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Keywords:

  • sociocultural issues;
  • equity;
  • teacher beliefs;
  • urban education

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. African Americans in Science Education Literature
  4. Sociocultural Construction of Race
  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References

The body of research aimed at explaining the science teaching and learning of African Americans has identified myriad factors that correlate with African American's science career choices and science performance generally. It has not, however, offered any satisfactory explanations as to why those factors are disproportionately racially determined. This article argues that the sociocultural construction of race, which has roots in antebellum Western society, has endured to the present day; and that there is sufficient historical tradition and empirical evidence to warrant a research agenda that accounts for the sociocultural construction of race in explaining African American science education. The article concludes by suggesting a set of research questions and theoretical perspectives that considers the sociocultural construction of race to guide future research. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 50:82–103, 2013

Somehow, I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, my English teacher. He was a tall, rather reddish white man and he had a thick mustache. I had gotten some of my best marks under him, and he had always made me feel that he liked me. He was, as I have mentioned, a natural-born “advisor,” about what you ought to read, to do, or think-about any and everything. We used to make unkind jokes about him: why was he teaching in Mason instead of somewhere else, getting for himself some of the “success in life” that he kept telling us how to get?

I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he meant any harm. It was just his nature as an American white man. I was one of his top students, one of the school's top students—but all he could see for me was the kind of future “in your place” that almost all white people see for black people.

He told me, “Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?”

The truth is, I hadn't. I never have figured out why I told him, “Well, yes, sir, I've been thinking I'd like to be a lawyer.” Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers—or doctors either—in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to. All I really knew for certain was that a lawyer didn't wash dishes, as I was doing.

Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life's first needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you'd get all kinds of work” (X & Haley, 1964, pp. 36–37).

The problem, which originally gave rise to this essay, is the low number of African American1 students who pursue science-related careers. This problem has formed the core of my research agenda (Lewis, 1997; Lewis & Collins, 2001; Lewis & Connell, 2005; Lewis, Pitts, & Collins, 2002) for over 14 years and has been a subject of study for other social scientists at least since 1971 (e.g., Hager & Elton, 1971). Currently, African Americans comprise fewer than 2% of practicing, PhD-holding scientists. This statistic has changed little since it was first reported by the National Science Board in 1977 (National Science Board, 2012). The emphasis that the science education community has put on equity in science education (e.g., Atwater, 2000; Bianchini & Brenner, 2010; Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Webb, 2011; Nelson, 2008; Ramnarain, 2011; Wilson, Taylor, Kowalski, & Carlson, 2010; Yerrick & Beatty-Adler, 2011) suggests that there is a shared interest in addressing this long-standing disparity in particular and other forms of disparity in general. In my own work I have found that although extant research has identified numerous factors, which correlate with students' career decisions, such as the number of mathematics and science courses taken (Thomas, 1984), and the influence of mathematics and science teachers (Griffin, 1990), this body of research has failed to explain how these factors are tied to race. Science education research has been unable to explain what it is about being African American that leads a student to take fewer mathematics and science courses, or to be differentially influenced by mathematics and science teachers (Lewis, 2003).

I initially found the story of Malcolm Little, an eighth grade student in Mason, Michigan, instructive in that it provides an illustration of how one teacher's construction of race influences the career attainment of an African American student. However, upon reflection I realized that the story is not only instructive for examinations of African American science career attainment; it is instructive for examinations of African American science education broadly. Mr. Ostrowski's image of African Americans in general shapes the career guidance he gives to Malcolm. More importantly, his image of African Americans (largely encoded in stereotype) appears to be stronger than his informed image of Malcolm, who was one of the school's top students. The story illustrates how one teacher's construction of race is situated in sociocultural2 context. Mr. Ostrowski's claim that “a lawyer is no realistic goal for a nigger” reflects a social, cultural, and historical context that smacks of racism. Few educators today would regard it as an accurate assessment of Malcolm's capabilities.

While this essay is driven primarily by an analysis of and concern for research on African American students' science-related career attainment, the overriding argument presented herein is applicable to the larger body of research on African American science education. One tendency might be to question the relevance that a story about an English teacher advising a student out of a law career has for science education. The story is not relevant by virtue of the subject matter being taught. It is relevant by virtue of the ways that Mr. Ostrowski's construction of race mediated the advice he gave. While Mr. Ostrowski was indeed an English teacher, it is reasonable to assume that whether he were a history teacher, a mathematics teacher or a science teacher he would have similarly advised Malcolm. His advice was grounded neither in his nor Malcolm's knowledge of the subject; rather it was grounded in his image of people of African descent.

Another tendency might be to recoil at the suggestion that the story of Mr. Ostrowski, taken from an event in the 1930s, is somehow representative of present day teachers. This tendency is grounded in the idea that in modern times the sociocultural construction of African Americans is not as heavily imbued in racial stereotype (or at least not as overtly so) as in times past. It is my contention that this idea is ill-informed. A historical examination of the sociocultural construction of African Americans would reveal an image that is largely unchanged to the present day. In fact contemporary examples of Ostrowski-like student–teacher interactions can be found in the work of McGee and Martin (2011) and Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso (2000).

One purpose of this position paper is to challenge tendencies such as these by arguing that (a) the sociocultural construction of race, which has roots in antebellum Western society, has endured to the present; and (b) there is sufficient historical tradition and empirical evidence to warrant a research agenda that accounts for the sociocultural construction of race in explaining African American underrepresentation specifically and African American science education generally. A second purpose of this article is to add to existing literature by advocating for theoretical and empirical approaches that account for racism in the science teaching and learning of African American children. To this end I present an overview of African American treatment in science education literature, followed by a discussion of the sociocultural construction of race in Western society. I then summarize and critique a study of the science experiences of women of color. The purpose of this critique is to illustrate how a more explicit treatment of the sociocultural construction of race in research could yield more insightful understandings of African American STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) achievement. I conclude by suggesting strategies for foregrounding the sociocultural construction of race in studies of African American science education.

