Race, Gender, and Black Students’ Educational Opportunities

Walter R. Allen

Between me and the other world there is an unasked question. . . . How does it feel to be a problem?

—W. E. B. Du Bois1

DU BOIS’S QUOTE provides a useful point of departure to consider the status of African American men. Distressing statistics reveal that Black men are disproportionate victims of premature death by homi­cide, disease, or fatal accidents. Black males are also overrepresented in the nation’s prisons, foster care homes, and asylums. Black men have higher rates of unemployment, lower incomes, less prestigious jobs, and dimmer economic futures than do white men. In short, by most indicators of life quality, African American males suffer extreme disadvantages. We are, without doubt, a problem-ridden group.

This is not to say, of course, that Black males are themselves the problem; rather, they suffer problems because of this country’s histor­ical and contemporary racism.2 To be sure, personal responsibility, agency, and individual characteristics such as initiative, resilience, and persistence play key roles in determining an individual’s life op­tions. But these factors have to be examined contextually, not ab­stractly. In other words, in thinking about personal responsibility, one has to consider the extent to which racism circumscribes agency.3

Significantly, acknowledging the suffering inflicted on African American males by this society is not to dismiss or minimize the suf­fering of African American women and/or African American chil­dren.4 Black women are increasingly the victims of crime, police bru­tality, and the nation’s war against drugs. Moreover, public and polit­ical welfare discourse continues to construct Black women as deviant and undeserving of public sympathy and governmental support. Black women and Black men are both racial victims, but they are not racial victims in the same way. Notwithstanding the sameness of race, there is the difference of gender. The purpose of this chapter is to ex­plore how this gender differential plays itself out in the context of ed­ucation.

I am interested in conducting this inquiry in the context of educa­tion in part because education has always been a racially contested opportunity. We continue to think of Brown v. Board of Education as one of the most important moments in American race relations. And, notwithstanding that Brown was preceded by years of racial resist­ance—political, economic, and social—it is the opinion itself (more so than the social forces that caused it) that has present political cur­rency. We often ask whether the promise of Brown—substantive and meaningful equality in education for Black people—has been ful­filled. The findings of this chapter suggest that it has not.

This essay reports findings from a study of how African Ameri­can students are faring in U. S. colleges and universities, as well as Black students’ high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and college attrition rates. These findings illustrate that, while African American students have made some advances in education, there is still a great deal of progress to be made.

THE “PIPELINE” PROBLEM

As context for considering race, gender, and higher education, the fol­lowing educational statistics and trends are revealing: