Prior to beginning work on the New York City Black and Latino Male High School Achievement Study, no New Yorker inspired me more than Shawn Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z). I have all his albums and appreciate that he frequently refers to having transcended poverty, a fatherless home, and dealing drugs in the streets of Brooklyn.
It is impossible to name my favorite Jay-Z song; his catalogue is far too extensive and exceptional. But a pair of songs on Blueprint 3 captures the spirit with which 13 black and Latino male researchers from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania approached the search for black and Latino male achievers in New York City public high schools.
The eighth track, “Off That,” on Blueprint 3 is a masterful critique of ideologies, trends, possessions, and clichés that have been popularized in the American public. In his attempt to move listeners beyond where we presently are, Jay-Z repeatedly maintains “we off that” and goes on to offer a more forward-thinking array of alternatives.
Depressing, deficit-oriented narratives about young men of color are deeply ingrained in our nation’s historical and contemporary consciousness. Journalists and researchers play a large role in maintaining the hopelessness with which black and Latino boys and men (especially those in low-income urban neighborhoods) are repeatedly imagined, talked about, and dealt with.
Thirteen Ivy Leaguers who worked on the study decided it is time to be off that. Most of us grew up poor, in single parent homes, and in public schools where students of color were not treated as the intellectual equal of our white schoolmates.
The conventional conversation about black and Latino men in America is terribly one-sided: it is rarely inclusive of achievers and transgressors like us and our male friends, siblings, cousins, fraternity brothers, and heroes. So we endeavored to find young men of color in the New York City Department of Education’s 40 Expanded Success Initiative (ESI) high schools and represent them differently.
In the track “A Star is Born,” Mr. Carter salutes several other black rappers (plus Eminem) and maintains, “every day a star is born.” Similarly, my research team and I knew that every day there are young men of color who reject invitations to join gangs, sell drugs, and skip school. We knew that every year many black and Latino young men finish high school, continue onward to higher education, do well academically, and earn college degrees. Sadly, doom and gloom statistics overshadow their narratives.
Jay-Z suggests in “A Star is Born” that we applaud those who have achieved success. In the study, we aspired to celebrate young black and Latino men by acknowledging their educational successes; we also committed ourselves to learning from them. In the first publication from our study, Succeeding in the City, we present powerful lessons learned from 325 young men in urban high schools who achieved academically, were serious about attending college, and were deemed prepared for postsecondary education.
The study also includes 90 black and Latino male undergraduates from 44 colleges and universities, each of whom graduated from NYC public high schools within the past four years. We did not view these students as stars or outliers who were somehow superior to other young men in their neighborhoods and schools; we most certainly do not see ourselves this way. Instead, we understood that they had much to teach us about succeeding in the city that could be useful for improving academic success and life outcomes for other young men in New York City and elsewhere.
Perhaps the report would have been more aptly titled Blueprint 4, as we hope it will become the guide that compels journalists, researchers, educators, policymakers, foundations and philanthropists, and others to more routinely seek out success among young men of color. In the report, we describe:
- the value the young men's families place on education and how high expectations affect school success;
- how they avoid danger in high-crime urban neighborhoods;
- how their schools foster college-going cultures;
- what motivates them to do well in school;
- why they believe they will succeed in higher education;
- what engenders among them a serious commitment to giving back to their communities after college.
The report also provides insights into their college choice processes, their perspectives on readiness for the rigors of higher education, their first-year transitions to college, their engagement on college campuses, their relationships with professors and college administrators, their college finance strategies, and motivators that lead to college persistence and graduation. These findings enabled us to offer several forward-thinking recommendations for those who care about black and Latino male student success in high school and higher education.
To be clear, I am not off Jay-Z. Shaun Harper will forever admire the genius that is Shawn Carter. I am just a bit more inspired now by the 415 young New Yorkers whose lives and educational trajectories are allowing us to rewrite the longstanding narrative of black and Latino male achievement. As for doom and gloom statistics and depressing mischaracterizations of these youth—we off that.