African Americans in Science Education Literature

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. African Americans in Science Education Literature
  4. Sociocultural Construction of Race
  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References

Disparity Literature

Literature that addresses the science education of African Americans is largely made up of two genres. The first genre is disparity literature, wherein the science education of African Americans is almost singularly presented in terms of the disparity between African American students and their peers. Among this literature are reports, which document and draw attention to the disparity (e.g., Malcom, George, & Van Horne, 1996; National Science Board, 2000; Norman, Ault, Bentz, & Meskimen, 2001), empirical research aimed at explaining the disparity (e.g., Hager & Elton, 1971; Lewis et al., 2002), and descriptions of intervention efforts or policy changes that would ameliorate the disparity (e.g., Ellis, 1993; Maton, Hrabowski, & Schmitt, 2000; Seiler, 2001).

When we look at the whole of disparity literature, there seem to be two implicit assumptions giving shape to this work. The first assumption is that African Americans should evince equal status with whites; and the second assumption is that where African Americans do not evince equal status with whites, African Americans are somehow deficient. Guided by these assumptions, the bulk of empirical investigation in this genre is aimed at explaining how African Americans are deficient. Herein I will discuss antecedents to disparity that are commonly found in this literature.

Psychological3 antecedents are one type used to explain African American science education. I characterize these as psychological because they tend to stem from foundational work conducted by psychologists or published in psychology venues. Work in this vein tends to treat disparity in science education as the result of disparate psychological orientations between African Americans and their peers, or between higher-achieving and lower-achieving African American students. An example comes from the work of Post, Stewart, and Smith (1991) in which they draw on Bandura's (1982) theory of self-efficacy, to examine the effect of self-efficacy on the mathematics and science career decisions of African American college freshmen. Post, Stewart, and Smith found that African American college freshmen reported lower self-efficacy, confidence, interest, and consideration of mathematics and science occupations compared to non-mathematics and science occupations. Their study and others like it (Bhattacharyya, Mead, & Nathaniel, 2011; Elmesky & Seiler, 2007; Gilleylen, 1993; Griffin, 1990; Krist, 1993; Maple & Stage, 1991; Parsons, 2008; Thomas, 1984; Xu, Coats, & Davidson, 2012) frame disparity in terms that could be considered psychological, pointing to antecedents such as self-confidence, movement expressiveness, interests, attitudes, and motivation. While these studies demonstrate that African Americans hold dispositions that appear to work against science career attainment, they do not help us to understand how or why these dispositions are disproportionately present in African American populations. What is it about being Black that leads students to have lower self-efficacy, confidence and interest?

Cultural or social antecedents are another type used to explain African American science education. Work in this vein tends to treat disparity in science education as the result of disparate cultural or social traits such as family background and community values (Griffin, 1990), parental influence (Maple & Stage, 1991), cultural awareness and social support (Gilleylen, 1993), culturally determined interests (Hager & Elton, 1971; Sewell & Martin, 1976; Thomas, 1984), cultural differences between students and schools (Atwater & Riley, 1993; Parsons, 2000, 2003) and cultural depravation (Malcom, 1990). Commitment to cultural and social antecedents as the cause of disparity grows out of work in educational foundations (Banks, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Lee, Spencer, & Harpalani, 2003; Ogbu & Davis, 2003; Trueba, 1988). In science education this literature reflects the work of those who contest the role of culture in African American educational performance, and those who advocate for modified pedagogy based on culture (Brand, Glasson, & Green, 2006; Schademan, 2011; Varelas, Kane, & Wylie, 2011; Warren & Rosebery, 2011). Additionally, much like research that frames disparity in psychological terms, research that frames disparity in cultural or social terms does not explain how or why these cultural traits are disproportionately present in African American populations.

Demographic antecedents are the third type used to explain African American science education. Herein disparity is treated as the result of disparate demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status, students', or schools' geographic background (i.e., urban, suburban, or rural), types of schools attended and resulting school experiences. This third type of antecedent is rarely examined in isolation and is not typically offered as a finding of research. Instead the idea that demographic antecedents are the cause of disparity is assumed in the conduct of research and this assumption leads to the second genre of literature on African American science education: invisibility literature.

