Harvard Educational Review
  1. Keepin’ It Real

    School Success beyond Black and White

    Prudence Carter

    New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 218 pp. $29.95

    In this time of renewed interest in achievement disparities between urban students of color and their White, more-affluent peers, Prudence Carter offers a comprehensive and insightful look at the nuances of educational attainment in low-income urban communities. Keepin’ It Real: School Success beyond Black and White details Carter’s ethnographic inquiry into the attitudes and cultural norms of sixty-eight Black and Latino students in Yonkers, New York. Seeking to move the body of scholarship on the achievement gap beyond the limited explanatory power of the “acting White” phenomenon, Carter questions what is perhaps an oversimplified explanation by describing these Black and Latino students’ differential employment of what Pierre Bourdieu has called cultural capital — the cultural codes and symbols of high-status social groups.

    Carter suggests that while these young people largely embrace the dominant opportunity ideology, they acknowledge and employ dominant cultural capital in varying degrees to attain status and material goods. Yet these same youth also judiciously use their own groups’ nondominant cultural capital to gain status and material in their own socio-ethnic communities. From this point of view, Carter argues that resistance to “acting White” for many African American students is about maintaining cultural identity, not about embracing or rejecting the dominant standards of achievement. Unfortunately, Carter finds that these students’ nondominant capital is often shunned by their teachers and administrators, and consequently the students who are embedded more exclusively in their own groups’ capital may find both their intellectual abilities underestimated and their ways of being viewed unfavorably by the educational institutions designed to serve them. It is this bias, Carter suggests, that causes some students’ disengagement with formal educational practices. As a remedy, she suggests that this nondominant cultural capital be engaged by schools and educators if we are to help many of these students find the success they desire within the American opportunity structure.

    In demonstrating the employment of dominant and nondominant cultural capital in an educational context, Carter outlines three archetypes of urban Black and Latino students, all of which affirm the belief that education is the gateway to opportunity but differ in their use of these cultural forms. To further describe the perspectives of these youth, Carter borrows racial identity theory from Ron Sellers. She shows that while these students share a common race “centrality,” i.e., race is a salient part of their identity, they differ in “ideology,” i.e., how they manifest and employ their racial identity in their social and institutional interactions. Unfortunately, the educational institutions in these communities are not meeting students where they are, and thus it is these students in Carter’s sample who were the most at risk for academic failure.

    Carter also explores differences in gender-based expectations, socialization, and outcomes among Black and Latino youth. Keepin’ It Real discusses how, in these low-income urban communities, African American females are given more supervision, structure, and responsibility at home than males, and thus are able to develop skills critical for school success. Carter delves into the difficult waters of gender expectations, and describes how Black and Latino males are encouraged to develop a “hard” posture in their communities, marked by mental and physical toughness and, to some degree, emotional impermeability. Unfortunately, this demeanor compromises their ability to meet the “soft” presentations desired in schools and in fast-growing segments of the employment world. The seemingly culturally based concept of resistance is shown to have a serious gender interaction, and the potential for emasculation causes Black and Latino males to be more disengaged academically than their female counterparts.

    Carter goes on to establish how, in the absence of middle-class, upwardly mobile role models in their communities, or “old heads,” as Carter calls them, these Black and Latino youth understandably turn to the media for examples of economic achievement and latch onto “new heads,” namely celebrities and athletes, for models of economic prosperity. Carter suggests that these figures exhibit impressive economic accomplishment without compromising the cultural presentation that these youth experience and exhibit themselves. Ultimately, these personalities are respected because they are successful while also “keepin’ it real.”

    In terms of potential remedies, Carter notes that the social capital of these youth must be vastly improved. In response to the lack of role models and high-status workers in her sample communities, she calls for the mobilization of “cultural navigators” in the education force, individuals who “demonstrate how to possess both dominant and nondominant cultural capital and how to be adept at movement through various sociocultural settings.” Such actors can serve as a bridge between the critical social networks necessary for success and the nondominant cultural world of these Black and Latino youth. Carter also calls on teachers and school officials to broaden their perspectives on the images of intelligence and knowledge, thus making them more likely to welcome students with “outsider” cultural presentations into important social networks, like advanced academic tracks. Ultimately, Carter illuminates the need to recognize the place of multiple cultural repertoires in our society, especially professional education programs.

    For readers who may be new to the area of race and class-based achievement disparity, Keepin’ It Real provides a comprehensive look at the past, present, and future research in this field and would be very useful in teacher-education and urban sociology classrooms. For readers more experienced in these subjects, Carter provides an in-depth perspective on the cultural capital of this nondominant group and compelling areas of focus for educators dedicated to improving the success of these youth. The findings here also inspire a number of important and relevant research topics, including documenting the early socialization and the developmental trajectories of the proposed student archetypes; conducting fine analyses of potential gradations and interactions of these ways of being and their relationships with various outcomes; and exploring potentially effective practices for developing cultural navigation skills and multicultural repertoires in students and educators, respectively. What is unequivocally helpful from Carter’s inquiry is the assertion that these young people’s way of being and the concepts of achievement and mobility need not be mutually exclusive. That is, as a society perhaps we need to meet these students where they are culturally so they can participate in the opportunity structure without having to compromise their sense of self.

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