For some black students, failing is safer
Many who strive to do well often face peers who call them "too white'

Thursday, May 28, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

For as long as she can remember, Carrie Lucas has kept her guard up around white people.

Taft High junior Carrie Lucas, center, waits with other students in the cafeteria line.
(Steven M. Herrpich photo)
| ZOOM |

The 17-year-old Taft High School junior says it's no secret that a lot of whites don't want African-Americans to succeed.

But at 14, she was shocked to learn that a lot of blacks didn't want her to succeed either.

Since she began achieving high grades as a freshman three years ago, the Mount Auburn teen has endured a stream of verbal harassment from some of her African-American peers.

"It was always, "Why are you trying to be white? Are you trying to be better than us?' " Carrie says.

It's the time of year when schools recognize academic accomplishments at honors assemblies and graduation ceremonies. While ambitious students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds have always been teased by their peers, black students often face a more pointed taunt from an unexpected source -- other black youths.

The putdown equates academic achievement with "selling out" and "trying to be white."

The anti-achievement ethos is often an insidious pull on African-American students' performance, so much so that it recently attracted the attention of several national black advocacy organizations.

In April, in partnership with the National Congress of Black Churches and other groups, the national Urban League introduced an initiative to promote black student success. The Campaign for African American Achievement will try to counter negative peer pressure and lack of parental involvement.

The program has already started in 20 of the Urban League's 115 chapters. The Urban League of Greater Cincinnati plans to establish a national honors club, the Thurgood Marshall National Achievers Society, by next spring. It will provide clothing and scholarship incentives to students for keeping a B-average and performing community service.

The Urban League effort is similar to an Ohio State University extension program in Cincinnati Public Schools since 1988.

OSU's Young Scholars initiative identifies urban, low-income, minority youths in the sixth grade in nine Ohio districts and attempts to provide them with support to overcome peer pressure and other educational obstacles. The promise is college financial aid if they graduate high school with a B-average or better.

"The black kids who are academically sound still want to be friends with the kids on the block, but they need support not to be drug down by their desire to fit in," says Clarence Frazier, Cincinnati Young Scholars coordinator and former assistant principal at Withrow High School.

Statewide, a survey of OSU Young Scholars determined that negative peer pressure is the No. 1 obstacle for academic achievement. The key to success, the survey showed, is reducing time spent with negative peers without cutting ties to them.

Peer pressure isn't the only factor inhibiting black student performance. Other factors include poverty, limited access to role models and positive images and low societal expectations. Black peer-group pressure to underachieve, while difficult to quantify, is omnipresent.

Some educators and sociologists say it contributes to blacks' statistically poorer academic performance. In 1997, ninth-grade Ohio proficiency test results show that lower percentages of African-Americans in Cincinnati Public Schools passed than whites in each of four subjects, including a 62-27 percent difference in math.

"It's real," Ellie Johnson, principal at Woodward High School, says.

Says Bill Solomon, a Taft High math teacher who is African-American, "To be "in' is not to be a good student."

And the racial dig is especially painful.

"I didn't expect this from black people. We're supposed to help lift each other up because we've all been oppressed," says Carrie, who has a 3.3 grade-point average and plans to attend Northeastern University in Boston or Washington University in St. Louis to study pre-law and law.

"A lot of (black people) are rude. They're judgmental. They criticize you for wanting to do something else with your life."

Many black students would rather underachieve and fit in among their peers than excel and risk being ostracized, says Signithia Fordham, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and author of Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity and Success at Capital High (University of Chicago Press; 1996).

These students, she says, will stop doing their best in school, skip classes and even drop out.

In differernt worlds

Joseph Day lives in different worlds but says he belongs in neither.

He lives with his grandmother, who's on a fixed-income, in Pleasant Ridge. He hangs out with friends he has known since their years at Roselawn Condon elementary. Some of them are high school dropouts. A couple are gang members. A few of them work.

Coping tips
  • Parents can build their child's self-esteem and racial pride by teaching them the wide scope of black achievement in the United States and other countries.

  • Parents can arrange to have their children associate and play with children from other families who place a high value on education and achievement.

  • Celebrate Kwanzaa and other black cultural events that emphasize personal and community excellence.

  • Parents can set a positive example by getting involved in their children's schools.

  • Students should confide in a teacher, minister or mentor if they are experiencing harassment at school because of their outstanding academic performance.
  • His buddies want Joseph to skip school and party with them during the day, which he sometimes does. This is what Joseph calls his "black world."

