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Volume 19, Number 2
March/April 2003

How Racial Identity Affects School Performance

A Harvard professor connects research on race and schooling to his experiences as a student and father


When I am asked to speak or write about the relationship between racial identity and academic performance, I often tell the story of my eldest son, Joaquín. Joaquín did extremely well throughout most of his early schooling. He was an excellent athlete (participating in soccer, basketball, and wrestling), played piano and percussion, and did very well in his classes. My wife and I never heard any complaints about him. In fact, we heard nothing but praise about his behavior from teachers, who referred to him as "courteous," "respectful," and "a leader among his peers." Then suddenly, in the tenth grade, Joaquín's grades took a nosedive. He failed math and science, and for the first time he started getting into trouble at school. At home he was often angry and irritable for no apparent reason.

My wife and I were left asking ourselves, "What's going on with our son? What's behind this sudden change in behavior?" Despite my disappointment and growing frustration, I tried not to allow his behavior to drive us apart. I started spending more time with him and started listening more intently to what he had to tell me about school and his friends. As I did, several things became clear to me. One was that all of the friends he had grown up with in our neighborhood in South Berkeley, California (one of the poorest areas of the city), were dropping out of school. These were mostly Black, working-class kids who didn't have a lot of support at home or at school and were experiencing academic failure. Even though Joaquín came from a middle-class home with two supportive parents, most of his reference group—that is, the students he was closest to and identified with—did not.

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Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom,” Harvard Educational Review 62, no. 1 (1992): 1–24

    William E. Cross, Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991)

    Jean S. Phinney, “Ethnic Identity in Adolescents and Adults: Review of Research,” Psychological Bulletin 108, no. 3 (1991): 499–514.

    Erik H. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (NewYork: W.W. Norton, 1968).

    Barry Troyna and Bruce Carrington, Education, Racism and Reform (London: Routledge, 1990).

    Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, Dismantling Desegregation (NewYork: New Press, 1996).

    BelindaWilliams, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” in Milli Pierce and Deborah L. Stapleton (eds.), The 21st-Century Principal: Current Issues in Leadership and Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2003)

    Pedro Noguera and Antwi Akom, “Disparities Demystified,” The Nation, June 5, 2000.

    Signithia Fordham, Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

    Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, “Black Students and School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White,” Urban Review 18 (1986): 176–206. Also see other works by Ogbu and Fordham.

    Claude Steele, “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape the Intellectual Identities and Performance of Women and African Americans,” American Psychologist 52 (June 1997): 613–629.

    John H. McWhorter, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (NewYork: New Press, 2000)

    Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).