In my book, Empowering African American Males: A Guide to Increasing Black Male Achievement, I recount an encounter with my then ten-year-old son:

“Dad, I don’t want to be in Target [the talented and gifted program] this year. Since I’m going to be playing football, I believe it’s just going to be too much work for me. Maybe I’ll go back to Target next year.”

In response to my son, I said, “Jalani, I can understand how demanding it can be to attempt to balance your school work with the mental and physical demands of playing a sport. However, you are such an intelligent young man, I know you can balance both of them if you put forth the necessary effort. However,  your mother and I do not want to over burden you , so if you are sure that you cannot handle it. WE WILL HAVE TO TAKE YOU OUT OF FOOTBALL!”

My son stared at me in disbelief (this was not exactly the answer he was expecting) and responded: “That’s alright, Dad, I think I can handle it.”

I long understood the negative social acceptance among peers and sense of social isolation experienced by Black students when enrolled in gifted programs and advanced classes and when they are high academic achievers. A study by researchers from the University of Michigan and Boston University provides greater insight into the social costs of school success for Black students:

“The negative social consequences of getting good grades were particularly pronounced for black and Native American students in high-achieving schools with small proportions of students similar to themselves.”

Some of the additional findings were:

  • For whites, the link between GPA and social acceptance was strongly positive over time—the better their GPA, the more likely that students were to feel accepted and the less likely to report feeling lonely
  • For black and Native Americans, the relationship between GPA and social acceptance was reversed: the higher their GPA, the lonelier they were likely to report feeling, and the more they were likely to report that others had been unfriendly or disliked them
  • While Hispanics overall displayed a patter similar to whites and Asians, students of Mexican descent showed patterns similar to blacks

The researchers go on to note:

“This analysis did not identify reasons for racial and ethnic differences in relation between school achievement and a sense of social acceptance, but it does strongly suggest that racial dynamics within schools are having an important influence on students’ lives and should not be ignored. In fact, these dynamics are likely to be an important mechanism behind racial/ethnic gaps in achievement.”

As a result of the gentle nudging by my wife and me, continued high expectations and our understanding the peer pressure our son was experiencing, we were able to ensure that our son continue his course of high academic achievement. The results were our son’s acceptance into the Honors College at Morehouse College and his receiving the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

Parents and schools must do more to assist students in understanding the potential long-term consequences of the choices they make, i.e., “Is social acceptance today more important than hundreds of thousands of dollars toward my future college education based on my grades and test scores?” Even if students cannot fully appreciate the potential long-term consequences, it is a conversation that we must have as we encourage them to set new standards of academic achievement where it is cool to have a high GPA, cool to earn thousands of dollars in scholarships, and cool to achieve grades and test scores on a comparable level as other students!