Voices in Education

Adolescence, Achievement, and Change in the Age of Obama
In his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama decried “the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Obama was referring, at least indirectly, to the theory put forth most notably by ethnographers Signithia Fordham and the late John Ogbu that some students of color reject academic learning because they perceive it as “acting white.” Since these students view schooling and the society surrounding it as dominated by whites, the theory goes, they deliberately place limits on their own achievement and accuse their peers of “acting white” if they show too much interest in reading, writing, or anything else having to do with school.

Several convincing studies have questioned, or at least qualified, the “acting white” theory since Fordham and Ogbu’s research was first published in 1986, including those by Ronald Ferguson of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and William Darity, Jr., and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina. Ferguson, for example, has found that African American youth are actually more likely than their white peers to view studying and good grades as important, and the North Carolina researchers point to schools’ de facto tracking by race as a major factor in whether or not youth view high achievement as “acting white” in the first place. Still, Obama was making an important point about the intersection of race, adolescent identity, and learning in his 2004 speech that is well worth revisiting as he prepares to assume the presidency in 2009.

As Obama seems to have understood from his work in education reform and, quite likely, from having grown up as a young person of color, black youth attach meaning to their racial identities based in large part on what they perceive around them—and who their peers, their teachers, their families, and their society tell them they are and should be. In her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race, psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum describes a process of racial identity development whereby young African Americans make sense of “what it means to be black” in U.S. society. For those who experience racism in their schools and see extremely limited opportunities for the people of color in their communities, this can contribute to what psychologist James Marcia has called “foreclosure,” whereby young people view their own identities and the possibilities for their futures in a relatively narrow range. But now that he is elected, will our first African American president help change young people’s perceptions about “what it means to be black” in the United States in any significant way—and will this in turn have an effect on the beliefs and aspirations of black youth? If we agree with Obama that at least some youth equate intellectuality with “acting white,” how might seeing an African American president in the news every day help to dispel that notion?

Beyond questions about black youth, will other youth of color—Latina/Latino youth, Asian American youth, American Indian youth—see new possibilities for themselves in Obama’s ascension to the nation’s highest office? What about other young people who are part of groups that, in addition to people of color, continue to face a glass ceiling in American society: girls; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth; youth from immigrant families; youth with disabilities; youth from religious minorities? Will they too strive for more in school and in life because their sense of what’s possible has been expanded by the Obama presidency?

In the middle of the 20th century, adolescent psychology pioneer Erik Erikson wrote of the strong roles that cultural and historical context play in all adolescents’ identity formation: American youth coming of age in the aftermath of World War II, for example, experienced adolescence very differently from those growing up during the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. How will the identity development of American adolescents be influenced by the “age of Obama?” We will not know for some time, until it is well under way. In the meantime, deeply entrenched income inequality along racial and ethnic lines is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, and many children of color will continue to attend segregated, under-resourced schools. The rise of one man of color to the U.S. presidency will not make racism and poverty, or the disproportionate effects they have on children and adolescents of color, go away overnight. In addition, all U.S. presidents to date have still been men. LGBT people are still fighting for equal rights (a fact reaffirmed by the state ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage passed on the same day Obama was elected president). The fight for full equality across all segments of society is far from over. But we are now undeniably moving into uncharted territory, a time of new possibilities not only for those of us who were old enough to have voted in this past election but for young people now growing up in a dramatically different political context.

Perhaps it is most important, then, to think beyond questions about how the Obama presidency will affect the perceptions of the nation’s young people and to consider what the mere fact of his election—as groundbreaking as it is—will not accomplish, and what we therefore need to do to effect the depth of change that is required. In his acceptance speech on election night, Obama told the nation to believe in things now unseen and to face our challenges with the attitude, “Yes, we can.” So how can we educators, youth service providers, parents, and others who work with and care about adolescents use this next chapter in American history to start a new dialogue with them about what’s possible in and for their lives? What role can our new president and his administration play in writing an expanded narrative of adolescence in the United States, one that is more inclusive and inspires all youth to believe they truly can participate in creating a better world? And what resources will we need to muster, both human and material, to ensure that young people—regardless of who they are, where they go to school, or what resources they do or do not have—can trust the promise that they truly can achieve to their full potential? I invite readers to share your ideas here, to articulate your vision of the change that is possible for the nation’s young people in this new era, and to strategize what we will need to do to accomplish it.

About the Author: Michael Sadowski is an assistant professor in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College. He is the former editor of the Harvard Education Letter and editor of Teaching Immigrant and Second-Language Students and Adolescents at School.