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How to Motivate Students of Color: Combating the Carlton Effect

Updated on October 24, 2016
Mike Wyn profile image

Mike Wyn (M.A. Education) has taught students from the 3rd grade to college. He currently teaches in the San Diego Juvenile Court Schools.

The Carlton Syndrome

The sitcom Fresh Prince of Bellaire's Carlton Banks was whiter than Mitt Romney. His character was the perfect stereotype of an Oreo, which refers to a black person whose mannerisms and interests are that of a conservative republican. Will Smith plays a cool, hip black kid in the lead role and constantly harasses Carlton about his whiteness. The same situation occurs every day in classrooms across the country. This reality begs the question: what is the color of education?

Social justice soldiers argue the Anglo-Saxon power structure compels people to abandon their mother tongue and forces the queen's English down everybody's throat. White privilege assumes to know what's best for society and institute linguistic standards implying others are inferior. Right wing culture combatants counter-punch by denouncing ebonics as a joke and point to grade inflation while socially promoting students toward diplomas they don't deserve. Rigid right wingers name a litany of sins committed by ethnic enclaves that sentence students to academic and economic hell. Who's right?

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Racial Attitudes About Education

African-Americans believe school is a white thing.

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Arguing Academics

The ubiquity of articles illustrating the gap between academic performance for white and Asian kids compared to their brown brothers remains dismal. A simple search of the internet returns 105 million articles on the subject. The consensus being that failing schools, bad teachers, and poverty is driving the disparity. No doubt any one of these factors will have an effect, but there may be something more insidious exerting influence. Racial identification is a subtle affair that requires careful consideration and research. You can't look inside someone's head to see if they have a headache.

Can you surmise racial attitudes concerning school by simply asking if students like it or not? A study in Elementary School Guidance and Counseling in 1997 found white students did their homework to meet parental expectations while black children completed it for teachers. This suggests that communities of color do not have a sense that education is a central part of expected familial norms. In another research project, Harvard's Ronald Fryer reported African-American students who excelled in academics reported fewer people who counted them as friends at a much larger margin than other racial groups. Given the sad story of racial injustice in the US, who can blame them.

Jim Ogabu's book, Minority Status, Oppositional Culture, & Schooling, found that high academic performance in school was believed to be acting white. While another book, Losing the Race, documents how victimology, self-separation, and anti-school attitudes are exacerbated by media darlings like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Teachers supply additional anecdotal evidence by hearing the all too common statements of their own students accusing intelligent black kids of "thinking they're white." The evidence mounts when African-American professionals provide detailed accounts of how they were treated in school. Self-sabotage isn't unique to the black community but producing another obstacle in already tough circumstances seems like overkill.


Counter-Punching Arguments

The prevailing zeitgeist finds the studies above to be catering to the Fox News narrative with the added accessory of victim blaming. From hip-hop lyrics to some interviews on national broadcasts, many Americans, including blacks, conclude that African-Americans speak a broken dialect of proper English. Linguists disagree. They discovered Ebonics, officially called African-American Vernacular English, is used in informal settings to speak to family and friends having roots in 17th century England. It is not indicative of a lack of intelligence. Examples abound in other groups like when a surfer brags about getting tubed in a gnarly wave; he's not talking about riding the subway in the UK.

In the past decade, researchers have focused their laser-beam analysis on the subtleties that underlie the accusations of "acting white." They discovered that the theory requires certain circumstances that are not present in all schools where black students attend. In fact, schools with predominately African-American populations don't seem to have the problem at all. While white schools frequently hold racialized perceptions of who should achieve academic excellence is sustained by both black and caucasian kids. It comes down to the isolation felt by students of color when they end up the only person in class with a great tan.

The real issue has everything to do with perceived arrogance by kids of all colors. Tyson, Darity, and Castellino (2005) wrote, "...the perception that the low-status student was attempting to assume the characteristic of the ‘other,’ especially an air of superiority or arrogance." The example of a person employing professional jargon to ensure their authoritative opinion will be accepted is an annoying occurrence often met with disdain. Teachers tell students that there is a language for friends and a different type appropriate for school, work, and writing essays. It is important to be book-smart, but also street-smart.

