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Think. Discuss. Act. African American Culture

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Review: Black Student Achievement

Reynolds, P. Black. Bright and Beset: Peer Pressure Makes Good Grades Bad News for Some Students. (1987, November 17). The Boston Globe.


(Download Bright & Beset overview as a PDF)

“Black kids can’t afford NOT to achieve,” has been said many times and noted to the author of this article by John O’Bryant of the Boston School Committee. Yet many students, and especially blacks, are finding that “studying hard, spending time at the library, getting good grades, is cause for shame. At least among peers.”

Many bright, black students these days are being called “nerds,” “brainiacs,” “acting white,” and “squares.” Ayesha Moore, 17, of Charlestown High (Massachusetts) says her friends taunt her for not cutting classes with them or for raising her hand to answer questions. “They look at me like, ‘What are you trying to do? Do you think you’re better than us?” When Derek Taylor, a 19 year-old senior at Charlestown High, started to leave some friends to study at 9:00 p.m. one evening, “one of them started calling me ‘schoolboy.’ “

Marva Collins is a nationally acknowledged master teacher. Her Westside Preparatory School in Chicago’s inner city is an inspiring success story. Collins observes, “I see it all the time. The kids are so busy trying to maintain street lingo they do not achieve to their fullest potential. When my children come into school, they say, ‘you talk like white folk.’ And then you have to explain to them that there is proper grammar and improper grammar and it takes a while for them to realize they are speaking improperly.”

Anthropologist Signithia Fordham of the University of the District of Columbia, who spent a year studying achievement in an inner city high school, concludes, “Doing well in school involves risks for black kids. It’s a dilemma for the kids and it tends to make successful black children fraught with conflicts. If kids choose to do well, they pay a high price for that. They feel isolated, alienated.”

This may be a primary factor in the results obtained by studies of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Researchers suspect that the fact that black students’ score “consistently lower than whites, regardless of family income or restructured test questions…may point to the damaging repercussions of such peer pressure.”

Fordham offers three factors to explain the cause and power of this academically negative peer influence:

  • Public school education has slighted black history and achievement. Gregory Burnett, 17, asserts, “We talk about black history for about two days (maybe in black history month). They don’t think about it any other time.” With such a perception black students can view achieving in school as the acceptance of “white” values and attitudes.
  • In the absence of historic black contributions and black viewpoints, black students may “develop not only a feeling of alienation but of inferiority as well.” A general expectation of black intellectual inferiority noted by students and experts, and has a powerful impact on black student performance. Sawana Hines, 16, notes, “Teachers don’t tell you that you can’t do well. But if you’re black and get a C they say, ‘That’s really good for you.’ But if it was somebody white they would be like, ‘you’re slipping, what’s happening to you?’ “
  • Most important, according to Fordham, is black students’ pessimism about the future. “Real opportunities for advancement in adult life are severely limited, and thus hard work to achieve those advances is pointless.” Dalle Terrell, 16, talks about kids who see pushers making $400 a day selling drugs in the neighborhood, “They feel: ‘School is not going to do anything for me because I can go out in the street and sell drugs and make money.’ They don’t realize that’s not the only way to make money until they end up in jail.”

Fordham holds that there is unique reluctance to excel among black students and hopes that the black community will provide more visible and concrete encouragement for academic effort and success. Academic excellence must be separated from “acting white” in the minds of students.

Not all experts agree. Asa G. Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State University, and Jay MacLeod, Rhodes scholar and author of Ain’t No Makin’ It, believe such negative attitudes toward academic achievement exist in all lower-class neighborhoods-and that middle-class black communities give positive support to academic rigor.


  1. The underachievement of black (and white) students must be acknowledged. When economic futility, racism, easy money from drug pushing, and rap music’s diversion to the sweet life undermine hard work toward personal success and social contributions, it should concern us all.
  2. The ideas and statements in this article can be used to foster discussions and should be followed by heavy rap contrasting hope and dope, brains and drains.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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