Invisibility Literature

To begin, invisibility literature is comprised of scholarship that (a) examines the science teaching and learning of African American students or teachers, (b) is conducted in communities or schools that could be characterized as African American, or (c) purports to address those issues that could in some way be considered African American issues. I ascribe the label “invisibility” to this literature because in this work the science education of African Americans is obfuscated by use of demographic labels that equate “African American”-ness with alternative (and sometimes inaccurate) demographic characteristics, such as “urban”-ness or “minority”-ness. Among this literature is work that misrepresents African American populations as “urban,” “inner city,” “minority,” “at-risk,” “underrepresented,” or “underprivileged” (e.g., Atwater, Wiggins, & Gardner, 1995; Brickhouse & Potter, 2001; Carmichael & Sevenair, 1991; Elmesky, 2011; Emdin, 2009; Thomas, 1986; Tobin, Seiler, & Smith, 1999). So we often find researchers speaking of “urban” schools or “minority” students when the schools and students under investigation are largely African American. It is not my intent to invalidate all references to demographic labels of which African Americans may be a subset, but to underscore how our injudicious use of these demographic labels, renders salient issues of race invisible.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in 2003, 35.2% of students in the central city and 63.5% of those in the urban fringe were White compared to 27.7% in the central city and only 13.3% in the urban fringe that are characterized as Black (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). These statistics are largely unchanged in the report of 2009 data (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). However, science education research in settings that are purportedly “urban” rarely describe populations that reflect this national statistic. Neither does the cumulative body of “urban” work reflect this national statistic. Instead this literature reflects a population that is disproportionately African American. For example, Tobin, Roth, and Zimmermann (2001) in a study describing the experiences of a new teacher characterize the student population of the “urban” City High School as “97% Black” (p. 946). In a 3-year study of an urban magnet high school, Buxton (2005) points out that “90% of the student body was African American” (p. 400). In a description of the inquiry-based teaching practices of two urban teachers Tal, Krajcik, and Blumenfeld (2006) described a research setting where “91% of the students are African American” (p. 788). In fact a special issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (McGinnis & Collins, 2006) featured studies of “Urban Science Education”; and of the five studies published, two reported research settings with overwhelmingly high African American populations (95% and 91%, respectively; Buxton, 2006; Tal et al., 2006), two had disproportionately high African American populations (30% and 31%, respectively) (Lee, Buxton, Lewis, & LeRoy, 2006; Varelas, Pappas, & Rife, 2006) and one profiled two “second-generation Latino immigrants from the Dominican Republic” (Furman & Barton, 2006, p. 674).4

What this tells us is that on the whole science education research, which purports to address “urban” populations, is mischaracterized as it does not reflect the racial balance of urban populations described by the National Center for Education Statistics. What it does reflect, however, is a disproportionately large African American population. Unfortunately, by mischaracterizing the population of African Americans as “urban,” issues unique and salient to African Americans are masked. They are rendered invisible.

The consequence of this invisibility literature is that it positions science education researchers in the midst of African American places (schools, neighborhoods, and communities); shoulder to shoulder with African American participants (in the form of students, parents, and teachers); face to face with African American problems, yet blind to the racial implications of those places, participants, and problems. In this way, we fail to account for the very characteristics that make the group distinct.

The invisibility literature presented here and the types of antecedents outlined are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.5 These studies are, however, representative of the larger body of African American science education literature. The studies presented are useful in illustrating that extant work has not provided adequate explanations for the racially determined phenomena of African American science career attainment and science performance. Taken alone, the studies which comprise this literature offer valuable insight by revealing different sides of a complex social problem. Taken as a whole, however, this body of literature is not only grossly lacking, it is also unrealistic. It fails to consider the centrality of race and racism in shaping the science education of African Americans. European notions of race have been a defining feature of Western culture at least since the 16th century; and an understanding of those notions, which is one aspect of the sociocultural construction of race, would be a useful tool for those seeking to better understand African American science education.

Sociocultural Construction of Race

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. African Americans in Science Education Literature
  4. Sociocultural Construction of Race
  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References

What is the sociocultural construction of race and how might it influence science career attainment? “Sociocultural construction of race” is not necessarily a novel term, nor is it intended to be. However, my use here does differ substantively from the postmodernist reference to the “social construction of race.” In an analysis of the role of social constructionist scholarship in the culture wars, Hacking (1999) argues that the primary use of “social construction” is as a consciousness raising measure. He points out that:

Social construction work is critical of the status quo. Social constructionists about X tend to hold that:

  • (1)
    X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
    Very often they go further, and urge that:
  • (2)
    X is quite bad as it is.
  • (3)
    We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed (p. 6).

In this sense, the social construction of race typically refers to the idea that race is not biologically determined. In Hacking's terms racial classification “is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.” Social constructionists about race would also argue racial classification has negative societal consequences, or in Hacking's terms “is quite bad.” Finally, they would argue that we should work to transcend racial classification, or as Hacking states it we would be much better off if racial classification “were done away with, or at least radically transformed.” An example of social constructionists ideas about race can be found in the work of Ferrante and Brown (2000).

My use of the sociocultural construction of race differs from such postmodernist treatment and resonates with that of other educational researchers (e.g., Banks, 1995; James, 2012) in that I am seeking to underscore and identify the meaning we ascribe to racial categories rather than to be critical of the use of those categories. In the opening vignette Mr. Ostrowski constructed an image of what it means to be Black. For him it was unrealistic for a Black person to consider work as a lawyer. Also important is that the meanings we ascribe to race are grounded in social conventions that have deep and longstanding historical roots.

African Americans as Inferior Others

It is not my attempt to provide a comprehensive treatment of sociocultural racial construction. Such an undertaking is clearly beyond the scope of any one article. I do however, want to argue that sociocultural racial construction (the meaning we ascribe to racial categories) is grounded in historical and social convention, plays an active role in shaping our present day interactions, and merits consideration in studies of African American science education.

At least since the 16th century, the perceptions of African Americans promulgated have been those that served to buttress the institutions of slavery, colonization, and segregation. Western cultures have systematically (with malice and forethought) portrayed Africans as physically gifted, lazy, happy-go-lucky, mentally incapable sexual predators. An 1877 essay on public education of the Negro typifies much of this portrayal.

Having observed all my life I well understand the peculiar qualities of the race, and they are exactly such as fit them for menial offices and subordinate positions… The Negro is distinguished by extreme docility, a most desirable quality in a menial; a most fatal one in a sovereign… Notice their improvidence for the future. They seldom project their thoughts into the future and will not deny themselves to make provisions for sickness, or old age or for their children (Civis, 1993, p. 4).

…the negro is eminently a sweating animal. The remarkable sweating capacity of the negro renders him objectionable in the cars, in the jury box, in the halls of legislation, in the crowds that assemble on the court green, but wonderfully fits him for his proper functions as a laborer in tobacco and rice fields and on the great cotton and sugar plantations of low latitudes (p. 5).

The author of this essay, writing under the penname Civis, goes on to express his opposition to public school systems' advocacy of “the doctrine of negro equality,” which aimed to prepare Blacks for the “highest functions of public life.”

If he is, by congenital inferiority, not competent to such functions, the attempt to prepare him for them is a manifest absurdity. I oppose it because its policy is cruelty in the extreme to the negro himself. It instills into his mind that he is competent to shine in the higher walks of life, prompts him to despise those menial pursuits to which his race has been doomed, and invites him to enter into competition with the white man for those tempting prizes that can be won only by a quicker and profounder sagacity, by a greater energy and self-denial, and a higher order of administrative talent than the negro has ever displayed (p. 17).

Historically, the portrayal typified in this essay has been pervasive and enjoyed support across a broad range of disciplines. It is found among the writings of our fondling fathers as in Thomas Jefferson's (1781/1982) Notes on the State of Virginia (see also Elkins, 1968; Elliott, 1969; Mellon, 1969). It is found in apologies offered by theologians, like Samuel How's (1971) argument to the General Synod of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church (see also, A Minister, 1993). It is found in writings of scientists from Alfred Wallace (Osborne, 1980) to Carolus Linnaeus (McLeod, 1974). It is found in popular media ranging from the antebellum minstrel shows to modern situation comedies and news outlets (Chideya, 1995; Means-Coleman, 1998).

In its early manifestation the physically gifted, lazy, happy-go-lucky, mentally incapable sexual predatory traits ascribed to Africans were regarded as genetically inherited characteristics of inferiority or to use Civis' term “congenital inferiority.” However, with a few exceptions (e.g., Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Jensen & Johnson, 1994) the notion of genetic inferiority has been dismissed. In its modern form characteristics of inferiority are often attributed to psychological or cultural and social orientations. The legacy of this early portrayal exists in the image of Africans as less capable beings or as Smith (1993) says “inferior others.” Moreover, this image of Africans (and more recently African Americans) can be traced throughout recent history and it continues in modified forms to the present day. Smith explains,

Most white Americans in the nineteenth century, north and south, before and after emancipation, did in fact view blacks as inferior “others.” Though their attitudes towards blacks varied from place to place and over time the vast majority of whites nevertheless held blacks, as a people and as a class, in contempt. To be sure there were exceptions. Whites always could identify “good Negroes,” persons who conformed to their definition of acceptable behavior—deferential blacks who knew their “place.” In the main, however, whites treated blacks as persons who differed in pejorative ways from themselves (pp. xi–xii).

It is this image of Blacks as “inferior others” that led Mr. Ostrowski in the 1930s to conclude that a lawyer is “no realistic goal for a nigger.” This same image led a teacher in Ladson-Billings' (1994) landmark work to observe that “…there are ‘white-blacks’ and ‘black-blacks.’ The white-blacks are easy to deal with because they come from ‘good’ homes and have ‘white’ values. But the black-blacks are less capable academically and have behavior problems” (p. 20). This same image led Nobel winner James D. Watson to express his gloominess about the prospect of Africa given the intelligence of Africans is not “the same as ours” (Naik, 2007). Whether it is heard from accomplished actors (Carter, 2006), from radio personalities (Barnes, 2007), or from disgruntled movie goers (Hicks, 2012; “‘Hunger Games’ cast hit by racist tweets,” 2012), the daily newspapers are rife with anecdotal reports which should help us to see the pervasiveness of this image of African people as inferior others.

The image of African Americans as inferior others is not only found in anecdote. For example, a report on white Michigan voters Greenberg (1985) found that working-class whites express a “profound distaste for blacks.” The report goes on to describe how the respondents' image of Blacks pervades everything they think about government. Similarly, a study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (Smith, 1990) reports that the majority of non-Black respondents regard Blacks as less intelligent, less patriotic, and lazier than whites; and 78% said that Blacks “prefer to live on welfare.” Large-scale studies (e.g., Schmidt & Nosek, 2010) as well as large-scale opinion surveys such as those by Greenberg and the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center corroborate Smith's argument.

Theoretical Implications of Africans Constructed as Inferior Others

So, the idea that the image of African Americans as inferior others has endured to the present is not without support. In fact, given the overt effort to ingrain this image into the world psyche historically; and given the persistence and pervasiveness of this image presently, there can be little question that the image of African people as inferior others is a defining image of Africans and consequently of African Americans. There are many lessons to be taken from the preceding summary of the sociocultural construction of African people. First, the image of African people as inferior others is comprehensive. There is little social or chronological space in which African people are presented as anything other than inferior others. African people are presented as inferior others across a broad range of social circumstances (e.g., they are improvident and do not plan, they are objectionable in their smell, they lack intelligence, they have behavior problems, they are unpatriotic, and they are lazy); across a broad expanse of time (from at least the 16th century at least until 2012); by a broad range of academic disciplines (e.g., political science, theology, the natural sciences, and popular media); and for a broad range of reasons (e.g., genetics, psychology, culture, and upbringing).

Second, the image of African people as inferior others is systemic. It forms the foundation for a wide range of policies and practices affecting people of African descent. In this summary alone it is the reason given for (a) not preparing African Americans for the “highest functions of public life”; (b) explaining the academic failure of black children; (c) for being gloomy about the prospects of Africa; and (d) for structuring how people think about government. Third the sociocultural construction of African people as inferior others is inseparable from the history of slavery and colonialism. It is one action out of an extensive range of actions initiated by Europeans in order to establish and maintain systems of slavery and colonialism. It does not account for the theft of people from Africa, for the hostile takeover of African lands, for the torture of African people, for the theft of land from Native Americans, for the extermination of Native American people and many other acts that have buttressed the systems of slavery and colonialism. As such sociocultural construction of African people as inferior others must be seen as one component of a much larger system of oppression.

