Dressed in a black hoodie and sagging jeans, DeAndre (name changed) swaggers down the street, singing loudly the gritty lyrics of a gangsta rap.
This routine typifies DeAndre’s journey to and from school. Many of those watching DeAndre’s behavior during his school commute could assume him to be a thug and a gangster.
Such a narrative, a result of the racialized and gendered narratives that black male adolescents live with in urban areas, is part of DeAndre’s schooling as well as out-of-school experiences.
Black males are presumed to lack intelligence when it comes to academics, particularly mathematics.
For more than ten years, I have been researching the lives and experiences of black STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) high school students all the way up the pipeline to black STEM faculty. I have looked at the achievements of black students in mathematics within their first eight or nine years of schooling.
I have found that black males who consistently outperform their peers in mathematics are also victims of covert racial stereotypes and racial microaggressions. The truth is, DeAndre is a high school junior and a high-achiever in mathematics and science from an urban area. DeAndre is not hardened, but he is fragile.
His STEM identity is especially tenuous.
DeAndre is not alone. There are thousands of young men like DeAndre in urban cities across the country, who are STEM high-achievers and have the potential to succeed as STEM professionals.
However, too often they receive negative messaging about their continued success in STEM. Such messages from teachers or counselors downplay or minimize their mathematics abilities. The low expectations from these talented boys serve to further discourage them from pursuing STEM fields.
As a result, black participation in STEM fields has been left far behind.
In 2011, whites held 71 percent of STEM jobs, Asians held 15 percent, and blacks only 6 percent. In 2009, white students obtained 65.5 percent of the STEM undergraduate degrees. However, STEM undergraduate degrees for blacks have remained flat for the last nine years.
Blacks received just 6 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and less than half of those went to black males. Overall, blacks received 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs in STEM, despite constituting 12 percent of the U.S. population.
When it comes to academic success, young black students face many other challenges that are only made worse by the negative messaging.
There are societal messages that equate black maleness with criminality, with teachers often being afraid of their black male students.
The early academic years for these students are riddled with long-term (two months or longer) illnesses that negatively impact their schooling and result in attending at least one summer school term.
DeAndre, for example, has a higher rate of school transfer; his current school is his third high school in three years. This lack of continuity for high achieving black male students can lead to additional pressures to prove their intellectual abilities in mathematics to an unwelcoming or skeptical school culture.
Fighting racial stereotypes can also wear them down. DeAndre is weary of racial stereotypes in general and stereotypes about black males in particular.
DeAndre’s coarse behavior during his school commute is actually performed to repel or deflect potential violence via aggressive posturing, as evident in his “swagger.” In reality, he hasn’t been in any “real” fight since second grade and is filled with trepidation every time he walks home from school.
So few options
Young black students also work toward what is called “performing whiteness.” This in their words means: talking ultra proper English while enunciating every syllable, dressing preppy, not talking about their families, pretending to go on vacations, not telling too many jokes, and proving to their white female teachers that they are not to be feared but to be loved and nurtured.
The result is that their intrinsic motivation for learning mathematics and steadfast internal drive get constantly eroded by a host of structural and environmental challenges.
In addition to all these above challenges, they are often at schools that do not offer enough academic opportunities to support their interests. DeAndre’s school does not offer AP classes that would position him more favorably for a STEM college major.
Another problem that black kids face is an absence of role models. The successful black role models that students like DeAndre are exposed to are mostly athletes and rappers. DeAndre does not want to be an athlete or a rapper.
Even so, the likelihood of DeAndre going on to pursue STEM remains frail.
Instead, DeAndre has chosen to be a social worker. Through this justice-orientated work, DeAndre wants to address the social and racial inequities in his neighborhood. We don’t know if he will use STEM in the future or not.
If DeAndre has managed to come this far, it is thanks to the support he has received from family members. DeAndre has fond memories of playing dominoes with his grandfather and mathematically complicated card games with his aunts.
His first mathematics teacher was his father. Today, DeAndre is like a human calculator, spitting out complicated number algorithms.
Diversity vital to STEM
As we work to minimize the fragility factors affecting youth like DeAndre, we often overlook what protects DeAndre’s STEM and academic identity. The socialization in mathematics that does happen in many black households remains unappreciated by schools as it does by the predominantly white social structures.
My experience of investigating lives, such as those of DeAndre, has convinced me of the need for rigorous research that contributes to a more accurate and nuanced portrayal of black males in STEM.
The vitality of United States will be derived in large part from fostering the STEM identities of young men like DeAndre who reside within our urban communities. Their participation is important for innovation—and for a more equitable society.
Our DeAndres should not see a conflict between pursuing a STEM college trajectory and an unyielding sense of responsibility for the improvement of their home communities.