What Inspires Young Black and Latino Men to Succeed in School?

Depressing narratives about young men of color: As Jay-Z would say, “We off that.”

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.

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This seems like a great initiative. However drowning important issues in references to Jay-Z's music is unfortunate and rather offensive to those of us who remember much of his discography as a long homophobic tirade.

My truth is only community coalitions of people and groups actively (and urgenty) working in collaboration may save our young generation.
Our children need men (and women), they need mentors, they need to be consistently engaged, encouraged and enriched. They need you. They need to know they are not the ones failing. Too much of this society and “system” is. And we are failing to do anyhting about it.
We are at the point of now. This means if we don't work for (and with) our youth today, your community will completely crumble and your people will soon perish.
Now, who's ready to help build better communities of greater opportunities for our children?

I am. But I must let go of fear and attachment before I can do anything useful.

A mentor and hope.


My son is our first born. He is in his first year of college at Swarthmore. He is from a two-parent home, but we were not, so he understands that struggle through us. However, we live in one of the roughest neighbors in the city, so we had to navigate the waters to see that our son was adequately educated. To answer some of your questions:
•The value the young men's families place on education and how high expectations affect school success: We believe education is of high importance...that is knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
•How they avoid danger in high-crime urban neighborhoods: My mantra - from the curb to the house, from the house to the curb. We drove him everywhere. He had tons of structured activities to fill his time.
•How their schools foster college-going cultures: As parents we made sure that starting in 8th grade, he was spending summers on the campus of some educational institution, in part this was to keep him out of Chicago in the summer. But it also had the impact of having stay on the campuses of University of Iowa, Indiana University, Purdue, and Cornell before he got to where he is now.
•What motivates them to do well in school: We believe he loves knowledge. We immersed him in academic activities before he even suspected that it may not be cool. We played music for him as an infant, read books galore...with passion. One thing he had "too many" of: books.
•Why they believe they will succeed in higher education: He is confident. He knows that is the expectation we have of him. That is the expectation he has for himself. He understands the connection between education and opportunities.
•what engenders among them a serious commitment to giving back to their communities after college.

Black and Latino males, I think, are chiefly looking for a fair and open chance to show their skills and knowledge, as well as to compete fairly with whites, both male and female, in the school, workplace, professionally, etc.

I believe having the opportunity to think, evaluate, and conceptualize inspires Black and Latino men to succeed in school.
Recently in Oklahoma, two teens were charged with first degree murder in the shooting death of a college baseball player. The teens’ reason for carrying out the crime was “boredom.” When I first heard this story I was overcome with anger and disbelief. Since the incident, I have pondered how boredom could possibly lead to murder. Today, I don’t know if I have the answer, but I do have food for thought for every parent, teacher, family and community member.

