African American males in higher education: reframing the issue – The Last Word – Column - Higher Education


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African American males in higher education: reframing the issue – The Last Word – Column

by Whitney G. Harris

Despite the many problems that plague African-American males, the practice of classifying us as an “endangered species” has always struck me as a convenient, but a regrettable, sound bite.

 

Granted, the current data on African-American males on such indices as college enrollment, prison statistics, and college and high school completion rates are dismal at best and frightening at worst. However, like all sound bites, “endangered species” not only overstates the case, it hides a large portion of the real picture. Even a cursory glance at the total reality will show that thousands of African-American males are achieving high levels of academic success.

 

This is especially true concerning higher education, where African-American males — including students, faculty, and staff — are forced to deal with the same negative societal issues as other African-American males. For example, institutional and personal racism is alive and well on college and university campuses.

 

Also, the lack of positive African-American role models is a serious problem. On most historically white university campuses, most African-American males are in low-paying service jobs. Even a tenured full-professor, administrator, Roman Catholic priest (like this writer) is often given more than his share of the elevator space when he shares it with white women on many university campuses.

 

So racism, favoritism, and policies and practices of exclusion still have a negative impact on African-American males on college and university campuses. Nevertheless, if we are going to improve our lot, we must reframe the issues. We must move from a deficient “blame-the-victim” model to one that says not only that we can be successful, but we WILL be successful.

 

We must begin by reframing our perception of our status. Rather than seeing ourselves as victims, we must see ourselves as creators of our own destiny. Rather than seeing ourselves as an endangered species, we must draw’ strength and courage from our 500 years 19 of struggling against — and often overcoming the hurdles of racism and other forms of bigotry.

 

We must not allow others to cast us on the endangered species list. If anything endangers us, it is our passive acceptance of being classified as endangered. Concretely, we must not allow others to deprive us of academic success. We must become achievers. African-American males cannot afford to delay embracing the challenge to achieve academically until racism is no more.

 

African-American males cannot await the birth of Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” to claim their rightful place in campus activities, in cooperative programs, in the sciences, in mathematics, and in technology.

 

In an ongoing study conducted by me titled, “Successful African American Males on Predominantly White Campuses,” several interesting ideas regarding successful African-American males in higher education have emerged. First, those males who define themselves as successful could clearly articulate a personal concept of success.

The frame from which these young men viewed their lives was clearly not the frame of endangered species. It was the frame of success. Consequently, not only African-American male students, but also those responsible for programs and projects that seek to enhance the college experience of African-American males, must help these young men frame their experience from the perspective of success.

 

Secondly, those young men who defined themselves as successful were especially adept at networking. These young men, while actively involved in networks with persons of color, were also involved in such networks and “loops” as study groups, pre-professional organizations, and student government. This group of young men had a strong insight into the value of human connections.

 

Expressed in their terms, they knew how to “get connected. ” To be successful in higher education, the ability to “get connected” is an essential skill. Finally, the successful respondents in this research project all had a keen sense of balance. For example, unlike many other students on campus, their credit card debt was not such that it required them to spend more than 15 hours a week working. I return to my point of departure.

 

African-American males, despite the innumerable problems that they confront in higher education, can achieve success in that arena. However, they must frame their experience as one of success and not one of failure.

 

DR. Whitney G. Harris Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, McNeese State University

 

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