Given that the sociocultural construction of African people as inferior others is so comprehensive, so systemic and so integral to the history of slavery and colonialism, the question for science education researchers is not so much, “Does the image we hold of African Americans influence their science education?”, but rather “How does the image we hold of African Americans influence their science education?” One way to account for the sociocultural construction of African people as inferior others is to foreground this notion in the theoretical approaches that guide our research.

Thus far I have illustrated that extant research on African American science education does not adequately consider the sociocultural construction of race. I have also argued that the sociocultural construction of race (specifically the idea that African Americans are inferior others) is deeply imbedded in historical and social convention and that it plays a major role in shaping present day thought and behavior. Finally, I have argued that given the pervasiveness and the primacy of the idea of African Americans as inferior others, science education researchers must consider it in research with African Americans. To do otherwise would be unrealistic. More importantly, a tremendous amount of insight into the science education of African Americans is lost when we ignore the sociocultural construction of race.

Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson (2007)

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. African Americans in Science Education Literature
  4. Sociocultural Construction of Race
  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References

To illustrate how insight is lost when we do not consider the sociocultural construction of race in studies of African American science education I will summarize a study by Carlone and Johnson (2007) on the science experiences of successful women of color. I will conclude this summary by describing the direction this study could have taken with a more explicit theoretical articulation of the sociocultural construction of African Americans as inferior others.

Summary

In a study aimed at improving the theoretical basis of the identity construct in science education, Carlone and Johnson (2007) used identity as an analytic lens to examine the science career trajectories of 15 women of color. I chose to present a summary and critique of this article in particular for two reasons. The first reason is that it represents a piece of research that could have been conducted with integrity either with or without considering the sociocultural construction of race. In this way this makes the summary and critique more balanced. The second reason is that this is one of the more highly cited articles in this line of work. The authors begin by drawing from identity research in science education (e.g., Brickhouse & Potter, 2001) and in educational research broadly (e.g., Gee, 2000) to develop an initial science identity model. The purpose of this initial model according to the authors is to, “…provide analytic direction for our data analysis and interpretation” (p. 1190). In short Carlone and Johnson identify as salient three interrelated dimensions of science identity. These are: competence, performance, and recognition. According to Carlone and Johnson, a person with a strong science identity is competent in her knowledge and understanding of science content as well as her desire to understand the world scientifically. Moreover, the authors point out that a person with a strong science identity is able to demonstrate her competence for others through her performance. Finally, the authors indicate that a person with a strong science identity recognizes herself (and is recognized by others) as a “science person.”

In framing their identity model, Carlone and Johnson (2007) take pains to underscore the degree to which identity is socially negotiated. They point out that “…the women in our study were not free to develop any kind of science identity” (p. 1192). Instead their choices are shaped first, by the meanings of “science people,” which are influenced by sociocultural legacies of science. Second, their choices are shaped by the “historical and political meanings of being” women of color. The study is guided by three research questions:

  • (1)
    How do successful women of color negotiate and make meaning of their science experiences?
  • (2)
    How do women of color develop and sustain their science identities throughout their undergraduate and early science careers?
  • (3)
    What is the relationship between the women's science identities and racial, ethnic, and gender identities?

Of the 15 women participating in the study 4 are characterized as Latina, 4 as Black, 3 as American Indian, and 4 as Asian. Data were collected in the form of ethnographic interviews with the 15 women. Initial interviews began in the 1999–2000 school year when the women were junior and senior, undergraduate science majors. They came to know the second author (Johnson) “through an academic enrichment program for high achieving students of color in the sciences” (Carlone & Johnson, 2007, p. 1193). The interviewees were invited to discuss their, “experiences as science majors in a predominately white setting.” These data were analyzed using the method of semantic structure analysis described by Spradley (1980).

The findings in this study are robust. The full report provides a comprehensive and detailed treatment of the science identities of the 15 women and the impact of those science identities on their career trajectories. Rather than attempting to capture the richness of those findings in this summary, I will underscore two themes that run throughout the report of findings.

The first of these themes is the career trajectory. The authors categorized each of the 15 women into 1 of 3 career trajectories. The first is the “research scientists” trajectory. Four women were categorized in this trajectory. At the time of the report the women in this trajectory were working as research scientists; they had completed (or were in the process of completing) doctorates in research science; and among them they had five peer-reviewed publications and three patents. The second career trajectory is the “altruistic scientists” trajectory. Five women were categorized in this trajectory. At the time of the report these women were health practitioners or near completion of pre-professional programs. The third career trajectory is the “disrupted scientists” trajectory. The researchers classified six women as being in this trajectory. At the time of this report, none of these women had entered a doctoral program. One worked as a public health researcher, a second earned a master's degree in public health, and three were still in school. According to the authors, “All women in this group expressed dissatisfaction about how they were positioned in science…” (Carlone & Johnson, 2007, p. 1197).

The second theme is the role of recognition in Carlone and Johnson's (2007) initial identity model. According to the authors, of the three dimensions that comprised their initial identity model (competence, performance, and recognition) only recognition stood out “…as a key component of science identity development for women of color…” the authors “…found that this dimension of the model most critically explained the differential experiences for women in the three identity groups” (p. 1197).

Critique

Much like the invisibility literature described earlier, the study by Carlone and Johnson (2007) is representative of the larger body of African American science education literature in that it does not provide much insight into how science career attainment is racially determined. While adopting the identity construct as their primary theoretical lens, Carlone and Johnson (2007) acknowledge the fact that social and historical factors influence identity construction. However, as it applies to African Americans this acknowledgment does not appear to shape the study in any fundamental way. It is my contention that by foregrounding the sociocultural construction of race (specifically the idea that people of African descent are regarded as inferior others) the researchers would have generated insight that the study, as presently constructed, seems to have missed. I will provide two examples.

