still managed to earn top grades. Consequently, I inferred that persistence was not a necessarily major factor in determining their school success. Additionally, all four had a very strong awareness of themselves, pride in their African American heritage, happy memories of their high school experiences, and a sense of obligation to implement their intellectual gifts and talents to help the broader African American community.


The overall experiences in high school were positive and that their identities were not compromised in order to achieve academically (i.e., they did not have to become raceless to be accepted by White peers and teachers to excel academically). Their families were supportive, and their elementary schools were able to identify their academic skills early and provide them with appropriate academic placements. The protocols I created were able to prompt the participants into recalling Significance of the Study

Findings from this study can be used by school districts to replicate environments, structures, and attitudes to possibly increase the number of academically accomplished African American young men (Hrabowski et al., 1998). The findings can also be used by parents, families, and community members to understand what these young men undergo and experience and positive action can be taken to better assist other young men in becoming academically successful, ultimately increasing the number of young men who become college graduates (Ford, 1999). Therefore, increasing the number of these young men in the gifted and talented, academically challenging, honors, International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) courses is possible (Baldwin, 1986; Ford, 1991). Consequently, the ranks of African American young men who are recognized as honor students, scientists, professors, National Merit, and Achievement Scholars may possibly rise.

The following programs are only a partial list of supplemental programs around the country that are available for African American males (and females) that encourage low-income African American and Latino students to pursue academic excellence. Prep for Prep identifies talented public elementary school students of color and prepares them for placement in leading independent day, boarding, and high regarded suburban schools in affluent communities across the country. The QuestBridge program partners with 19 of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities and offers 45 full-tuition scholarships each year to low-income students. The Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) founded by Gary Simons, the founder of Prep for Prep, goal is to increase the number of African American and low-income students enrolled in the most prestigious colleges and universities in America. A Better Chance recruits academically motivated students of color and matches them with a school that meets their individual needs and grooms the student for enrollment in elite liberal arts colleges and Ivy eague universities. The Posse Foundation identifies, recruits, and trains students leaders from public high schools and links them with the nations top college and university partners. Institution partners provide full four-year scholarships to selected Posse Scholars.







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