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Studies Challenge Belief That Black Students' Esteem Enhances Achievement

By Michael A. Fletcher,
Washington Post, Sunday 26 March 2000 ; A03

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With her erect posture and precise diction, Ayaba Bey is the picture of certitude as she leads three seniors at the Brisbane Academy Math and Science Preparatory School through their affirmations, a string of homilies aimed at bolstering their self-image.

"I am okay. I am capable," they recite. "There is no one exactly like me."

This is a lesson in self-esteem, a subject that officials at this small, black-run private school take as seriously as reading, writing or arithmetic. "If you love them, they will learn" is a mantra at Brisbane, and it has proven compelling to the school's loyal cadre of supporters.

Brisbane students, some of whom have struggled elsewhere, score an average of 3.5 years above grade level on standardized tests in math and English. And as far as many parents are concerned, that success is a product of the school's focus on building students' self-worth. They see Brisbane as a critical buffer against corrosive racial stereotypes that they believe distort the way black children see themselves.

"A lot of the academic success we have is because the students feel good about themselves," said Geraldine Brisbane-White, a former public school teacher who, with her husband, William, founded the predominantly black school in 1992.

The school's academic success is unquestioned. But new research is casting serious doubt on whether self-esteem has anything to do with student achievement here or anywhere else. The self-esteem of black students undoubtedly is reinforced at Brisbane and schools like it, but an increasing number of researchers say the boost is hardly needed because black children start out with a stronger self-image than often is assumed.

These findings are challenging long-held beliefs about the psychological impact of racism on African Americans. Low self-esteem among blacks has been thought by generations of parents, educators and researchers to lie at the root of an assortment of problems from academic underachievement to crime.

But there is mounting evidence to the contrary.

After reanalyzing data from 261 studies in which a half-million participants had their self-worth assessed, Bernadette Gray-Little, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, concluded that black youth exhibited self-esteem that was at least as healthy as that of their white counterparts.

"For a long time, I think, the assumption has been made by others, and sometimes blacks themselves, that self-esteem will go along with the way society views you," Gray-Little said. "Our belief is that self-esteem is more personally based than that. You do not believe you are magnificent or miserable because of social status."

This is why many criminals have been found to have high--and often inflated-- self-esteem, while many overachievers are dogged by a sense of worthlessness, she said.

Gray-Little's findings parallel little-known work done by other researchers who have drawn similar conclusions in recent decades. These studies have proven controversial because they contradict conventional wisdom--and earlier research--that says low self-esteem is part of the historical burden borne by African Americans.

It is a view that has been etched in the nation's consciousness for at least half a century, ever since noted psychologist Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mamie, performed several studies that still stand as landmarks of American race relations. The most famous, in 1947, involved 253 black schoolchildren who were asked to choose between one of two dolls that were identical except in color. One was white, the other had been painted brown. Two-thirds of the children chose the white doll, an outcome that was widely interpreted as striking evidence of low black self-esteem.

Clark's work was cited in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools. "To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote.

Several other similar studies since then strengthened that view. These findings not only helped form the rationale for desegregating schools, but also later contributed to the popularity of initiatives such as black mentoring programs and multicultural curricula. Such efforts may have strong merit, researchers say, but they are not needed to bolster self-esteem.

"A lot of those early results are very dramatic and they stick in people's minds," Gray-Little said. "But my view is that much of this has been overstated."

Gray-Little explained that many people confuse self-esteem with the status a racial group occupies in society. Frequently, she said, doll tests and other devices intended to measure self-esteem instead capture participants' sense of how their racial groups are viewed by the wider society. The trouble with that, Gray-Little said, is that typically participants' egos are healthy enough that they do not apply societal feelings to themselves.

"Self-esteem is determined by our interactions with people significant to us personally," Gray-Little said. "I am not convinced that there has ever been strong evidence of dramatically lower self-esteem among blacks."

In fact, Gray-Little's research found that some groups of black youngsters had a marginally higher sense of self-esteem than whites, which she attributes to a sense of black ethnic identity.

Interestingly, Gray-Little's research found that wealthier black children exhibited lower self-esteem than their less wealthy peers. She speculated that wealthier children more frequently found themselves in intergrated settings where they are part of a small minority--which explains why black children would feel better about themselves at schools like Brisbane. Other studies have shown that both black and white children who make up a small racial minority at a school often suffer lower self-esteem than if they feel like part of a group.

Zack Berry, who oversees youth development programs for about 5,000 students in Prince George's County schools, said Gray-Little's findings are apparent in his own work. He says that the same students deemed to have low-self esteem in the classroom are often boisterous and confident on the playground. Not accounting for these seeming contradictions ultimately does a disservice to young people, he said.

"We have used the word 'self-esteem' as a catchall phrase that belittles our own children," Berry said.

Darlene Powell Hopson, a clinical psychologist in Connecticut, repeated Clark's famous doll tests in 1985. Her work, which involved preschoolers, ended with findings nearly identical to what Clark had found four decades earlier: Nearly two-thirds of black children preferred white dolls. Also, three out of four of the black children said black dolls looked "bad."

Hopson was careful not to link those results directly to children's self-esteem. Instead, she said, the findings reflected messages about race that children picked up from society. Nonetheless, she is convinced that low self-esteem remains a crucial issue for black children. She says it comes up repeatedly among her patients, many of whom are black children who fret about things such as skin color or the texture of their hair.

"There is no question that there are black youth who have excellent self-esteem and racial identity," she said. "Maybe some earlier work on this was sensationalized. But I think it is ludicrous to say there are no self-esteem issues around race in the black community."

Concern about their children's self-esteem is certainly an issue for many of the parents who send their children to Brisbane. Wedged into a converted two-story house and a classroom trailer that sits out back, the school does not offer its 72 students fancy classrooms, a gym, or even a decent playground.

What they get is a low student-teacher ratio, individualized instructional plans and a social environment that helps "to develop a love for self and the overall learning process," according to the school's literature.

It is a trade-off parents are happy to make, even at $5,500 a year. "You can go to a beautiful school but come out dumb as a nickel," said Josie Thompson, a parent who credits Brisbane with helping her once withdrawn 6-year-old son become more sociable. "Here, they seem to instill some kind of good self-esteem in students."

Charlene Price Patterson, whose 9-year-old daughter, Charise, has been at Brisbane for five years, said that she chose the school largely because it provided a bevy of black role models.

"I want my child to see herself in the people who run the school," she said, adding that she thinks that is one reason Charise is a straight-A student who is enthusiastic about learning.

Brisbane-White said her school's academic success probably has as much to do with its small classes, tightly focused curriculum and ceaseless efforts to foster parental involvement as anything else. Still, her aim is to make students "feel good because of who they are."

Staff researcher Kim Klein contributed to this report.