First, as conceptualized the study confuses the issue of racial disparity. By framing the population of interest as “women of color” the study masks the distinction between race, ethnicity and culture. Where the terms African, Asian, and Caucasian are often used to identify racial categories, the term Latina more often refers to an ethnic or cultural category. So while there are Latina women who could be characterized as Caucasian racially, there are also Latina women who could be characterized as African. In this study in particular, two of the women (Chris and Nancy) were characterized as Latina and they are also Caucasian. One of the women (Conchita) is characterized as Latina and she is also African.

If we foreground the idea that, “as a byproduct of the history of slavery and colonialism, people of African descent are often regarded as inferior others,” we are less likely to blur the distinction between women of African, Asian, and Caucasian descent. We are more likely to expect (or at least look for) differences based on the different sociocultural construction of these racial groups. The reasonableness of this expectation is supported by prior research. Disparity in educational achievement between various “minority” groups is well established (Muller, Stage, & Kinzie, 2001; Ogbu, 1987, 1992). Moreover, this expectation is confirmed in the present study. Of the four women in the research scientist trajectory, two were Caucasian and two were Asian. Of the six women in the disrupted scientist trajectory, four were Black and two were American Indian. However, while these data confirm racial disparity among the 15 women, the phenomenon is not explicitly addressed in the study. There is no effort to provide an explanation as to what it is about being African American that lands most Black women in the disrupted scientist trajectory and no Black women in the research scientist trajectory.

Second, as conceptualized the study obfuscates potential insight by misplacing the investigative lens. By focusing so exclusively on the 15 women and their identity construction, the study minimizes the role that science professionals play in limiting the access that Black women have to science careers. It is telling that of three interrelated dimensions of science identity (competence, performance, and recognition) recognition emerges as most salient. What is more, the recognition that is at issue is the recognition they receive from others. In terms of their recognition of themselves as scientists, the authors point out that, “Nearly every woman in the study recognized herself as a ‘science person’ to some degree or another” (Carlone & Johnson, 2007, p. 1197). What appears to distinguish the Native American and Black women in the disrupted scientists trajectory from the Caucasian and Asian women in the research scientists trajectory is the lack of recognition (and sometimes outright rejection) from science professionals. According to the authors, “…when they talked about themselves as science students, they focused on experiences where they felt overlooked, neglected, or discriminated against by meaningful others within science” (p. 1202).

Here, again if we foreground the idea that, “as a byproduct of the history of slavery and colonialism, people of African descent are often regarded as inferior others,” we are in a better position to make sense of the career trajectories of these 15 women. The data presented seem to suggest that women in the disrupted scientist trajectory were in that category primarily as a function of the various mechanisms that science professionals (and possibly others) used to ostracize them. Women in the research scientist trajectory were consistently validated by science professionals. They received research fellowships. They were extended opportunities to publish in refereed journals. They were invited to present papers at professional meetings. By contrast women in the disrupted scientist trajectory were consistently invalidated by science professionals. One was summarily fired as a lab assistant for being squeamish about killing mice. One molecular biology major was told to change her major because dissection was a cultural taboo. One student, fed up with lack of recognition from her advisor, switched her major after being accused of theft. While the authors present enough data for a reader to tease out racially disparate recognition or treatment, the study does not explicitly identify racially disparate treatment as the cause of the disparate science career trajectories.

Directions for Future Research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. African Americans in Science Education Literature
  4. Sociocultural Construction of Race
  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References

While this critique of Carlone and Johnson (2007) is intended to illustrate how insight is lost by not foregrounding the sociocultural construction of race in explaining African American science education, the following section concludes the article by providing suggestions for avoiding this dilemma in future research. First, I offer suggestions for foregrounding the sociocultural construction of race in studies of African American science education through theory. Second, I suggest a set of research questions that foreground the sociocultural construction of race in studies of African American science education.

Foregrounding the Sociocultural Construction of Race through Theory

Abd-El-Khalic and Akerson (2007) underscore the need for more explicit and disciplined use of theory in science education research. Drawing on work from Dressman, who has written extensively about the role of theory in educational research (Dressman & Wilder, 2005), and Boote and Beile (2005), they argue that in educational research broadly the power of theory is poorly utilized. Across a range of published studies and dissertations, educational researchers genuflect towards theory, but are not explicit and disciplined in the application of theory to educational research. Abd-El-Khalick and Akerson present this work in support of “a plea for…empirical investigations…” and “…philosophical examinations…” of the role of theory in science education research. The following suggestions are in the spirit of responding to that plea.

There are two theoretical elements researchers can provide to better foreground the sociocultural construction of race in studies of African American science education. The first of these elements is an explanatory structure for the current social condition of African Americans. The explanatory structure provided must be comprehensive, socioculturally grounded, and systemic. By comprehensive I mean that it must provide broad overarching explanations for the African American social condition. So the “achievement gap” being discussed in education, the “health gap” that concerns medical professionals, the “income gap” being addressed by economists, the environmental concern gap of interest to environmentalists, disparities in criminal sentencing, disparities in home ownership, and myriad other gaps and disparities are not isolated phenomenon. Rather they all stem from the same source and should be accounted for by one comprehensive explanatory structure.

Moreover, by socioculturally grounded I mean that the explanations provided must give priority to the historical enslavement and colonization of African people as the most salient sociocultural feature of current African American existence. Not in the mode of showing obeisance towards “some past event,” but in order to provide social and historical context to explanations for current social conditions. In this way, the explanatory structure should help us to understand how the current social condition of African people is an outgrowth of sociocultural forces such as the enslavement and colonization of African people.

