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"Radical Care" to Let Black Boys Thrive
March 2021 | Volume 78 | Number 6
Equity in Action Pages 22-29
"Radical Care" to Let Black Boys Thrive
Tyrone C. Howard and Jaleel R. Howard
Educators can make a difference in the ways Black boys experience school.
The education of Black boys has been a topic of discussion for the past four decades. Scholars, practitioners, and policymakers have all weighed in on the challenges affecting Black male students (Harper & Wood, 2016; Howard, 2014). Despite the increasing body of research and commentary, however, disparate academic outcomes for this group of learners (compared with students in other demographics) remain. As a father of three Black young men and a researcher on equity in schools and the experiences of Black students (Tyrone) and a former middle-school teacher, current PhD student, and author (Jaleel, who also happens to be one of Tyrone's sons), our goal here is not to go through a litany of statistics to demonstrate what is "wrong" with Black boys or how consistently they "fail." To the contrary, we believe that those concerned about both Black male students and equity have to engage in a different set of questions and frame an analysis of Black boys' experiences and outcomes in schools differently. It's important to use an equity-centered analysis when looking at how Black boys experience schools.
Instead of asking what's wrong with Black boys, an equity-centered analysis asks, what's wrong with schools, and why are they not serving Black boys better? Moreover, it is vital to build on examples of schools that are serving Black boys well, and to ask what we can learn from them. What are the characteristics of these schools and classrooms? What practices are teachers using to improve the experiences and outcomes of Black boys, and can these practices be replicated? In examining what works for Black boys, we build on previous scholarship focused on high-achieving Black and Latino high school young men, such as Shaun Harper and Dennis Williams's (2013) well-known study of 325 successful students at 40 New York City schools and our own research talking to Black and Latino boys and young men in Los Angeles area schools (Howard et al., 2017). Such studies document the multiple institutional failures that prevent Black boys from positively transitioning into adulthood.
For instance, researchers have established that Black boys are disproportionately subjected to excessive disciplinary practices in schools (Howard, 2014; Wood, Harris, & Howard, 2018); that school suspensions and expulsions are a predictor for increased contact with the juvenile justice system and subsequent arrests (Mittleman, 2018); and that increased police contact negatively impacts academic performance and attendance (Johnson, 2015). Harper and Williams note that harsh disciplinary practices like suspending and expelling these students for minor infractions, thus pushing them out and away from schooling environments, are ineffective in terms of addressing underlying issues and create greater dissonance between many Black boys and schools.
Listening to Black Boys
Such research also reveals that if educators make a conscious effort to focus on assets instead of deficits, they can capture often-neglected stories of success and perseverance among Black boys. Moreover, by listening to these students' own accounts of their experiences in school systems and the kinds of instruction they receive, how teachers perceive them, how these students think about race and racism, and the kind of care they want, educators can gain much richer insights than by merely observing Black male students or interviewing their teachers and administrators.
Black boys possess a wealth of intellect, wisdom, and curiosity, and have a deep desire to do well in school. When school personnel recognize that Black boys possess deep funds of knowledge and a tremendous cultural wealth, they can learn more about the various forces that shape their lives—not just the challenges they face, but also their values, interests, ambitions, cultural traditions, family histories, out-of-school learning opportunities, and more. Educators can then leverage those resources both in and out of the classroom.
There is also a need for deep-seated care for Black boys in school. And not just superficial gestures or school mission statements that mention "care," but a care that's replete with culturally sustaining teaching, rooted in antiracism, and tied to "warm demander" approaches to teaching. We refer to this as radical care for Black boys. We argue that radical care should be situated in a set of core beliefs, ideas, and practices that see the best in Black boys; that recognize their promise and potential; and that hold them accountable, but with compassion and care. Such care should be rooted in empathy and a commitment to seeing the best in Black male students.
How to Show Radical Care for Black Boys
So how do educators who want to feel and express this kind of care put that intention into action? Here are ways to start.
Interrogate Your Preconceived Notions
What is the first image that comes into your mind when you think about Black boys? Is it a joyous image of young boys enjoying the wonders of childhood? Or is it a bleak image reminiscent of the negative depictions of Black boys we often see in the media, such as Black boys being violent, aggressive, combative, unintelligent, or only included for entertainment purposes? These negative images persist in the mainstream media because of the pervasiveness of racism and anti-Blackness in our everyday lives. Our world today is inundated with racist and negative stereotypes, stories, and images of Black males—which inevitably impact the way that teachers interact with, care for, and think about Black boys.
