Talk Back

Education Excellence for African Americans?

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The new movie Dope stars Shameik Moore as a young brilliant Black Los Angeles high school student who gets entangled in a haphazard scheme to sell drugs. Playing on the stereotype of young Black men as “dope dealers,” the film illustrates a host of obstacles faced by Black youth when pursuing educational excellence and sometimes to survive. Is the film mere Hollywood hyperbole?

Truth is, it’s not.

In the United States, Black students encounter a series of educational detours that compromise academic success.

Unlike Dope, for too many Black students there are not happy endings. A recent report by researchers at the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School found that Black girls are more likely to be suspended compared to White, Asian and Latina girls. The suspension rates for Black boys are equally troubling, representing 20% of total suspensions ( Such suspension rates mean that Black students are more likely to miss a fatal amount of days of instruction. Upon completing their studies, Black students face a higher unemployment (10.5%) relative to Whites (4.7%), Asians (4.1%) and Hispanics (6.7%).  Data from the U.S. Department of Education also reveals that Black students are more likely to be placed into special education and less likely to have access to college and career ready coursework.

What can we do about this?  Where are the solutions? During a recent Summit on African American Educational Excellence (AfAmEdSummit) held at UCLA in late June. we learned from Black student panelists that fruitful solutions lay in an undervalued source: the voices and experiences of Black students.

Consider Charity Chandler. Charity served as one of nine panelists at the AfAmEdSummit and recently received her Master’s degree in Business Administration.  Now in her late twenties, by the time Charity had reached 18 she had experienced “being bullied and raped as well as the foster care and juvenile justice systems.”  While in foster care, Charity “was sexually exploited,” and was frequently told “that she wouldn’t amount to anything,”—this sometimes from the very people who were charged with supporting her learning and development.  During the panel, Charity underscored the importance of all young people having caring and concerned adults to support them as they learn and grow. There were not many images of success, nor the support that typically comes from family surrounding her.  She would give birth to her first child before the age of 21.

The AfAmEdSummit acknowledged and celebrated Charity as an expert because of her lived experience. What we learned from Charity was that when provided a platform, she was able to make recommendations for policy and practice while reminding people of the importance of listening to those most often neglected and ignored (I want this to be about the importance of pushing past the tendency to only want to hear form those who are straight A students to honor the experiences of those who have lived in all forms). Charity spoke powerfully about how education and faith worked together to keep her motivated.  She wanted to be an example for her young child of how to succeed in spite of obstacles, which culminated in 2012 when she received her BA from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  Her story and message resonated at the AfAmEdSummit, in large part because she literally had to thrive and survive within the difficult contexts of gangs, juvenile courts, rape, and sex work—and has succeeded in spite of it all. Her message to all, but especially, our young Black women is “If Charity did it, so can I.”

This is but one example of the creative genius and tenacity that resides within each of our students, boys and girls alike. To optimize efforts to accelerate achievement, we have to learn directly from the experiences and recommendations of Black students.  Because there are no lay people in the work of supporting our students, the Summit’s Black student panelists offered some simple everyday practices and perspectives we can all adopt to affect change.

Mind what you say. Messages matter and there is power in precision. Too infrequently are Black students and children not told they CAN go to college. Essential to undoing this trend is using facts to bust myths like “there are more Black men in prison than in college, and more young Black girls with babies than diplomas.” If we change how we think about our students, it impacts how they are treated and supported. Students tend to remember how they were treated while completing their education, and the trauma of bad experiences can follow them throughout their journey. Subjects students thrive in can be anchors and positively inform their overall achievement. This means that programs in music and arts, physical education, and AP courses play a huge role in overall retention and matriculation outcomes.

This is village work. Too often debates and policies about supporting learning and development are reduced to an “educational blame game”—identifying culprits and pointing fingers up-and-down the educational hierarchy with little regard to the fact that every caring and concerned adult has a role to play in supporting our students, schools and country. In fact, there is a role for everyone to play, from mentoring to supporting extra-curricular opportunities to campaigning to save music programs in our schools. Imagine if we all start to listen to and learn from African American students and their experiences. Now that would be in a word, dope.


David J. Johns is executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.  Marcus Anthony Hunter is assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA and author of ‘Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America’.


An assistant professor in sociology, Professor Hunter is faculty in the department of African American Studies, and  a faculty affiliate at the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.  Professor Hunter is generally interested in race, sexuality, urban race relations, politics, history and change with an especial focus on urban black Americans. Professor Hunter comes to UCLA from Yale University, where he was a sociology professor and received the prestigious Poorvu Family Fund Award for teaching excellence.