Finally, by systemic I mean that the explanatory structure must point our attention to systemic explanations for the current African American social condition. Herein the local (i.e., individual people, places, or interactions) is explained in the context of the global (i.e., groups of people, types of places, or patterns of interaction). If Mr. Ostrowski's comments found their way to CNN, given modern public discourse, the central concern would likely be local, “Is Mr. Ostrowski a racist?” The tendency to seek out individual persons, places, or interactions that merit the “racist” label masks the systemic nature of sociocultural racial construction. While it may be popular to ask, “Is Mr. Ostrowski a racist?” it certainly is not pertinent. It would be pertinent to address the global, “What social, cultural and historical structures reinforce Mr. Ostrowski's image of African Americans as inferior others?” Or, “How does Mr. Ostrowski's image of African Americans as inferior others influence his teaching of African American students?” The latter questions operate from the assumption that the image of African Americans as inferior others is systemic. It is imbedded in and given resilience by social, cultural, and historical structures. More importantly this image and its consequent behavior is in part a systemic cause of African American students' educational performance.

The second theoretical element is the explicit articulation of a set of assumptions that foreground the sociocultural construction of race. In the critique of Carlone and Johnson (2007), I explicitly articulated the assumption that as a byproduct of the history of slavery and colonialism, people of African descent are often regarded as inferior others. As was evident in the critique, this assumption shaped the questions I posed. It shaped the lens through which I viewed the study participants. It shaped the type of data I expected to find. It shaped the way that I interpreted data. The danger in not explicitly articulating assumptions that foreground the sociocultural construction of race is that it allows implicit and often erroneous assumptions to guide (or misguide) our research efforts.

Foregrounding the Sociocultural Construction of Race in Research Questions

To argue (as I have) that science education research has failed to consider the sociocultural construction of race in seeking to explain racial disparity in African American science education is not to say that the foundation for such work does not exist. In fact there are many useful bodies of literature and frameworks employed broadly in other areas of education. Here, I identify central questions portended by the sociocultural construction of race that could draw upon this work and appropriate it for the study of African American science education.

First, future research could seek to identify the images that educators have of African Americans; and also explore how these images shape student–teacher interactions and students' science performance. There is a long-standing body of literature, which shows that teachers' expectations of students influence their perception of students' performance, students' actual performance, and students' perceptions of themselves (Adams, 1978; Ferguson, 2003; Prime & Miranda, 2006; Rist, 1970; Tompkins & Boor, 1980). This research has also shown that race is one of several “input factors” that influences teachers' perceptions of students (Braun, 1976). This research could be extended to studies of African American science education, by examining (a) the degree to which expectations are shaped by the image of African Americans as inferior others; and (b) the relationship between teachers' expectations of African American students and some of the many factors known to correlate with student science performance. Some factors of interest might be enrollment in advanced mathematics and science courses, performance on measures of science competency, expressed interest in science and science-related careers. One recently developed tool that has proven very effective at providing insight into peoples implicit bias is the Implicit Association Test (Ashburn-Nardo, Knowles, & Monteith, 2003; Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Monteith, 2001; Van Den Bergh, Denessen, Hornstra, Voeten, & Holland, 2010).

Questions of interest in this vein might be, do teachers' expectations of African American students' influence the number of advanced mathematics and science courses that students take (Maple & Stage, 1991; Thomas, 1984), or students' self-efficacy (Post et al., 1991), or school experiences (Griffin, 1990)? More importantly, how do these expectations manifest themselves in the science teaching and learning of African American students? What are some strategies that can be employed to mitigate the effect? Because teachers are not the only participants in the social milieu wherein practitioners are made, it seems reasonable to explore the expectations that others have of African American students. Similar inquiries can be made of school- and district-level administrators, guidance counselors, support staff and other students.

By seeking to identify the images that educators (and others) have of African Americans and by exploring the impact of these images on the science teaching and learning of African American students, the focus of research can be broadened beyond African American students and psychological, cultural, and academic reasons for their career choices. The broadened focus allows researchers to examine the role that other participants in the social milieu may play in supporting or inhibiting African American science performance. More importantly, this broadened research focus also broadens the scope of possible remedies for low African American science performance. Not only might it be necessary to transform African American aspirants, it may also be necessary to transform teachers, school- and district-level administrators, guidance counselors, support staff, and other students.

While my discussion of the sociocultural construction of race in American society focused on the image of African Americans held by non-African Americans, equally important are the responses of African Americans to the image of themselves as inferior others. These responses could be seen to form a continuum with acceptance6 of the image on one end and rejection7 of the image on the other. Hence a second function of future research could be to identify the images that African American students have of themselves; and to explore how these images influence African American science education.

Here again, there are substantial bodies of literature, which illustrate that the images that African American students have of themselves and their awareness of how they are perceived in American society are responses to the sociocultural construction of race. Moreover, the images and awareness also affect school achievement. Examples can be found in research on the effects of stereotype and prejudice (Schmader, Major, & Gramzow, 2001; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Wolfe & Spencer, 1996), and group identification (Hilton-Brown, 2002; Ogbu, 1987, 1992). This research could be extended to studies of African American underrepresentation in science, by examining the relationship between students' responses to the image of themselves as inferior others and the factors known to correlate with science career decisions (e.g., Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009). To what degree can African American students' disparate science test performance (Kahle, 1982; Maple & Stage, 1991) be attributed to stereotype threat as compared to other factors? To what degree is voluntary enrollment in advanced mathematics and science courses (Maple & Stage, 1991; Thomas, 1984), or participation in extracurricular science activities (Gilleylen, 1993) a function of group identification? Do such voluntary decisions represent an acceptance or rejection of the idea that such activities are too difficult or otherwise inappropriate for African Americans?