The mainstream depictions of Black boys fail to recognize the multiple dimensions of Black boyhood and its variance across contexts; indeed, they often fail to portray the human qualities of Black boys. Black boys experience joy. Black boys experience wonder. Black boys experience and give kindness, joy, love, and happiness. Black boys are curious and complex, and they have dreams just like all other children. Unfortunately, these dimensions are often overlooked because of the persistent negative depictions of Black boyhood in the media. The result is often that educators dedicate their time and focus to controlling, surveilling, and punishing Black boys rather than caring for them.
Create a Classroom Culture Inclusive of Black Boys
Teachers create classroom cultures based on what they allow and don't allow to occur in their classrooms. This culture is reinforced by things like instructional materials, classroom decorations, posters, pictures, and everyday routines. Classroom cultures are often reflective of the teachers that lead them. Because the majority of teachers are middle-class white women, the culture within most classrooms is based around white middle class cultural values (Leonardo, 2012). This cultural mismatch often results in Black boys being excluded or pushed out of the classroom. Instead, classroom culture must be created with Black boys. It's imperative that classroom cultures not only allow, but encourage Black boys to express themselves and experience joy in the learning environment.
To be clear, we are not offering a "how-to guide" or a prescriptive set of instructions for engaging with Black boys. Rather, we are insisting on recognizing the humanity of Black boys, in an effort to help educators understand that Black boys want and need all the same things that other children need to be successful. Black boys need dedicated, racially conscious educators who believe in them and are invested in their success, both inside and outside the classroom. Black boys want to be seen, heard, valued, affirmed, and included in educational spaces. Teachers should avoid making Black boys feel tokenized by singling them out when issues around race, music, or sports are being discussed, especially if these boys are in the racial minority. Teachers should use the same relational approaches with Black boys that help them to connect with other students.
Address Racism When It Surfaces
Racism impacts all facets of American society. In spite of the efforts of some of the most well-intentioned educators, the classroom is no exception. Combating racism is a daily fight. If educators are truly dedicated to doing antiracist work, they must be willing to address racism at all times, not just when it is convenient. The classroom is often not a safe place for Black boys because they do not feel seen, understood, heard, or protected. Black boys in classrooms across the country are subject to subtle and blatant forms of racism such as racial microaggressions, lowered expectations, unsubstantiated surveillance, unfair discipline, and in some cases overt anti-Black language and actions. It's important that teachers denounce racism from their peers or other students and prohibit the use of anti-Black language or practices in their classrooms.
Be Mindful of Depictions of Black Males
Black boys must be considered in the creation of curriculum to ensure instructional materials do not reinforce negative stereotypes and ideologies that exist about Black men and boys. Because schooling in the United States is compulsory, schools serve as a powerful socialization tool in American society. If teachers aren't mindful of the way Black males are represented in their classroom, they can inadvertently contribute to the devaluing and dehumanization of Black boys.
For example, the depiction of Jim, an adult Black man, as a simple minded, docile, subservient traveling companion to a white child in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not only reinforces white supremacist ideals around the inherent inferiority of Black people, but also demonstrates the stereotype that the worth of Black men and boys lies in their brawn rather than their humanity. Not only Black boys, but all students need to see curricular content that uplifts and empowers Black boys, not material that pathologizes or demeans them. Book titles that affirm Black boys include Christopher Paul Curtis' Bud Not Buddy (Laurel Leaf, 2004) and Kadir Nelson's He's Got the Whole World In His Hands (Scholastic, 2013).
Moreover, it's important that curricular materials not reinforce cis-heteronormative notions of Black malehood, but instead recognize and affirm the diversity that exists among Black boys and men. Books such as: All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George Johnson (Penguin, 2021), The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (Hodder, 2019), and Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (Faber & Faber, 2021) are good selections that disrupt one-dimensional portrayals of Black boys. Each of these books provides a contrast to the essentialized notions of Black boyhood and each positively depicts Black boys that are non-gender conforming.
When possible, teachers should exercise agency and reconsider teaching literature that may be demeaning to certain students. But if they do have books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in their curriculum that reinforce ideas of Black inferiority, they can take approaches to mitigate the effects on Black students. For example, they can engage in meaningful critiques of these books throughout the unit to unearth troubling elements rather than treating the text as a literary classic beyond reproach.
Talk with Black Boys About Their Experiences
Approximately two percent of teachers in the United States are Black men (Lewis & Toldson, 2013). That means the overwhelming majority of teachers have no idea what it is like to be a Black boy in the United States. While we applaud the efforts of dedicated educators who aren't Black and who take time to read literature and watch documentaries on the experiences of Black boys, that simply is not enough. Black boys are not a monolith.
