Impact of PWIs on Black Students' Outcomes
Since the desegregation of educational institutions, African-centered scholars have directed attention to the institutional contexts where Black students are educated (Allen, 1992; Fleming, 1984). These researchers recognize the powerful influence the social and cultural milieu has on the subsequent outcomes of Black learners. Given that the majority of Black students are entering historically White educational spaces, it is vital to critically examine the characteristics of these spaces and analyze how they influence the academic, social, emotional, psychological and spiritual development of Black collegians.
Echoing the findings of earlier Black researchers (e.g., Woodson, 1933/2000), Critical White Studies scholars who focus on higher education contend that one of the distinguishing characteristics associated with PWIs has been the presence and practice of White supremacy and racism on campuses (Gusa, 2010; Leonardo, 2004). They contend that White supremacy is reflected in the curriculum, traditions, customs and everyday practices of PWIs (Bourke, 2010). Considering that the original mission of many of these institutions was to nurture and develop the White students they enrolled (Wilder, 2014), one legacy of this history of White-focused educational practice is that the needs of Black students are often ignored, dismissed or minimized. Often, the ubiquitous practices of White supremacy and White racial superiority in these "colorblind" higher educational spaces are not acknowledged (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Harper, 2012), which negatively affects the experiences of Black (and other minoritized) students.
Black students' evaluations of the racial, social and academic climate at many PWIs tends to convey the same sad story: compared to their White peers, Black students report encountering more barriers due to their racial group membership on their respective campuses (Fisher & Hartmann, 1995; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Solorzano, Ceja & Yosso, 2000). These studies indicate that Black students frequently have the most negative evaluations of the campus climate and often feel marginalized, excluded and invisible on their campuses. White peers and professors are often identified as sources of this racial marginalization (Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitgerald & Bylsma, 2003). When students must deal with racial stereotypes and biases frequently, their perceptions of cultural fit or match on campus can be compromised (Smith, Allen & Danley, 2007). The dearth of same-race professors, staff and administrators can exacerbate these feelings of cultural incongruity or mismatch for Black students in the classroom and on-campus (Gloria, Hird & Navarro, 2001).
The cumulative burden of dealing with these racial stressors--while also handling the ordinary tasks of being a college student--can contribute to compromised psychological well-being and mental health for Black students (McClain et al., 2016). Battling these environmental, psychological, interpersonal and sociocultural hassles can undermine salubrious outcomes for this population in addition to detracting from the positive academic identity exploration and development processes common to this phase of life.
Academic Identity Outcomes for Black Students
Academic self-concept. Developmental psychologists affirm that academic identity development is a key developmental process that begins early in life and continues into young adulthood (Juntunen & Schwartz, 2016). Cokley's (2002a) work identified academic self-concept as a key component of students' academic identity and a key factor in the academic success of Black college students. Academic self-concept, or the learner's global evaluation of their ability to be successful in an academic setting, has consistently been linked to positive academic outcomes for Black students (e.g., Awad, 2007). For Black college students, academic self-concept represents one of the strongest predictors of academic success regardless of institutional type (Cokley, 2000; 2002a). Cokley's research also documented unique contributors to the academic self-concept of Black students attending HBCUs and PWIs. The quality of one's relationship with faculty was the best predictor of academic self-concept for Black students attending HBCUs, whereas cumulative GPA was the best predictor of academic self-concept for Black students at PWIs. These findings suggest that institutional differences between PWIs and HBCUs may affect the academic identity development of Black learners.
Although academic identity outcomes are influenced by individual, intrapersonal and interpersonal and institutional factors, the academic identity of Black students is not often explored in connection with contextual and environmental variables. Available research suggests that incorporating academic identity outcomes is an important endeavor in understanding the academic success of this group (Cokley, 2003). Black educators have long acknowledged the centrality of positive academic identity for the success of Black pupils (Akbar, 1998; Perry, Steele & Hilliard, 2003). In the absence of positive academic identity, we witness several identity-related dilemmas that detract from overall scholastic achievement and engagement, namely "the burden of 'acting White'" and academic disidentification.
"Burden of 'acting White'". Since the publication of their study on the "burden of 'acting White'" (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986), many educators have narrowly focused on accusations of "acting White" among Black learners and its pernicious impact on their academic identity (Fordham, 2008). Fordham asserts that throughout U.S. history, Black students have been inundated with deficit-oriented, pathology-driven messages about their intellectual acuity and scholarly aptitude. Within a White supremacist nation, they are socialized to see Whiteness as superior and link positive academic, economic and social outcomes with the dominant racial group. Fordham contends that Black students are rewarded for mimicking Whites by valuing their arts, history and culture above the contributions of African descent people.
After centuries of these noxious assaults on their academic abilities, some Black students have internalized and even regurgitate the White supremacist ideology they have received about their supposedly limited academic skills as well as the reduced scholarly prowess of other Blacks (Cokley, 2002c). Master narratives of "the achievement gap" continuously reinforce this myth of Black intellectual inferiority (Leonardo, 2004). As a result, these messages can undermine the development of a strong academic identity for some Black students and augment the "acting White" myth that links educational success primarily with Whiteness.
Academic disidentification. In addition to internalized beliefs related to "acting White", educational psychologists have identified another negative identity outcome that occurs in institutional settings where Black students' academic identity is not cultivated and nourished (Osborne & Jones, 2011). Among academically healthy students, we often find a strong association between their overall self-evaluation, identification with academics and their current GPA. When this relationship is absent, educational psychologists categorize this condition as academic disidentification. Academic disidentification involves three worsening conditions (i.e., devaluing academic outcomes, discounting educational assessments, and disengagement from school-related activities) that deteriorate students' positive academic identity to a total disconnection from academic pursuits.
In an optimal learning environmental for Black students, we hope to find students with a strong academic identity or high academic self-concept. However, based on the low retention and graduation rates witnessed among this group, it is clear that for some Black students at PWIs academic disidentification and disengagement is a reality. As concerned educators, we must proactively address this pressing concern. Rather than identifying strategies that will minimize the historical assaults on the academic identity of Black students at PWIs, many researchers focus primarily on deficit-oriented constructs, such as the "achievement gap", academic disengagement and academic disidentification among Black learners. African-centered scholars, in contrast, acknowledge that even within oppressive milieus like PWIs, African peoples consistently formulate ways to cope with and resist potentially destructive social forces (Myers, 1993). We contend that ABS courses provide one venue to facilitate this optimal approach for dealing with racial hurdles and developing a strong academic identity.
Africana/Black Studies and Emancipatory Education Framework
In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks (1994) describes the classroom environment as a space with the greatest potential to liberate and as the "most radical space for possibility" (p. 12). This philosophy is apparent in pedagogical approaches utilized within ABS. This liberatory...