    Joseph's other world is Walnut Hills High School, a demanding college-prep institution that his black friends refer to as a "white school," even though 40 percent of its students are African-American. It's there that Joseph, 18 and a senior, studies physics, Spanish and statistics.

    "It's been real, real hard," Joseph says.

    Many of Walnut Hills' students are from middle- and upper-class white families. They have computers at home and the money for field trips, the latest clothes and extracurricular activities.

    Joseph does not.

    His neighborhood friends don't understand why he sometimes stays in to study before coming out late at night.

    "There are so many distractions here," Joseph says while sitting on a couch in his grandmother's living room. "But I've got to stay on good terms with these guys. We've got to stay tight. They have to know they're important to me.

    "You can't make it through life if you don't fit in."

    At the same time, Joseph won't let his neighborhood friends tell him what to do.

    "My dreams are so much bigger than theirs," he says. "I don't want to be rich; I just want a safe place to have a family."

    Joseph is considering enlisting in the armed services as a way to escape. "UC (the University of Cincinnati) is a good school, but not for me," he says. "I've got to get out of Cincinnati." He'd like to be an engineer. Math and science are his strongest subjects. He has a 2.5 GPA at Walnut Hills, and scored 1,100 on his SAT.

    "I'm a lot smarter than I let on," Joseph says. "If I would have tried harder and not been pulled down, I could have done so much better. I messed up so bad.

    "Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be white and not have to deal with all this stuff. Being white has to be so much easier than being black."

    Blackness vs. whiteness

    Academic achievement isn't the only activity that some black youths say is "white."

    Involvement in mainstream culture, such as theater, having white friends and speaking standard English also make black students vulnerable to the taunt that they are selling out. These are activities that much of general society -- and many African-Americans -- do not associate with "being black."

    Blackness, according to this reasoning, is defined by a preoccupation with basketball, an affinity with rap music and the ability to fistfight, author and education consultant Jawanza Kunjufu writes in To Be Popular or Smart: The Black Peer Group (African-American Images, 1989).

    "It has increased," says Mr. Kunjufu, an African-American, in an interview from his Chicago office. "It is increasingly difficult to go against the peer group."

    Even a black student's college choice can be criticized.

    Why choose Miami?

    Kitalena Mason, valedictorian of Withrow High School's Class of 1998, will attend Miami University in Oxford this fall. She was surprised when her college choice drew odd responses from black peers.

    Why you want to go to that white school? You think you better than us? Why ain't you going to Fisk?

    Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., is one of the nation's historically black colleges. Miami is 93 percent white.

    "I have a friend who is black who is at Miami, and he's told me everything is OK," says Kitalena 18, a Mount Healthy resident who plans to study communications and Spanish. "It's so petty to racially stereotype people. I want to ask these people, "How far has that gotten you?' "

    The taunt was an irritant, she says, but nothing that could detour her from her goals. She has too much support at home to fall prey. Kitalena's the daughter of a Thai mother and an African-American father who insisted on excellence.

    "If (youths who taunted her) really thought about what they were saying, they'd realize they were insulting themselves."

    Fear of abandonment

    African-American youths who hurl "selling out" insults often do so out of fear of abandonment. As the black middle class continues to expand, many African-Americans see themselves hopelessly left behind, says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School and co-author of Raising Black Children (Plume, 1992).

    Tristate resources
  • Ohio State University's Young Scholars Program provides academic support to promising urban, low-income minority youths in grades 6-12 in Cincinnati Public Schools. Information: 569-8670.

  • Cincinnati Youth Collaborative provides mentors and tutoring and other services to local youths ages kindergarten through 12th grade. Information: 475-4959.

  • Urban League of Greater Cincinnati offers the National Urban League Incentive to Excel and Succeed program (NULITES) to African-American students and next year will begin participating in the national Urban League's Campaign for African American Achievement, a program to promote academic achievement among African-Americans. Information: 281-9955.

  • The "Leadership and Rites of Passage Camp" will be June 15-18 at Camp Chazon in Dillsboro, Ind. The camp targets African-American youths ages 9-16. Information: 861-9563, 631-4453.
  • "Sometimes it's family members who reject a smart kid because they feel the smart child will desert them for the white community," says Dr. Poussaint, who is African-American.

    Forty years ago, at the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, 60 percent of African-Americans lived in poverty. Today that number is 29 percent, according to the Census Bureau. (The federal poverty level for a family of three is $20,004.) At the same time, the black middle class has grown to 40 percent.

    But poor-performing black students try to hold up their grades as the norm, Dr. Poussaint says. The success of academically successful black students makes them feel even more like failures.

