African American men who complete a bachelor’s degree within six years must overcome racist stereotypes along the way despite academic success and holding on-campus leadership roles, according to research published in the Harvard Educational Review last month.
Two-thirds of African American male undergraduate students do not earn a degree within six years, but much less is known about the one-third of these men who persist and graduate — a trend in research that Shaun R. Harper hopes to reverse with his report examining these students.
Harper is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education, Gender Studies, and Africana Studies at the university. His study examines how African American male undergraduates “respond to and resist the internalization of racist stereotypes at predominantly white colleges and universities.”
“So much has been written about deficits concerning students of color, and men of color in particular, and that’s important,” Harper told Inside Higher Ed. “But if we want to know something about barriers to success, there are thousands of pages that have been written that give us some insight into that. Comparatively speaking, there’s very little research on black male success; we should commit at least a fraction of our energies [to] studying those who have been successful.”
For his research, Harper interviewed 143 African American male students at 30 predominantly white public and private institutions. He chose students he considered “achieving,” meaning they had high grade point averages and held leadership positions on campus. Of the men he spoke with, all but two reported having encountered racist stereotypes despite their prominence on campus. For example, one student — a member of Indiana University’s student government — reported being solicited for marijuana by two white students who thought he was a drug dealer.
“Despite their status on campus, these guys are not exempt or immune to racial stereotyping,” Harper said. “On a number of these campuses, there were guys who were student presidents, people you would think are so visible that no one’s going to mistake him for being one of the football players or a drug dealer.”
However, these students’ status as campus leaders had positive implications in the classroom; students who were involved campus leaders reported being stereotyped by professors less often, but they said their peers did not always have the same immunity in the classroom.
The students in Harper’s study also said that their involvement in student organizations and their interactions with older members of those groups helped them better address and confront racist stereotypes. Furthermore, some students reported that their high grades and leadership roles were the product of their desire to improve their campus experience.
“I am frustrated by the misperceptions white students have about African American males on Michigan State’s campus,” one student told Harper. “I am involved because I want to do something.”