Finally, in addition to shaping the image of African Americans as inferior others, the sociocultural construction of race has also shaped American social institutions. This is a point stressed by Jones-Wilson (1990),

For Blacks in the United States the reality is that race, as it has been biologically and socially defined, has been a major determining factor in institutional arrangements, particularly with respect to the dominant power structure's formulation of what is considered to be appropriate educational policies, programs, and practices. Throughout U.S. history the dominant economic, political, and social ideologies regarding our reason for being in this country and our appropriate place in its structures have interacted to shape our educational arrangements, education being a subordinate social institution (p.119).

Again the earliest and most striking example lies in the institution of slavery, which established a caste system wherein African Americans were permanently relegated to the lowest social and economic tier (Foner, 1975). The end of legalized slavery marked the beginning of the Black Codes and later Jim Crow segregation practices, which had the same effect of relegating African Americans to the lowest tier of American social and economic life (Woodward, 1974). Taken together these historical institutions account for nearly 90% of the 450+ year history of Africans in America under the oppression of Europeans. The present day import of these institutions is that African Americans have little history as decision-makers and power brokers in American social institutions in general and science institutions in particular.

Future research should explore the impact of this disparate social arrangement. It seems reasonable that the son or daughter of a scientist has decided advantages over the son or daughter of a carpenter if both are pursuing careers in science. One has the advantage of an intimate knowledge of a scientist's personal (and perhaps even professional) life; the benefit of one or more trusted academic and career advisors; and access to one or more gatekeepers. It also seems reasonable to expect that decision-makers and power brokers in the scientific community may (like Americans in general) hold images of African Americans as inferior others. Future research should explore the degree to which admission decisions, internship appointments, mentoring relationships, and other interactions between aspiring scientists and practicing scientists are shaped by the images of African Americans as inferior others. There is a body of research that uses the idea of racial microaggression to examine covert and subtle ways that African Americans are demeaned racially (Constantine, Smith, Redington, & Owens, 2008; Nadal, 2011). The idea of racial microaggressions might provide a useful lens for examining the interactions between aspiring scientists and practicing scientists.

In addition to exploring the interactions between aspiring scientists and practicing scientists, future research exploring disparate social arrangements should examine disparate school structures. Scholars like Kozol (1991) have begun this task by describing the disparity between poorer inner city schools (largely attended by African Americans) and more affluent urban or suburban schools (largely attended by whites). Others have looked at the implications of school structures on course-selection procedures (Spade, Columba, & Vanfossen, 1997) and course tracking (Oakes, 1986, 1995). This work provides a strong starting point for scholars to explore in greater depth how the school structures might be influenced by race and might in turn contribute to the underrepresentation of African Americans in science and science-related careers.

While the research questions outlined here are aimed at uncovering the “Why?” of African American science performance, the ultimate aim is not to ascribe blame to those who, like Mr. Ostrowski, knowingly or unknowingly hinder African Americans' career pursuits. Such an approach would yield little gain. Rather the aim is to broaden and deepen our collective knowledge of the complexities involved in the science education of African Americans, so that we can produce a Mr. Ostrowski that is both more aware and more useful to the Malcolms of tomorrow.

Notes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. African Americans in Science Education Literature
  4. Sociocultural Construction of Race
  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References

1Throughout this article I do not advance any particular conception of who qualifies as African American. Instead, I have invoked the conception of “African American” or “Black” used by the authors of these studies, reports, and historical documents without question.

2My use of the term “sociocultural” is intended to underscore the degree to which ideas about race are constructed in social, cultural, and historical contexts. It is not my intent to distinguish ideas that are cultural from those that are historical or social. Instead I am treating these ideas as an intricately interwoven complex that in some respects can be regarded as a unitary entity. Moreover, rather than struggle with the awkwardness of a term like “sociohistoricocultural,” I adopt Wertsch's (1991) convention of referring to this complex as “sociocultural.” In spite of this term, the historical significance of our ideas about race remains central to the essay.

3My use of the terms “psychological,” “cultural,” and “social” are intended to be neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. There are studies (including some of those mentioned here) which blend elements of various disciplinary areas. I use these terms as a vehicle for presenting the existing body of work in an ordered way.

4It should be noted that “Latino” is a cultural category rather than a racial one. Consequently, Latino students may also be students of African descent and the overwhelming majority of Latinos in the Dominican Republic are of African descent. So a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic would likely have a great deal in common with his African American peers. Interested readers might consult an insightful essay on stages of Dominican racial identity (Torres-Saillant, 1998).

5Readers interested in a more exhaustive treatment should refer to reviews by Hall and Post-Kammer (1987) and Lewis (2003).

6Acceptance of the image of African Americans as inferior others is often found in popular culture where African American musicians, comedians, and actors use it as an object of comedy, it is dealt with more seriously in the speeches and writing of African American activists and scholars (e.g., Woodson, 1933/2000).

7Rejection of the image of African Americans as inferior others is often found in pro-Black political movements. In an ethnographic study of Black Nationalism, Essien-Udom (1962) found that one of the characteristics that engendered success in Black Nationalist movements was the promise that adherents could “…free themselves from the exploited image of blackness and hence from the deep feeling of self-rejection, cultural alienation, and social estrangement…” and instead attach themselves “…to something worthy and esteemed…” giving hope in a future wherein “…blackness will no longer be despised” (Essien-Udom, p. 141).

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  5. Summary and Critique of Carlone and Johnson ()
  6. Directions for Future Research
  7. Notes
  8. References
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