    Gifted black students are often hazed as "traitors" to their race for getting good grades, he says. That's because academic failure is often regarded as a kind of camaraderie among African-American students.

    Both groups of black students are responding to the same societal stigma that African-Americans are inferior, says Ms. Fordham, the Maryland teacher and author.

    "Some students resist the claim that African-Americans can't achieve by being on time every day, doing their homework, getting vested in a school," she says. "Other students avoid school success because they feel school will not make a difference in their lives."

    As a result, studies of integrated schools show that African-Americans, primarily males, dominate remedial and special education classrooms and are missing from gifted programs.

    Going against this low standard -- attending private school, for example -- draws negative peer pressure.

    Hanging on to talent

    Earlier this semester, Bobby Payne had been scoring in the 90s in his religion class at Purcell-Marian High School.

    Then the freshman's scores dropped into the 70s. When his teacher, the Rev. William Cross, inquired, the answer was negative comments from some of his black friends. He wasn't studying as much as he had been. He had stopped trying his best.

    Bobby, 15, a freshman from Kennedy Heights, says he is teased by his cousins and some neighbors who attend public schools that he is a "little rich white boy" because he goes to a Catholic school. "They think it's a white school," says Bobby, who attended a predominantly black Catholic elementary school, St. Francis de Sales, which is around the corner from Purcell-Marian in Walnut Hills. About a third of Purcell-Marian's 730 students are African-American. High school brought on social changes for Bobby, his mother says.

    "His group of friends is older and larger," Oymma Barker, 40, says. "His cousins now have older friends from public schools, and Bobby is listening to some of them. He's the only one not in public school."

    Talks with his mother and Father Cross have helped him get back on track, says Bobby, who wants to attend Georgia Tech or Morehouse or Clark colleges to study chemical or electrical engineering. He's again scoring in the 90s.

    He also had a dream.

    "God told me to do my best," Bobby says. "God gives us certain talents, but if we don't use them, he takes them away. I don't want to lose the talents I've been given."

    Tracing the beginnings

    Sociologists and other scholars date the rise of the black anti-achievement attitude to the 1960s. That's when two fundamental changes occurred in society:

  • Much of the black middle class left for the suburbs, taking with it several role models whose success reinforced the importance of education in predominantly black neighborhoods.

  • Public school desegregation brought with it forced busing that moved black children out of their neighborhood schools and into predominantly white schools.

    Integration cultivated an idea that blacks should accept white values of success, many sociologists say. The message was that African-Americans had to copy whites.

    Resistance to such ideas is at the heart of black life in the United States. Black children, as the behavior is modeled for them, resist efforts that they perceive are attempts to make them white, says Ms. Fordham of the University of Maryland.

    The black peer group pressure often hits in middle school.

    "In K-6, a student can do well on tests and get good grades and be on the honor roll and still have an excuse," Mr. Kunjufu says. "The excuse is, "Well, I didn't study. I didn't try to get a good grade.' "

    From sixth grade on, when school work becomes more challenging and peer opinion matters more, he says, scores often begin to decline.

    Says Mr. Frazier, director of Cincinnati Young Scholars program: "(After sixth grade) parents tend to become a little more hands-off. The schools are bigger. All of a sudden it's not so cool to be carrying those books around."

    "Way to go, white boy'

    Steven Kennedy did his math homework religiously for weeks. He studied for the test the night before. It was long division with decimals.

    As his sixth-grade teacher at predominantly black Douglass Elementary in Walnut Hills returned the exams, Steven was confident he had done well.

    " "Steven got the highest grade,' " he remembers the teacher telling the class. " "He got the only A.' "

    As a smile spread across his face, Steven heard some black students sitting around him say, "Way to go, white boy."

    "You ain't black."

    "Hey, Oreo."

    "I'm not a white boy," Steven shot back. He still wasn't sure why he'd been teased. It was the first time he'd experienced the insult.

    Steven, now 16 and a sophomore at Hughes Center in Clifton, asked his mother, Sharron Pope, why he had been called white. She explained

    that some African-American students don't want others to succeed in school.

    A few months later, Mrs. Pope gave her son a biography of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who returned to the South many times to help guide other escapees North on the Underground Railroad.

    "(The story) touched him," says Mrs. Pope, 42, and the mother of three sons. Steven, her middle son, wants to attend the University of Texas to study aerospace engineering.

    "Steven came back to me and said, "Mom, we have to take advantage of the opportunities people like her set for us. It wouldn't be right to waste my chance.' "

    Black history matters

    Too many students don't know enough black history, educators say. If these black youths knew the story of African-Americans, they would know it's the story of achievement in the face of oppression.

