Realizing Black Male Success

"Black male success". These three words are elusive in the press and too rarely associated with the brothers in our everyday lives. A recent report, however, may prove to be the game changer we so desperately deserve. 

Dr. Shaun R. Harper, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, recently released results from a comprehensive study of Black males who have excelled at college and beyond. The report, “Black Male Student Success in Higher Education” is the first research report released by the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (CSREE). In the study’s pages we get an all too rare glimpse into what enables success for Black males.

The overwhelming majority of stories and studies that are concerned with Black males, from cradle to the grave, tend to look at what’s "wrong.” This type of approach is known as a deficit model because it assumes there is something wrong and often assumes that the problem lies within Black males. Deficit approaches usually pay lip service to social inequalities like poor schools, disproportionate policing, and an unstable job market. Yet these theories tend to suggest that once Black men get their act together, they can have the same access and opportunities as other Americans. This approach does little, if anything, to move Black men from the lower ranks of American society. 

The CSREE study begins with an alternative perspective – a strength based approach. Rather than document ad nauseam what ensnares Black male mobility, the report asks what do Black males, their communities, and their schools do to ensure success? From this approach we see not just what is going right but how to expand these practices so more can excel.

The study is based on over 200 interviews with Black male college students across 42 different colleges, which ranged in type from community colleges and Ivy League schools to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The students studied had grade point averages above a 3.0, were involved in various activities, and were active in campus organizations, many in leadership roles. The study finds how Black male students have negotiated many of the traps related to their gender, race, class and sexual identities and ended up achieving highly.

One of the study's most telling findings is that most of the students had never been asked how they'd navigated their path to success. That’s right! Most of these high achieving men had never been asked how they did what they did. With the thousands of books, articles, and blogs on Black men, it seems we may have missed the opportunity find the seeds to success right under our noses. When asked, these young men shared many things like the need for peers who supported them, structured mentoring programs, community, and the ability to not worry about financial obligations. Imagine how many more of our young people could have benefitted from this information had we been more focused on tools for success than notions of inherent Black male deficiency! 

While arrival at college is often equated with success in our community, this could not be further from the truth. Once on campus, students come to realize that their old study habits and methods that got them to college may not work well in the world of higher education. Thus, mentoring from older students as well as through organizations on campus is essential to helping young men find their way. Relationships with other Black male students were essential to keeping academic and social engagement high. A sense of community has been and remains an important element for ensuring success in college.

However, community alone cannot do it. Resources matter. With many Black male students spending time working, often off campus, the financial strains on students can lead to lower grades and routinely inhibit the ability of students to return to campus. Colleges, philanthropists and others must work to provide financial and social resources that allow students to concentrate on their development as students and citizens and worry less about if they can afford to attend class.

Success in college is also related to what happens in school before young men finish the 12th grade. In this respect, successful students acknowledged that the personalized mentorship and guidance they received was not offered to many of their peers. In this sense, they were able to excel because attention and resources were triaged away from their classmates in K-12 education.

We need to spread this wealth of the few to the many. Because in-depth mentoring and counseling are rare in most high school there is fertile ground for local community members to serve as mentors and provide guidance on school and life to young brothers. It requires a communal effort to get and keep our kids on track and that vital work cannot fall solely on the shoulders of school staff.

If we want to ensure the success of our sons