Solid Solutions

#blm is immediately recognizable symbol for change in the black community whether you support their tactics or not. It's time the nation values the academic lives of all students by seeking solutions to the falling standardized test scores (whites included) when compared with other industrialized nations. The sobering statistics reveal we are in no position to earn a bronze or silver medal, let alone a gold, in international competition. This is a first-world problem that matters.

Some of the solutions attempted over the years have left little to be desired. Lower socioeconomic status drives the academic failure anyone trapped in that zone knows all too well.It's like Lebron driving to the hoop uncontested; it's a slam dunk every time. The War on Poverty has been anything but effective where academic achievement is concerned. Recently, class size reduction from 35+ to a manageable 15 has shown mixed results and the incredibly expensive price tag doesn't justify the small educational gains. And who can forget the Self Esteem Program where students would magically write The Grapes of Wrath by praising a crappy essay. Real esteem for self comes from hard work and earned recognition for improvement and eventually excellence.

The single most important factor for learning is great teachers. Superior teachers and instruction outweigh negative circumstances like drugs, parental incarceration, lack of money and a host of other things. These saints of our schools believe that ALL kids can leap the high bar of standardized testing through high expectations of their students. Academic rigor keeps students engaged with content and diminishes classroom disruptions while the clock seems to be on fast-forward. Holding students to the same standards as their own children, teachers demonstrate tough-love in action and no doubt the students feel it, although it's kinda hard to measure empirically.

When the high school exit exam was implemented, the dire predictions caused alarm throughout the educational establishment. Even the public wondered if kids who were used to being socially promoted just for showing up would respond to a test that would determine if they graduated or not. The reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated. Another development that caused consternation was the idea to eliminate remedial courses for students lacking in some skills. The charge? Dumbing down to the lowest common denominator would hurt all students especially those college-bound. They missed the point completely. By grouping all kids together and keeping the same high objectives, we float all boats to a high tide. The usual response to school improvement is more money, but none of these answers to academic deficiencies require additional funding. Remember they won't care what you know until they know how much you care.

Links to additional academic achievement resources are below.

© 2016 Michael Wnek

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    • Rob Wnek profile image

      Rob Wnek 8 months ago

      I think there are several factors to consider.

      - Are both parents actively involved in the child's life?

      - If they are involved, is a positive environment? What future does the child see ahead?

      - Has society taught the child there are consequences of failure?

      The above are not black and white questions. They apply to any child based on the circumstances. My wife teaches at a very diverse Title 1 school. We had the choice to send our youngest to her school or to higher performing less diverse school. We chose the Title 1 school because we saw value of our daughter learning to work with different races. I wanted her to have the same opportunity I had growing up. But the true question is that despite growing up in a lower middle class urban environment, myself and my 3 siblings all graduated college. What set us apart? Our color? Or is it the answers to the questions I first posed.

    • Mike Wyn profile image
      Author

      Michael Wnek 11 months ago from San Diego, Ca

      Correy.

      The biggest concern I had about writing this article is that it would offend people, or even worse, it would come off as racist. I tried to be fair as possible by citing research on differing points of view. The issue with all hubs is the limited word count we have to work with, so I was unable to include research that confirms your experience. For my own background, I grew up similar to you near Compton, Ca except for one very important aspect. I'm white. I didn't have any white friends until high school and listened to only black music till then as well. In fact. I was the opposite of Carlton assuming mannerisms of the African-American community I lived in. It wasn't until I tried to hook-up with some to some hot rich white girls that I forced myself to pretend to like rock and punk music. My point is that my life experience proves your take on environment being the deciding factor on how people behave be they black or white. Thanks for the comment.

    • CoreydDowdell profile image

      Corey Dowdell 11 months ago from Hawaii

      Some people may feel insulted or confused by the question unless you've been in that realm. I am a nuclear engineer in the navy and I was raised in southern GA in the projects. When I got around black guys that grew up in the suburbs I did feel that they acted white. They listened to music like guys named Ed Sheeren(I think that's his name), played magic cards and what I called corny things. They did not play sports or talk about or to girls and they dressed different. Now that I am more opened minded I don't think that it's about whether they are educated or not I think that it's more about where they grew up. If some black people grow up where it's predominately white they are going to steer that way, the same if a white person or asian or any other person grows up around black people. There are some uneducated people of color that act white at the same time not just educated ones.