    Education, hard work, family values and community are the foundations of black identity in the United States.

    For centuries, slaves in this country risked punishment, or death, to learn to read and write. While enslaved, they resisted the larger society's image of a good slave as an illiterate slave. Just four years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans founded Morehouse College in Atlanta and co-founded Howard University in Washington, D.C.

    The literacy rate among African-Americans in the South increased from 20 percent to 70 percent between the end of the Civil War and 1910.

    But only recently has society begun to realize the scope of black history and the contributions of African-Americans. Still, the celebration of black history remains segregated in a single month, February.

    "Our achievements have been "blacked out' of the public imagination," says Ms. Fordham, the cultural anthropologist.

    "Be who you are'

    Leah Derkson has three heroes from contemporary black history. Their lives provide the Holmes High School senior with models of excellence.

    But as a student who ranks in the top 10 percent of her class, she received a different message during her first few years at Holmes. "Black kids said I was "selling out, that I was a "Tom,' " says Leah, 18, of Covington, who will attend Northern Kentucky University on a full academic scholarship.

    Walking through school corridors earlier this month with a white Enquirer photographer drew the same type of response: "Look at Leah, trying to be a white girl again."

    Leah discovered her first hero while researching the life of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the black Baptist minister now living in North Avondale who led the fight against segregated Birmingham, Ala., during the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, he is widely considered one of the "big three" of the civil rights movement.

    Leah also explored the accomplishments of Theodore Berry, a lawyer and Civil Rights activist who became Cincinnati's first black mayor.

    Then she started reading the poetry of Maya Angelou.

    You may shoot me with your words,

    You may cut me with your eyes,

    You may kill me with your hatefulness,

    But still, like air, I'll rise.

    "You have to be who you are," says Leah, who plans on returning to Holmes to teach history after she completes college. "I've learned you can't let anyone take away the things that you believe."

    Possible solutions

    Beyond black youths learning more black history, there are other changes that could reduce negative black peer pressure.

    On a large scale, race relations experts say, society must continue to chip away at institutional racism that marginalizes African-American lives. Civil rights activists and some educators and politicians say predominantly black urban schools must receive fair funding.

    Mr. Kunjufu suggests that requirements for advanced placement and honors courses be altered to allow in more African-American students. The result, he says, would be a larger group of black students who could support each other and reduce feelings of racial isolation.

    Schools could expand black history courses, create black history clubs, hold more assemblies to honor an increasing number and wider variety of academic achievements among black students.

    Away from school, parents should find playmates for their children from families who value education. That way, say educators and ministers, children can begin to develop social support that helps them withstand the anti-achievement pressure they'll face.

    "I have always tried to get my children around other positive influences -- kids, parents," says Nina Teasley, 39, of Clifton, the mother of Mikkia Lawrence, 18, a Walnut Hills senior.

    "No boy sits outside in his car and honks his horn for my daughter. She has been taught not to answer to " 'ho' and "bitch.' "

    Mikkia, who attended Winton Woods High School, Forest Park, for 10th and 11th grades, has always been around positive black peers. "If everybody around you is negative," she says, "you'll become negative."

    If black youths find themselves encountering negative peer pressure without support, they should turn to their neighborhood church, says the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr.

    "No church or minister espouses dumbing-down," says the Rev. Mr. Lynch, pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, Carthage, which recognizes student members with at least B-averages during one Sunday service a month.

    New Jerusalem is also among the many black Tristate churches that offer a rites-of-passage program for young African-American males. "Simba" introduces young people to positive adult role models and teaches them how to function in larger society without feeling as if they're sacrificing their heritage.

    A success story

    Then there are black youths like Carrie Lucas, whose personal determination and will are enough to see them through.

    She had more reason than most black youths to give up. She could have yielded to the stereotype of a black female who was being put upon her by her family.

    Before she was 15, Carrie had lived with her mother, grandmother and an aunt.

    Her teen years arrived with this edict from her aunt, who was caring for Carrie and her three siblings: You stay home. You cook. You clean. You watch the little ones.

    Carrie went to court to become a ward of the state. She wanted a foster parent. She wanted to be left alone to go to school. She won and, while in court, discovered that she wanted to be a lawyer.

    She has been in foster care in a Mount Auburn home for two years. "I thought, "I am a child. I am not a mother or a maid. I'm getting out,' " Carrie says.

    "The only way to a better life is education -- no matter what color you are. Being smart doesn't belong to any one race."

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