By Aaron Allen
Based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learn in different ways, many educators and advocates want to break down the broad category associated with Black/African American students in order to provide a much clearer picture of the achievement gaps that exist in public education.
One area where advocated feel that it is important to distinguish between Black students of African descent, who are either first- or second-generation immigrants to America, and Black/African American students, descendants of American slaves, is in STEM classes/programs and post-secondary enrollment, as there are disparities that exist between the two groups that are not distinguishable if they are all placed under the same statistical category.
These variances in cultures may enhance educational and socioeconomic advancement of foreign-born blacks, who were raised and conditioned in an environment where they are the racial majority, thus creating a potential achievement gap between African students and African American students as they are not necessarily affected by the socio-political environment African Americans are raised under and affected by.
While the argument is not meant to cause further separation or provide a narrative that one groups’ struggle is more significant than the other, advocates claim that it is important to deliver the necessary resources for both groups to achieve and part of that process is recognizing and acknowledging cultural differences that can help or hinder members of the sub-groups as a whole.
Educators like Caleb Perkins, Executive Director of College and Career Readiness for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and Dr. Mia Williams, SPS Assistant Superintendent Office of African American Male Achievement, both stress that it is important for the educational system to be aware of the differences in cultures, because people from different cultures may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. In addition, African students, who are raised with different cultural and education standards than African American students, are more likely to be encouraged or steered towards the sciences than African American students.
“Black/African American. It is a federal racial category that does not capture the many ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds of our students,” says Dr. Williams in her African American Male Achievement 2021 Community Engagement Report. “Understanding nuances within the Black experience is crucial in regard to Black educational achievement. Decades of developmental and educational research show generational status and type of immigration (e.g., voluntary immigration vs. non-voluntary immigration by slavery or force) as important contexts to understand the educational barriers students face.”
Many educators are taking it upon themselves as well as their professional responsibility to tap into what the education system is doing or not doing to encourage, empower and help all students, particularly students of color, to succeed.
“[We’re here to] address what the system is responsible for,” says Perkins. “Our job is to think about what is it about the system and the messages that we are sending to our students, that we are responsible for, that is either encouraging or not encouraging students to take advantage of these opportunities.”
According to a study by Dr. Patrice Juliet Pinder on the academic performance of immigrants of African heritage in STEM, native born African and Afro-Caribbean students perform at higher rates than African American students, European Black student and Canadian Black students.
“Results revealed that international students performed better than their peers because of “high expectations” from their teachers,” says Pinder. “This high expectation of good academic performance was expected of some internationals than some natives. Additionally, Burrell et al. cited a US Census report, which indicated that African immigrant students had the highest college graduation rate of any other immigrant ethnic group or native-born American racial group.”
Seattle Public School student enrollment data by program shows a telling picture that underlines the interest levels of both sub-groups when it comes to career interests.
According to SPS student career plan data, less than one percent of Black/African American students are interested in pursuing STEM careers, as they were much more interested in careers paths in social science, marketing, and business.
The challenge presented by not distinguishing between the two groups is that presenting combined numbers, especially as it relates to post-secondary education, can provide a distorted picture of the plight of the African American community. For instance, combined enrollment numbers for post-secondary education may show a significant increase in “Black” students who are entering STEM fields. However, when digging deeper into the numbers it may show that while there has been a significant increase among Black students of African descent, there may also be a significant decrease in the number of students of African American descent, which can decrease the wealth building and job creation ability of future generations.
According to a study by the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), most post-secondary education enrollment data also looks at the Black population as one demographic.
“Foreign-born blacks are enrolling in post-secondary institutions at higher rates than native-born Blacks and foreign-born Blacks are the fastest growing group within the overall Black population pursuing a STEM degree,” according to ASEE. “However, many institutions and STEM departments merge foreign-born Blacks and native-born blacks into a single demographic due to a shared race without collecting data on the ethnicity or nativity of the students.”
“Although both groups contribute to racial and ethnic diversity enrollment, retention, and graduation numbers, it is only the racial identity of both foreign-born and native-born Blacks that is the marker of diversity. The practice of merging these two groups without investigating and addressing the needs for academic success reinforces a homogenous perspective of the Black population. This homogenization is counterintuitive to the heterogeneity that STEM diversity and inclusion programs support; furthermore, homogenizing Blacks in STEM complicates the understanding of best practices for underrepresented minorities, i.e., foreign-born and native-born Blacks. More attention must be focused on the experiences and persistence of these two groups to address factors influencing retention and persistence in STEM majors,” the study concluded.
Although there are barriers such as inadequate classification of the African diaspora, there is a silver lining in the that by the merging of cultures there is a unified consequence that “Black” students as a whole regardless of origin can and are achieving in STEM and possess high enrollments. However, as it relates to the bigger picture the system itself must find meaningful ways of empowering all students who fall under the board category of Black/African American.
“Encouragement and empowerment is the key,” says Perkins. “It is the key to raising the percentages, rates and stakes across the board, where each culture has a healthy representation.”