Cultivating the black male intellectual

Their numbers will grow if we focus on black men who succeed, not on those who fail, writes RMU's ANTHONY ROBINS

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Graduation season at our local colleges and universities is upon us, but, sadly, relatively few of the people walking across stages to receive diplomas will be African-American men -- another stark reminder that, even though formal barriers to black achievement have been lowered or eliminated, too few black men pursue a life of the mind.

Plenty of research documents the reasons for this. Less understood are those characteristics shared by African-American males who have achieved great success in intellectual endeavors -- as opposed to music and sports.

Images of African-American males being accomplished scientists, mathematicians or scholars are seldom seen. LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Jay Z and Tiger Woods are far more recognizable than James Comer, Jamie Escalante, Robin Kelly and Ben Carson. (Dr. Carson had gotten more attention lately, though -- by criticizing another successful African-American man, President Barack Obama, and then making offensive comments regarding homosexuality.)

Why are certain African-American men seen as successful and promoted as being on top of their fields while others remain unacknowledged?

One reason, of course, is that sports and entertainment figures of all races are given more prominence in our culture than intellectuals. But could another reason be that young African-American men, in particular, do not consider higher education a top priority or even see as a possibility for themselves?

No, it is less a matter of aspiration than you might think.

Despite the gantlet of challenges they face, black men as a group have a tremendous desire to go to college, and it may surprise many to learn that they enroll at rates comparable to their white counterparts.

The representation of black males in college is often distorted in the popular press, but they make up roughly the same proportion of students in college as they do in the adult population -- 5.5 percent.

This figure reflects those attending college, however, not those who earn a degree -- and this is where the problem lies.

Among black men aged 25 years and older, 45 percent have attempted college but only 16 percent have earned college degrees. The graduation rate of black college students overall stands at an appallingly low 42 percent -- compared to 62 percent for white students.

All is not bleak. The good news is that, over the past two years, the black student graduation rate has improved by 3 percentage points. The graduation rate for black men has improved to 35 percent -- up from 28 percent only 15 years ago. So that college graduation figure of only 16 percent for black men 25 and over is sure to rise with a new generation.

Nevertheless, there clearly is much work to be done if we are to realize the potential of black males in intellectual pursuits. What must we do?

College readiness is key. According to David Conley, in the report "Redefining College Readiness," four sets of skills are needed for college: cognitive ability (how to solve algebra equations, for example), academic competence (how to analyze and write about what you learn), academic behavior (how to manage your time and seek help) and contextual awareness (understanding how college life works and what's expected).

The first two sets of skills should be addressed in the ongoing nationwide effort to improve primary and secondary education. But behavioral and contextual skills may be more significant when it comes to improving the lot of those African-American males who do not seek or do not finish post-secondary education.

One important way to impart these skills would be to provide better college advice in high school -- both on applying for college and managing studies once enrolled. Mr. Conley and his associates found, for instance, that the most-qualified black students often find themselves attending less-selective colleges than their abilities would allow.

The effort to bolster the educational achievement of black men has to begin much earlier, though. It's extremely difficult to turn a high school dropout into a college graduate. We can succeed on a large scale only if there is a powerful cultural change in the black community -- one that helps more black men and boys understand that nothing is more important for their futures than education, education and more education.

A movement has begun to promote academic excellence in the black community and counterbalance the lure of sports and music. President Obama, for example, recently launched an initiative to give black students greater access to lifelong educational opportunities.

At the local level, Robert Morris University has created the Uzuri think tank, a research center funded by The Heinz Endowments that focuses on black male educational success. The center plans to study the factors that set successful African-American men apart and then build models to help others emulate their achievements.

Focusing on failure has yielded few solutions. We must take a different approach. Rather than wondering why so few black men are handed a sheepskin on sunny May afternoons, we might better ask of those who complete their degrees, "How did you do it and what does your experience teach others?"


Anthony Robins is director of program and research for the Uzuri think tank at Robert Morris University (


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