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Pedro A. Noguera and The Trouble with Black Boys

Pedro A. Noguera and The Trouble with Black Boys

by William H. Benson

May 21, 2015

     Pedro A. Noguera teaches education and sociology at New York University. The son of Caribbean immigrants, he has a Spanish name, but he is black. In 2008, he published his book, The Trouble with Black Boys, and within its pages, he lists the difficulties that young black males face in America.

     Noguera writes, “African-American men lead the nation in homicide, as both perpetrators and victims. Their incarceration, conviction, and arrest rates have been at the top of the charts in most states for some time.” He explains that among the numerous social groups, only black men have experienced a decline in life expectancy. “They are least likely to be hired, and most likely to be unemployed.”

     The poverty that young black men endure every day crushes their dreams for a better future, and so they dare not hope. Noguera says that “one out of three Black children is raised in a poor household.” Other writers have attempted to explain the reasons for the high level of inner city deprivation. 

     Scott Novak in The Baltimore Sun said that “Baltimore lost a staggering 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the second half of the 20th century—most of them to other countries.” As a result, “only about 42 percent of adults in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood are employed.”

     Paul Krugman in The New York Times said that “Middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-calls jobs. The crumbling of traditional families in our country resulted from the disappearance of the well-paid blue-collar jobs that made men marriageable and provided real upward mobility.” Many young black men have disappeared.

     An editorial in The New York Times stated an appalling truth, that there are “1.5 million missing black men,” who have “disappeared from civic life because they died young or are locked away in prison. Only 83 black men live outside of jail for every 100 black women.”

     Noguera writes, “The number of African-American men killed on the streets of Oakland has nearly matched the number who graduated from its high schools ready to attend college.”

     He finds it remarkable that “schools most frequently punish the students who have the greatest academic, social, economic, and emotional needs.” Instead of striving to provide for those deprived students, “in many schools, there is a fixation with behavior management and social control that outweighs and overrides all other priorities and goals.”

     One day Noguera was walking through a school when the principal pointed to a child and said, “There’s a prison cell in San Quentin waiting for him.” Surprised, Noguera asked the principal, “What is the school doing to prevent him from going to prison?” Noguera concludes that “the failure of black males is so pervasive that it appears to be the norm and so does not raise alarms.”

     Last month a Newsweek writer provided a harsh assessment of the injustices heaped upon young black males. “Black men are this nation’s outcasts, marked like Oedipus for doom from birth. They are more likely to ditch school, more likely to be arrested, more likely to end up in prison. When they are not forgotten, they are feared. When they are not scorned, they are pitied.”

     Researchers have discovered that many black boys refuse to believe that education will lead to a better life, nor do they believe that their teachers—mainly white and female—provide much support. Christopher P. Chatmon, a black teacher, explained that “black boys have no will to succeed because they have little notion that someone who looks as they do could succeed.”

     If a black boy happens to read books, receive an “A,” display his mathematical skill, or reveal an interest in science, his peers will ridicule him, saying that he is “selling out, and going soft.” Noguera writes, “Black students hold themselves back out of fear that their peers will ostracize them,” and Newsweek said, “Fifteen-year-old boys of any race are an intractable bunch.”

     For an example, Noguera describes his son Joaquin, who was an ideal student. He enjoyed athletics, pulled A’s and B’s, and his teachers described him as “courteous and respectful.” Then, in the tenth grade he changed, and became angry, sullen, and irritable. He failed math and science. Pedro spent more time with his son, listened to him, and discovered two things.

     First, most of Joaquin’s friends had quit school because they did not receive much support at home, and they were failing their classes. So Joaquin felt alone, abandoned. Second, he felt that he had to act tough, even “intimidating and menacing,” on the street and in school, because if he acted “too nice, gentle, kind, or sincere,” others would see him as vulnerable and prey upon him.

     The good news is that by twelfth grade, “he seemed to snap out of his angry state,” and his grades improved. Noguera now suggests that “stereotypes had trapped his son and that he was desperate to figure out what it meant to be a young Black man.” Joaquin was lucky, because he had a dad who listened, but many other young black males do not.

     Immense forces are stacked against young black African-American males today, and so I find it rewarding to see some succeed at high school or college and graduate. My best wishes to them.