During my meditation on this issue, I had to ask myself, why are young Black men bored? I believe they are bored because they are not consistently allowed or given the opportunity to think, evaluate, and conceptualize on their own. Men are hardwired to hunt, gather, capture, and explore; hunting and gathering in the 21st century means being able to think critically and make decisions. Because this is an innate part of the male species, their spirit will die if they are not given chances to do so. Not having this opportunity is equivalent to a baby bird never learning to fly. If he can’t fly; he will become prey and ultimately be consumed.
Through my opportunities to speak at various schools and youth events, I have painfully observed that sometimes parents, teachers, and the community at-large do not give young Black/Latino males the space to think and evaluate…in their OWN way and make their OWN decisions. I believe young Black males are bored because they are constantly being told how to be or yelled at for things they haven’t done yet (but the expectation and anticipation they’re going to doing something wrong is ever present). Young Black/Latino males are not empowered enough to be the divine beings they were created to be and not given enough opportunity to decide what is important to them and what is not. There are some things young people just aren’t going to get right away due to their maturity level and their experiences…and that has to be okay. We, the community, have to stop and ask ourselves, if we want this kid to get “it” for himself or to get “it” for ourselves.
Black/Latino boys must be invited to think and their decisions have to be validated. Once a decision has been made, we can’t coddle them or try to always fix a poor decision. Whatever the decision, that is what he’ll have to live with. Because he isn’t consistently invited to function cognitively, he loses his capacity to think. His cognitive muscles lose strength and begin to malfunction; limiting his ability to reach what he knows is obtainable. Instinctually, he knows he is supposed to do more and have more, but he goes on to do thoughtless things; which rob him of his ability to be a good husband, father, employee, etc. He just becomes a bored, unfulfilled man who believes the lie that he has nothing to live for. We must give the young men in our life, the gift of life….encourage and allow them to think.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. You shed some very good light on the topic of Black and Latino male academic achievement. I concur with many of your comments and the results from the study. In my work with high-risk Black youth in Atlanta, Georgia I find that many of the same protective factors are in place that help contribute to their academic success and them successfully graduating from high school. I consistently stress the importance of helping youth develop skills in the new millennium 3 R's. Back in the day they were Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. Today, I suggest that Black and Latino youth need to master Reading, Relationships and Resiliency. Reading is the foundation of everything academic, so it is paramount they have adequate reading and comprehension skills to understand all of their subjects and life outside of the classroom. As expressed in your article, forming, maintaining and salvaging important and meaningful relationships with teachers, school officials and other adults who can help see them through, is extremely important. Far too often, young males fail to establish effective or nurturing/supportive relationships and in many cases even burn bridges that were put in place to help bridge the various gaps in life they face. Instead, they spend too much time and effort putting on or trying to impress so-called friends, who at the end of the day can't do anything for them academically. Thirdly, as growing bodies of research suggest, resiliency is key for any young person desiring to succeed and excel academically. Being able to bounce back from and overcome many of the traumatic experiences and problems young males face, puts them in a position to win and move forward. Sadly, far too many get stuck in their problems or the bad things that happen to them, and they often delay or forfeit whatever successes they could have achieved during the critical adolescent and young adult years. There are many other points I could make, but I will close in saying that it is also important to finish strong. As expressed in the article, high expectations from parents and other adults is an important factor in academic achievement. Most of the high-risk Black youth I work with, performed well up through middle school. In Georgia, that is between grades 6-8. While some started to fall off around 5th grade, most were doing fair until they transitioned to high school. So my final point would be instilling in them the necessary Resistance skills to avoid and or manage many of the bad things such as gangs, drugs, sex and a desire for fast money that often knock them off course. Darryll Stark, co-author, 12 Things Every Black Boy Needs to Know

I was born and grew up in Harlem, poor (without realizing it) and living in a run-down tenement infested with vermin. However, I went on the achieve success (and a Master's Degree) because of family encouragement and positive role models. These, I feel, are two of the most important ingredients needed for success. At different times I've been a senior social worker, college professor and nationally-published writer.

Wonderful and inspiring study, goes to show that racism and prejudice barriers are breaking down.

Young men of color will only learn to love themselves,
trust themselves and be confident in tthemselves
when they receive love, trust, and someone's confidence
Then they can learn anything. As an educator, I

firmly beleive this

I think that younger teach us every day.With the mondialisation of custums, it is normal now to rewiew our methodology of teaching and learning. In this 21 century, it is not normal to distinguish color and non color youngers.

I am always grateful when I hear the concerns people have for wanting young Black and Latino males to be successful. I have a son who is 22 years old who have been blessed. We live at the end of the city. He has a high school diploma.He do not have a criminal record. He was accepted to a trade school. He was majoring in HVAC and electrical. He was very discourage with the instructors and left the trade school. He has a very good job get paid weekly. However many of his friends are not working. They did complete high school.The drive to work is not their ambition. Now my son is getting into being written up on the job. The job has told him they are prepared to fire him. He acts like he don't care. I am very angry with him because many males have not been given a chance. I am not sure what has brought on this attitude. I do know he has been given the opportunity.

Dr. Harper, congratulations on the great scholarship you have already created on numerous issues related to minority youth.

In direct response to your invitation to "add [my] voice" I am inclined to respond as follows:

Although the issues are very complex, some come readily to mind:
(1) There is a need to experience "meaning" in ones life. Very few young males have been exposed to deep conversations about the meaning of their lives.

(2) Young males need to have a clear sense of identity -- they need to come to know their own best selves. They will need our help. How can they shed conformity identities, stereotyped identities, and propagandized identities? I know it will take courage to overcome the historical weight of these man-made creations but it can be done.

(3) We have the responsibility to bear witness to their aspirations. Therefore, we must teach them to dream and we must show them how to harness the creative power of their own imagination. Then, they will soar.

If these things take hold in their lives, then landing in a well-respected academy of higher learning will be a certainty.

I applaud your work and I wish you continued success in all of your endeavors.

Finally, I am very proud of you. I taught at ASU from 1995-2001.

Good stuff. But Hov's real name is Shawn Carter. Not Sean.

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