Peer Pressure Said To Inhibit Black Student Achievement

By William Snider — March 25, 1987 8 min read

A study of student attitudes in a predominantly black Washington high school has added new evidence to support a theory currently under debate that sociological factors beyond discrimination may be contributing to poor minority achievement rates in school.

In a study published this month in the journal Urban Review, two black anthropologists say that “negative peer pressure’’ causes many black students to perform below the level that standardized test scores indicate they should.

The researchers maintain that excelling in an arena seen as dominated by white values and expectations puts black students in jeopardy of being accused of “acting white.’'

Such students, they say, “do not put forth the necessary effort and perseverance in their schoolwork and, consequently, do poorly in school.’'

Signithia Fordham of the University of the District of Columbia and John U. Ogbu of the University of California at Berkeley observed and interviewed 33 students in an unnamed city high school over the course of a year.

Their study, they said, attempts to explain the social and cultural influences that have led blacks to attach a negative perception to academic success.

It also seeks to identify some of the methods for coping with peer pressure developed by students who do succeed.

The study highlights an issue that has entered the debate on social policy in various guises over the past few years: How great a role do the cultural byproducts of discrimination play in hindering the progress of minority groups?

The Harvard University political economist Glenn C. Loury, one of a number of black social analysts to address the problem, has termed such perceptual and behavioral influences “the enemy within.’'(See Education Week, Nov. 20, 1985.)

And in a controversial 1985 article in The New Republic, “Rumors of Inferiority,’' the social psychologist Jeff Howard and his co-researcher Ray Hammond, a physician and minister, offered a theory to explain lagging black achievement that has resonances in the new study’s findings.

Blacks perform less well than whites on standardized tests and other academic measures, they said, because young blacks have internalized society’s message that they are more likely to fail.

“The performance gap is largely a behavioral problem,’' they wrote.

There remains, however, a scarcity of research in this area. And interviews last week with several prominent black scholars and educators indicated that, although such problems as negative peer pressure are widely recognized within the black community, their relative importance--and the strategies needed to address them--are still in dispute.

Effects of Peer Pressure

In the Urban Review article, “Black Students’ School Success: Coping With the Burden of ‘Acting White,’'' the researchers identify three factors that they say explain the relatively poor school performance of black children: discrimination within educational institutions, discrimination in the job market, and the negative coping mechanisms that blacks develop to retain their identity while functioning in the larger society.

The researchers concentrate on the third area, presenting examples from interviews with eight students--two male and two female underachievers, and two males and two females who are academically successful.

All of the students said that academic success was viewed negatively by their peers, and that successful students ran the risk of being labeled “brainiacs,’' a highly pejorative term.

Being a “brainiac,’' one underachiever told the researchers, is “something that you want to be, but you don’t want your friends to know.’'

"[O]nce they find out you’re a brainiac, then the first thing they’ll say is, ‘Well, she thinks she’s cute, and she thinks she’s smart, she thinks she’s better than anyone else,’'' the student said.

Another underachieving student said, “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Well, I don’t know why I’m taking all these hard classes, I ain’t never going to see this stuff again in my life!’''

Many other black students, the authors write, “put the brakes on’’ their school work in order to avoid attracting attention to themselves, and to minimize the risk of being ostracized from the black community.

“Learning school curriculum and learning to follow the standard academic practices of the school are often equated by the minorities with learning to ‘act white,’ or actually ‘acting white,’ while simultaneously giving up acting like a minority person,’' according to the researchers.

They note that this feeling “evolved during many generations when white Americans insisted that minorities were incapable of academic success, denied them the opportunity to succeed academically, and did not reward them academically when they succeeded.’'

Coping Mechanisms

Successful black students, they write, have developed elaborate mechanisms for coping with the “burden of ‘acting white.’'' These include deflecting attention away from their academic achievements, and demonstrating that they remain faithful to the values of the black community.

Specifically, the researchers found that many of the high-achieving students stressed their athletic achievements; adopted behaviors suggesting they were “clowns’’ or “comedians’'; formed alliances with “bullies’’ and “hoodlums’'; and shared test and homework answers with less-successful students.

Although the researchers studied only one high school, they cite examples from other publications suggesting that “the phenomenon exists in other parts of the United States and probably can be found among other, similar minority groups in the United States and other societies.’'

Addressing the Problem

The study’s authors argue that the “critically important’’ first step in addressing the problem must be to create equal opportunities for blacks in the job market.

“Barring changes in the opportunity structure,’' they write, “the perceptions, behaviors, and academic effort of black adolescents are unlikely to change to the extent necessary to have a significant effect on the existing boundary-maintaining mechanisms in the community.’'

Schools, they say, must eliminate “both the gross and subtle mechanisms by which [they] differentiate the academic careers of black and white children.’'

In addition, school personnel should attempt to understand the role that peer pressure plays on black student achievement, the authors contend, and develop programs “to help the students learn to divorce academic pursuit from the idea of acting white.’'

The black community also has an important role to play in changing the situation, the researchers assert, because “black children’s general perception that academic pursuit is ‘acting white’ is learned in the black community.’'

Findings Corroborated

Although they had not read the new study, several prominent black educators agreed last week that successful black students experience a significant amount of negative pressure from their academically less successful peers.

“I have heard this from other colleagues, and have seen it among people I know and the children of friends,’' said Adrienne Y. Bailey, vice president of academic affairs for the College Board.

Even in suburban school systems, she said, negative peer pressure helps to explain “why middle-class blacks aren’t doing as well as they should.’'

“They feel they are giving up something of a peer responsibility,’' Ms. Bailey said.

The negative attitude of many black students toward schooling,she said, is reinforced by the fact that many educators “do not have high enough expectations for black students,’' thus creating a “cyclical process that serves as an effective deterrent to academic progress.’'

Black students also associate academic success with “acting white’’ because the public-school curriculum largely ignores blacks’ contributions to culture and society, added Charles R. Thomas, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators and superintendent of Elementary School District 64 in Chicago.

What is needed, and what NABSE is currently working to develop, he said, is a curriculum that “has relevance to black students because they can see themselves in it.’'

Mr. Loury of Harvard said that the study highlights “a very tricky problem.’'

Solving it, he said, “would require a blend of public and private activity--some concerted effort to alter the status system that assigns standing to pupils on the basis of their behaviors.’'

Black students need to be taught to hold academic success as a positive value, he said, suggesting, for instance, that their accomplishments be recognized and applauded within both the school and the community at large.

Mr. Loury is the leading candidate for the number-two post in the U.S. Education Department. (See related story on page 10.)

Significance ‘Doubted’

Barbara Sizemore, an associate professor in the department of black studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a former superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools, acknowledged that some black students face peer pressure not to do well in school. But she added that she doubted whether such pressure is a major factor in explaining the relatively poor achievement rates shown by blacks nationwide.

Peer pressure might be a significant factor “in a school where you’ve got a lot of gang activity,’' she said, but “I do not think that’s true in a majority of schools.’'

“There is peer pressure on all students to do whatever they do,’' she said. But that pressure, she said, has a negative academic impact only on a small segment of the black male population and is rarely, if ever, a factor in the performance of black females.

Other black educators, such as Asa Hilliard 3rd, professor of urban education at Georgia State University, have discounted the impact of such perceptual barriers to school success, citing racial bias and the lack of equity in educational resources as more important reasons for differences in achievement levels.

Theories that give undue importance to such factors, Mr. Hilliard has said, “have no research support and are therefore without merit.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as Peer Pressure Said To Inhibit Black Student Achievement