Changing the narrative on race in higher ed

How colleges and universities can improve the Black male experience

It’s no surprise that the black male college experience is often underscored by bias and a sense of not belonging. Derrick R. Brooms says more must be done—not only by colleges, but by secondary schools and communities to reverse these preconceptions.

His book, Being Black, Being Male on Campus: Understanding and Confronting Black Male Collegiate Experiences (2017, SUNY Press), focuses on 40 young black men who relate their experiences not only getting into college, but trying to thrive when they get there.

Brooms, an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Cincinnati, says a number of groups like the Black Male Initiative and the Student African-American Brotherhood are forming on campuses as a combination network and support system.

“These male-centered initiatives are one way that colleges are trying to increase the retention, performance and achievement of men of color,” he says.

Many of the young men you interviewed had been “dismissed” in their pre-college years. They were told they weren’t good enough, or that they’d only end up in prison. What can a college do when that damage has already been done?

Colleges have a unique opportunity to provide different types of messages to students. Some of this can be done in the pre-college years, when we look at college and community partnerships.

What type of relations are colleges building with local communities? We can use local in the broad sense with regard to relational distance, but also wherever they’re recruiting students from.

What type of relationships are colleges building with local communities that suggest that there’s an open and welcoming environment? One young man said he had just one teacher who taught the class like it was a college class. That was the one experience that he had that gave him some self-efficacy to perform well in college.

Even as we think about college and community partnerships, we can also think about college and secondary school partnerships.

Self-doubt and resignation seems to be prevalent among these men. They think, “If I make it in, OK. If I don’t, it’s no big deal.”

When they haven’t gotten positive messages—or any messages—about college, and that college-going ethos is not really cemented, then it’s not surprising that we have young people who are unsure about their ability to perform well in college or even if college is for them. How do we build up self-efficacy?

Part of that is being given similar types of experiences or having others help show us the possibilities. If we don’t have people invested in their educational possibilities, then it would be shortsighted for us to say that these young men need to change their thinking.

In some of our secondary schools, college counselors are overextended. They’re trying to support a large number of students in their efforts. That also means there will be some students who don’t get high levels of support.

Unfortunately one of the things that I’ve seen is that, for students who are not high-performing, the first thought is, “Well, they should go to community college, because they’re not going to make it anywhere else.” And, while community college is critically important in terms of increasing access to higher education overall, I think we can still do more.

There’s tons of different types of colleges and universities that can meet student needs differentially.

The population of black males in college is much smaller than that of black females. Is that because of black males not being prepared as well?

That’s part of it, yes. We would also look at some of our family structures. We would look at some of our criminal justice policies. We can look at some of the zero tolerance and discipline policies in secondary schools, even before that as well.

We know that black students, including black girls, face a disproportionate amount of discipline and disciplinary action in schools. Even at the best schools, where there are supposed to be these equal opportunities, we find that honors and AP programs are overwhelmingly white. Special education programs are overwhelmingly students of color.

Even within the same secondary school, or even within the same district, you can find these disparities. Then they begin to play out even further with regard to college enrollment.

You’ve said that colleges need to move beyond compositional diversity to inclusion. Can you explain that?

One of the challenges we face is that many of our colleges and universities want to have a student body demographic that they can celebrate.

If we have a certain population of students of color, if we have a certain population of LGBTQ students, if we have a certain population of students from different class backgrounds, then we have many colleges and universities celebrating themselves as diverse.

But, when we look at what’s being offered in classroom and curriculum, when we look at the culture and environment of some of our campuses, at the heart of it those students don’t feel that they are valued.

It’s one thing to say we have diverse students here, but how are we thinking about celebrating and valuing who our students are and what they bring to our institution?

Has the word ‘diversity’ lost its impact?

I think there’s too much rhetoric around diversity. Now it’s just a buzzword: “We value diversity.” Really? Where do we value diversity? Many of our teaching faculty are predominantly white. Depending on the academic discipline, they can be very overwhelmingly male.

The STEM fields, for example, are overwhelmingly white and male, or Asian and male. Diversity, for all intents and purposes, has lost some of its teeth.

We’ve seen campaigns such as “Black on Campus” where students say, “Even though we’re here, we’re treated as though we’re invisible.”

Students started the “My Heritage is not a Costume” campaign, given the ways in which, at Halloween or various social events, their heritage and culture are re-appropriated as fun and games—even at one university where the president and his staff dressed up in Mexican sombreros.

How do we make sense of those instances? We say we value people, but it’s not just what we say, it’s also what we do.

You write about resilience strategies. What do you mean?

In one sense, it’s taking stock of where you came from to where you are today. Regardless of your past, how do you figure out how you are going to accomplish your goals?

We know from years of research that there are particular barriers and obstacles that black students face on predominantly white campuses. How do you overcome some of these obstacles, when you’re in class and the professor doesn’t believe you can do the work?

One student told me, “I know I have to sit in front of the class with a professor who doesn’t take me seriously.”  That’s a resilience strategy—I’ve got to go above and beyond what a traditional student would have to do, in order to project myself as academically worthy, and interested and invested in my own education.

Another said, “Within the first few weeks of class, I went in and I talked to teachers. I wanted to let them know, basically, very overtly, that I’m serious about my education.”

Resilience can manifest itself in a lot of different ways. A lot of it is connected to how our students try to meet their goals, filtered through the different challenges and obstacles that they feel like they have to overcome in order to get there.

The reality is that, given the lack of resources and opportunities, and given the under-resourced secondary schools and urban communities that many of our black men come from, they do have to engage in resilience to overcome some of the obstacles and even the odds.

One of the things that I take with me, and that I use in my work with students on campus regardless of their backgrounds, is the fact that our students are capable.

We can’t judge students simply on their pasts and where they came from, and what we think about where they came from. We have to look at our students as full of potential and possibilities because they can achieve. The question then becomes, are we willing to put the necessary support mechanisms in place, in order to help them achieve their goals?

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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