In 2007, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama told supporters at a rally in Harlem that he did not "want to wake up four years from now and discover that we still have more young black men in prison than in college."
Although university researchers and education reporters cautioned that the statistics Obama was using did not paint the whole picture of this phenomenon, he repeated the numbers to standing-room-only crowds.
Obama was unintentionally reinforcing an enduring negative stereotype: Black males as a group are missing in higher education and failing to graduate because of the pathologies in black culture. And make no mistake, cultural and racial stereotypes, whether true or false or incomplete, assume stubborn lives of their own.
The black male stereotype has done just that. Many people, including many African-Americans, university presidents, professors, counselors, students, journalists and politicians picture black males as prison inmates before picturing them as college students.
Black males are branded before ever attempting to enroll in a school. Nothing good is in this. I felt the personal sting of this stereotype in 1963, when I first went to college. Because I am dark-skinned and came from a migrant farming family in Florida, I automatically was placed in remedial English — without being tested. I had been labeled as one doomed to fail on sight. I never bought into the stereotype, never for a moment thinking I would fail. After two weeks, my English professor agreed and transferred me to a regular English class.
I was sustained by four caring professors, a handful of over-achieving classmates, a work-study job in our campus library, my obsession to study and support from my mother and grandparents. Although I graduated in four years as summa cum laude and won a fellowship to the University of Chicago, no one ever asked me how I did it. But a lot of people predicted that I would fail.
During my more than 20 years as a college professor, I have taught many black men who beat the odds, who graduate and lead productive lives. How do they overcome the stereotype?
I currently have a black student, Shaquille Malik, in my writing class at St. Petersburg College where I am an adjunct professor. Malik is a 40-year-old ex-convict who is beating the odds. He is one of my best students. He sits up front, participates in discussions, volunteers to read his essays aloud and eagerly accepts constructive criticism.
A father of three, he told me he is determined to graduate with at least a bachelor's degree. I am certain he will succeed and become a role model. I will monitor his progress and do all I can to assist him. I am already telling other students about him, how he is exploding the stereotype.
Having Malik as a student prompted me to read a new report by Shaun R. Harper, associate professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, focused on 219 black male students who have succeeded. The professor studied students at 42 colleges and universities in 20 states.
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Disregarding the old stereotype, Harper wanted to know what distinguishes these achievers. He found a mix of external factors that seemed to give the students a sense that they not only could but must attend college. Among those factors: committed parents who expected a lot from them; at least one teacher in K-12 who wanted them to succeed academically; and money to pay for college. Another significant factor was a transition to college that included high expectations from administrators and faculty and from successful black male juniors and seniors on campus who motivated them.
"The most surprising finding was also the most disappointing finding," Harper said. "Nearly every student we interviewed said it was the first time that someone had sat him down and asked how he had successfully navigated his way to and through higher education, what compelled him to be engaged and what he learned that could help improve achievement and engagement among black male collegians."
Although the report is complex, Harper has a simple and reachable goal. He wants college and university leaders to commit themselves to finding black men on their campuses like those in the report and learn how they achieved. Harper wants black male student success to become institutionalized. He wants to erase the ugly stereotype of failure that hurts black males and society at large.