If teachers want to understand these boys' experiences in their classrooms, they must take the time to ask. They can use classroom activities to solicit feedback from Black boys via surveys, journaling, or free writes. Teachers can learn valuable information from engaging with Black boys outside of the classroom during non-formal time such as lunch or transitions.
Working to build and sustain relationships with Black boys is vital to their success in school. Engaging Black boys in meaningful discourse around their experiences in school is surely one way to strengthen such relationships. Open discussion can also provide teachers with insights into what classroom practices help Black boys feel valued, safe, and cared for—and, by contrast, which practices contribute to the ostracization of Black boys in school.
Show Interest in Their Community
Teachers can show care for Black boys by showing a genuine interest in their community. Showing interest does not mean consuming pop-culture depictions of Blackness, but rather understanding the lived experiences of the Black students in your classroom (or school building) outside of school. Genuine interest means understanding things such as what's valued in their community, what Black boys do after school, what they do at home, what hobbies they have, and how they spend their time on weekends. Black life can be vastly different based on environmental context, so it is important that teachers understand the out-of-school experiences of each of their students.
For instance, when Jaleel was a classroom teacher, one of the ways he got a sense of what his students' lives were like beyond school was weekend check-ins. Every Monday, the class spent time sharing how their weekends went, and every Friday students would share their upcoming plans. This simple routine provided Jaleel with valuable insights into students' interests, families, routines, and daily realities outside of school.
Being interested in students' lives outside of school not only demonstrates care, it also helps teachers create a more culturally sustaining environment. As teachers learn about the community, they also learn about the things that matter to their Black male students. They can then work these activities and traditions into their curriculum and classroom to forge a more caring environment.
An Authentic Commitment
The education of Black boys requires a sincere, authentic commitment to seeing the absolute best in them. Perhaps no other group of students in schools are vilified, scrutinized, and deemed a problem more than Black boys. That must change.
Radical care for Black boys is more than a simple approach to teaching. It is a mindset, a racial consciousness, a deep-seated conviction, and a willingness to create curriculum, instruction, and relationship arrangements that don't stigmatize and exclude Black boys, but rather include them, understand them, affirm them, and challenge them to be their best every day—and experience joy in the process.
Reflect & Discuss
➛ In what ways do you think Black boys experience school differently in your school or district—or in the U.S. generally?
➛ The authors note that most teachers "have no idea what it's like to be a Black boy in the United States." What concerns or implications does that raise for you as an educator?
➛ What specific steps could you take to ensure that Black boys are not stigmatized or excluded in your school or classroom?
Harper, S. R., & Williams, C. D., Jr. (2013). Succeeding in the city: A report from the New York City Black and Latino male high school achievement study. Philadelphia, PA: Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Harper, S. R., & Wood, L. J. (2016). Advancing Black male student success from preschool through PhD. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishers.
Howard, T. C. (2014). Black male(d): Peril and promise in the education of African American males. New York: Teachers College Press.
Howard, T. C., Woodward, B., Navarro, O., Haro, B. N. Watson, K. T., Huerta, A. H., et al. (2017). The counter narrative: Reframing success for high achieving Black and Latino males in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Black Male Institute.
Johnson, R. M. (2015). Measuring the influence of juvenile arrest on the odds of four-year college enrollment for Black males: An NLSY analysis. Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, 4(1), 49–72.
Leonardo, Z. (2012). The race for class: Reflections on a critical race class theory of education. Educational Studies, 48(5), 427–449.
Lewis, C. W., & Toldson, I. A. (2013). Black male teachers: Diversifying the United States' teacher workforce. In C. W. Lewis & I. A. Toldson (Eds.), Black male teachers (vol. 1, pp. xiii– xv). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Mittleman, J. (2018). A downward spiral? Childhood suspension and the path to juvenile arrest. Sociology of Education, 91(3), 183–204.
Wood, J. L., Harris, F., III, & Howard, T. C. (2018). Get out! Black male suspensions in California public schools. San Diego, CA: Community College Equity Assessment Lab and the UCLA Black Male Institute.
Tyrone C. Howard is professor of education and director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, the UCLA Black Male Institute, and the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children & Families. He is author of Why Race & Culture Matters in Schools (Teachers College Press, 2020) and All Students Must Thrive: Transforming Schools to Combat Toxic Stressors and Cultivate Critical Wellness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). Jaleel R. Howard is a former middle-grades English language arts teacher in Houston, Texas, and coauthor of No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (Heinemann, 2020).