It is my pleasure to write this commentary for the JPAS Special Edition on African American student success. No other group of students has been more studied, more talked about, and more maligned than African American students. The subtext of virtually every discussion about the state of American education is closing the so-called "achievement gap" between Black and Brown students and White and Asian students. Discussions about African American student achievement are dominated by what Richard Valencia has referred to as "deficit thinking." Valencia characterizes deficit thinking as "blaming the victim" for school failure instead of examining how school structures do not promote learning among students of color. In fact, Valencia argues that school is structured to actually prevent students of color from learning.
A prominent deficit narrative has been promoted by John McWhorter, who has argued that African American students (and Black culture more generally), are anti-intellectual. In my 2014 book The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism: A True Psychology of African American Students, I challenge the deficit narrative regarding Black student achievement. I argued that Black students are actually very intellectual and engaged, especially when they see themselves reflected in the curriculum and are taught by culturally competent teachers and professors.
Consider a recent report by The Education Trust. This report provided data indicating that while there has been improvement in graduation rates at four-year public institutions for all students, the improvement is smaller for Black students, thus begging the question "Are all Black students falling behind?" However, I pointed out that the data did not consider private schools, which includes some of the highest ranking schools and highest-achieving Black students in the country. These data show that the graduation rate gap is much smaller at many highly selective colleges and universities, and that Black student graduation rates at private schools are considerably higher (in some instances higher than White student graduation rates). Statistics can tell multiple stories about African American students, and in this country we are too quick to use statistics that paint the most negative picture possible.
That is not to say that African American students don't have challenges, because certainly they do. However, we need Africana Studies scholars to conduct more research that focuses on the factors related...